Yes, birds do get struck by lightning, although it’s not very common. When birds are flying during a storm, they are exposed to lightning strikes and thus can get hit directly.
Birds will typically avoid flying in a thunderstorm. They prefer to find hiding spots, such as in bushes, trees and tall grasses. If a bird is waiting out a storm in a tree and the tree gets struck by lightning, the bird likely will die. If struck, an electric charge will be carried along the tree and electrocute any birds sitting in it.
Recently, there were photographs on social media showing several dead birds around the base of a tree after a recent thunderstorm in the Madison area. It is likely the birds were in the tree when it got struck by lightning.
Lightning poses an ongoing threat to all living beings, including humans. Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area, and in many cases that is a tree. The physical flash you see strikes a point, but the lightning is radiating out from that point as a current and can be deadly.
Standing under a tree in a lightning storm is extremely dangerous, especially under an isolated tree. When lightning strikes a tree, the charge doesn’t penetrate deep into the ground but spreads out along the ground surface in a ground current that can lead to injuries and death for those beneath the tree.
While standing under a tree in a lightning storm is extremely dangerous, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records, most people who died from lightning strikes were hit while out in the open.
There is no completely safe place outside in a thunderstorm. The best thing to do is to get inside a safe building or vehicle.
“When thunder roars, go indoors!”
Steve Ackerman and Jonathan Martin, professors in the UW-Madison department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, are guests on WHA radio (970 AM) at 11:45 a.m. the last Monday of each month. Send them your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.