How do animals respond to solar eclipses? Please share your observations.

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If you have been anywhere in the Palearctic during the past 48 hours then you can’t have missed the fact that we experienced that most rare of astronomical phenomena, a solar eclipse.  The eclipse was total only as far north as the Faroe Islands and Svalbard; further south it was partial and here in Northampton the eclipse was perhaps 80-90% total.

It’s been big news with lots of public interest.  As well as explaining the astronomy of eclipses, various commentators on current affairs and science programmes have talked about how animals respond to eclipses.  This is a topic that’s intrigued me ever since the August 1999 eclipse.  During that event I was carrying out field work in a Northampton grassland and as the eclipse reached its maximum the bumblebees and butterflies on the site stopped flying and foraging, and settled into the grass.  Once the eclipse had passed they carried on as before.  I don’t have any hard data to demonstrate the effect, it was purely an observation of what was happening around me.

Since then I’ve waited over 15 years for the next opportunity to observe how solar eclipses affect animal behaviour.  Unfortunately there are few pollinators flying at the moment so I had to content myself with watching the gulls, woodpigeons, carrion crows and other birds on the Racecourse park adjacent to the university.

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This time I took some video footage before, during and after the eclipse, noted the birds’ behaviour, flying, calls and singing.  And guess what? As far as I could tell the eclipse had no effect on the birds!  They behaved as if nothing was happening.  Even a mistle thrush than had been singing all morning from a perch in one of the boundary lime trees continued its song as the moon passed in front of the sun.

That really surprised me!  I was expecting the birds to at least reduce their activity as has been noted in previous eclipses.  But they didn’t as far as I could tell.  Perhaps it was the type of birds I was observing?  Or the time of year?  Or the fact that the eclipse was only partial?  Lots of questions but it’s difficult to do repeat observations for this kind of science – the next British total eclipse is not until 2090!

What did you see?  Did you notice any effect of the eclipse on animal behaviour?  Or did you, like me, see no effect of the eclipse.  I’d be interested to hear your observations.

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18 Comments

Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Butterflies, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

18 responses to “How do animals respond to solar eclipses? Please share your observations.

  1. Renate

    For the total eclipse on 29 March 2006 I was in Turkey. The eclipse took place at 12:12 local time, and the sun was shining that day. I remember that when the light started to diminish notably before the eclipse, the birds that had been silent after sunrise started singing again. I can’t remember what exactly happened during totality, there was too much noise from the people around. We should have a video somewhere, maybe I can listen back to check if there is any audible bird song.
    The skies in Belgium were completely overcast on eclipse day this year, it just went from light grey to dark grey and from cold to colder, not really the type of weather to observe much animal activity anyway.

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  2. I noticed the birds seemed to be singing differently somehow. Hard to explain – I was surprised that they were singing at all, but there was no movement – everything was eerily still. An interesting phenomenon!

    During the 1999 eclipse I was on the university campus, with lots of people, but this time it was just me in my garden. A completely different experience…. And I hadn’t expected the event to last so long!

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  3. It was sunny here at Harper Adams so we had a big difference in light and atmosphere – it didn’t seem to have much effect on the birds although I did get the impression that the rooks in the nearby rookery got nosier

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  4. Kelleigh

    I was watching from the top of a hill in Lilleshall, Shropshire, and was also keeping an interested eye (and ear) on the local birds. I was really hoping for some dramatic hush and some strange behaviour, but alas, they all carried on just as normal here too. Even the sheep in the field below didn’t seem affected at all. The lambs continued to frolick about right through the eclipse. Unfortunately there weren’t enough insects flying for me to make comparisons for them. It was a really clear day here and although it got noticeably cooler, the light levels didn’t seem to change that much (at least to my human eyes), and not more than on a cloudy day.

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  5. Here in Totnes there was a noticeable difference in light and temperature and because of intermittent cloud cover we had a few very good images of the eclipse but I noticed the birds continued to sing. The principal effect I saw was that the humans got together in groups and looked up at the sun, some pointing their phones in that direction. The main street was eerily quiet and shopkeepers came on to the pavement and chatted to one another and anyone passing. It was actually very different for a short time but not as I would have predicted.

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  6. Barry Martin

    Hi, here in North Yorkshire we had a cloudy sky so could not see the eclipse. It did seem a little colder and during the period we had no birds on the feeders and it seemed that the birds went into the trees to roost until the eclipse was over. The birds we observed roosting in the trees, starlings, collard doves, house sparrows and wood pigeons.

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  7. I have never paid attention, but I’m curious now! Have you seen this paper? There is a great list of observations of various animal groups from the 1932 eclipse in eastern US: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20023118?sid=21105742103281&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3737536. You should plan an ‘Eclipse Behaviour Committee’ before the next one 🙂

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    • Thanks! I’d done a quick search of the literature but not seen that paper. There’s a lot of anecdotal papers and notes published in natural history journals, etc. It’s an area that’s ripe for a full review. Though I think that the literature will give a lopsided view of what happens as people generally don’t publish results saying “nothing happened”.

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  8. David Tucker

    Hi Jeff. You might find this video interesting. It features a colleague, Jason Wimmer, who shares a research interest in bioacoustics and ecological soundscapes. He was looking at the response of birds to a solar eclipse in far north Queensland, Australia, a couple of years back.

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  9. Pingback: Gull use of urban parks in winter – data I’ll never publish (2) | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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