Hailstorm in Montana kills or maims at least 11,000 birds

Hailstorm
Dead American White Pelicans, as well as living pelicans and cormorants, at Big Lake WMA. Photo courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks

A hailstorm that flattened crops, broke windows, and wrecked roofs and vehicles throughout central Montana on Sunday, August 11, also killed and maimed more than 11,000 waterfowl and wetland birds at the Big Lake Wildlife Management Area, which is located about 35 miles northwest of Billings.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks biologists who visited the lake this week picked up dead ducks and shorebirds with broken wings, smashed skulls, internal damage, and other injuries consistent with massive blunt-force trauma. They reported thousands of additional dead or badly injured waterfowl and wetland birds in and around the lake.

A neighboring landowner reported baseball-sized hail that broke windows in the area Sunday evening. Local weather reports said Molt and Rapelje suffered two-inch hail propelled by a 70-mile-per-hour wind.

FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the birds at the lake were killed or injured. Of the birds that still are alive, Paugh estimated that five percent of ducks on the lake and 30 percent to 40 percent of living pelicans and cormorants show some sign of injury or impaired movement – mostly broken wings and broken wing feathers.

Waterfowl and shorebirds killed by hail and 70-mph winds litter a shoreline at Big Lake WMA. Photo courtesy Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks

FWP’s Big Lake Wildlife Management Area features a shallow, often-seasonal lake and wetland that are nesting areas for dozens of species of ducks, Canada Geese, Double-crested Cormorants, shorebirds, gulls, pelicans, and other waterfowl. Because of wet weather this past spring, the lake filled and currently covers around 4,000 acres.

Paugh and wildlife research specialist Jay Watson were back at the lake later this week to continue their survey of the damage to birds and try to assess the potential for additional problems to crop up.

Paugh said his scientific estimates show that the hailstorm killed or badly injured between 11,000 and 13,000 waterfowl and shorebirds, some of which still are alive but will not survive their injuries from the storm. Most of the dead birds have blown ashore.

Among future concerns is the possibility that disease – including botulism – caused by rotting carcasses could further devastate the bird populations. FWP said it will continue to monitor that situation.

“On a positive note,” Paugh said, “the lake is still covered with waterfowl that are alive and healthy. Life will go on.”

Thanks to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for providing this news.

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