We have now experienced two episodes of extreme heat since the beginning of June. And we’re only in the middle of July. Here in Minnesota, records were broken on June 4th, and more than 20 different DNR stations recorded high temperatures of 100F or more on the 4th and 5th. We typically would see this kind of heat in mid-July or August, not early June. Then the heat wave returned on the 4th of July weekend, but thankfully was shorter lived.
We aren’t alone facing these extreme events. It was even worse on the northwest Pacific Coast. My brother and sister live in Seattle. They have made it their home for the past 40 years and they had never seen anything like the heat on June 27th and 28th, when all-time records of 104 and 108 respectively were hit. In fact, in the previous 126 years, Seattle had only hit 100 degrees three times. The citizens of that city are not prepared for this drastic climate – very few homes have air-conditioning and most homes have large south facing windows. My sister
reported that the tops of her flowering shrubs had just curled up and died.
British Columbia reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit on June 27, setting a new all-time heat record for all of Canada! Two days later the temperature reached 121 degrees. The village of Lytton was hotter than has ever been recorded in Las Vegas, Nevada and it is located 1000 miles north, at 50 degrees north latitude. Sadly, the day after this hotter than hell record, the town was destroyed by a wildfire.
While we retreat into our air-conditioned homes to escape the heat (if we are fortunate to have it), birds must find other ways to stay cool. Most birds are diurnal – being most active during the daytime hours and so are exposed to the full heat of the sun. They will pant with open beaks, which releases air and water, and the hotter it gets the more water they need to expel. But then they must be able to access water resources to replace the lost fluids. This can be especially hard to do in desert regions.
One of the ways some birds get moisture is by eating insects, but a study of the Mojave Desert found that if water needs increase by 30 percent, larger birds need to catch 60 to 70 bugs more per day. Birds of prey replenish their water needs through the animals they catch and eat. If they need to eat more, then like the insectivores this increases the energy they use per day. That’s why avian carnivores in the desert like the kestrel, prairie falcon and turkey vulture — have declined along with insectivores such as gnatcatchers and mountain chickadees. Birds who
eat wild bird seed must look for water, whether puddles, streams, ponds, or bird baths.
Most birds have some bare patches of skin on their legs, feet, and face which can release excess heat. Even small patches such as a fleshy eye ring can help. Some birds can even swell those patches to increase the surface area if they are hotter and need to cool off more quickly.
Just as birds fluff their feathers in cold weather to give added insulation, in warmer temperatures they may do the same when there is a cool breeze blowing. They may also flutter their wings or hold their wings away from the body to cool themselves.
Having shade particularly low to the ground during the hottest times of the day is helpful. The more layers of branches and leaves above the ground, the more heat will be absorbed and the cooler the shade will be. Another good reason to plant native trees and shrubs in our yards.
Having access to water is another source of relief, not just to drink, but to immerse themselves. We watch the
chickadees with delight as they come to our small bird bath and rapidly flutter their wings, splashing water over their bodies. This is one way you can help our avian friends during the hot summer days. Any shallow pan of water would work. If you happen to have a pond of some sort, just set rocks in it or along the edges so the birds can safely reach the water. You are already supplying them with bird food, so adding water is another way of showing you care.
Climate Change is upon us and we need to recognize the urgency facing us as a species. We are all connected and dependent on healthy, stable ecosystems. While each of us can individually do things to reduce our carbon footprint and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it really requires serious action from our elected officials and government to rein in the worst emissions. If not for us, at least for the world our children and grandchildren will inherit and for the other creatures that share this earth with us.
By Kate Crowley