There is little doubt what the topic of conversation, around this area all summer was the heat. The summer dealt us one harsh weather hand to deal with. How do birds handle such conditions?
Birds have higher body temperatures than humans (105 degrees on average) so they are not as vulnerable to high temperatures. As a rule, dealing with extreme cold is more difficult for birds. Feathers play a big part in dealing with the heat as well as the cold. Birds will fluff up their feathers to create air space for insulation against the heat. They will also turn their lighter colored feathers toward the sun to better reflect the sun’s rays and raise their wings to create shade for their featherless legs.
Have you seen a bird panting? Birds have unique respiratory systems that involves a one way flow through the lungs and air sacs. The incoming air does not mix with the air already in the lungs giving it a greater cooling effect. Turkey Vultures are known for their unique cooling technique. They defecate on their legs!
A pretty obvious way of dealing with the heat is to find a source of water. This is the real problem that excessive heat and drought pose for birds. Water sources are lost, and birds have to spend more time seeking out this basic need. Providing a clean water source is the single most important thing you can do for birds.
Drought poses more problems than just a lack of water. Insects and plants have to have water to complete their life cycles. Plants produce less seeds, nuts and berries and some insects have greatly decreased hatching success. Food supplies that are typically quite bountiful in the late summer and early autumn seasons will run out much quicker than normal.
The real advantage birds have over other wild species of course is their wings. Birds will simply leave and seek out suitable nesting conditions elsewhere. When I lived and birded in western Pennsylvania several years ago, the local guys said in years of drought in the Midwest, they could generally find “our” birds like Dickcissels nesting in “their” area.
One thing is for certain. Wild animals are much “tougher” than most people think. We may never know the full affect that this drought has had on our birds, but I know that our customers have done their part in helping many, many birds make it through the summer of 2012!
By Mark McKellar