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How to help birds during heat waves and droughts

heat waves
An Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler splashes in a birdbath to clean itself and cool off. Sources of clean water are especially critical to birds during warm spells. Photo by Greg A. Wilson/Shutterstock

Hot weather and drought, and the fires they foster, are growing more extreme worldwide. People dealing with these hardships may be unable to consider the toll weather extremes are taking on wildlife, but those of us who can help birds may take some satisfaction in easing their suffering during hard times.

Within normal temperature ranges for a given area, birds cope with cold better than heat, but only if they have enough food and water. Many insectivorous birds died during this past winter’s exceptional cold snap in the southern and central states; they could not find enough cold-blooded prey to survive. Desert-dwelling birds are adapted to limited water availability in ways that birds in wetter climates are not, as are seed eaters compared to frugivores. Severe droughts, especially when combined with record-breaking hot temperatures, can take a terrible toll.

Simple birdbaths and recirculating water fountains can be lifesavers. Storing rainwater is an excellent practice where water is scarce. Multiple small birdbaths such as cereal bowls, pet dishes, or other shallow containers can serve many more birds, using less water, than one large birdbath. Many songbirds, including warblers, prefer drinking and bathing close to the ground rather than at birdbath pedestal height. Keeping water sources in the shade lowers the speed at which they’ll evaporate.

Because birds bathe as well as drink in birdbaths, and because some species, such as Common Grackles, drop their nestlings’ fecal sacs in them, it’s important to keep the water clean. Even when the water appears clear, change the water in birdbaths every two or three days to prevent mosquito eggs from hatching. Mosquitoes that breed in standing water include the ones most likely to transmit West Nile virus and other diseases.

Important as drinking water is, during droughts, the water content of food can be even more critical, especially for birds that feed on fruits and insects. Many birds learn to eat dried mealworms, but this can be bad when water is hard to come by. Well-hydrated live mealworms are a much better choice. To keep their water content high, add fresh chunks or peelings of potato, apple, or carrot to your mealworm container every day or two.

Your fruit trees and shrubs can be an important source of water as well as nutrition. Locally native plants require far less fertilizer and watering than plants adapted to other locations because they are adapted to normal local weather extremes. Of course, global warming is changing what is normal. When you plant new trees and shrubs, research which locally native ones are most likely to survive hot, dry conditions.

Sadly, even as Earth’s temperatures slowly rise, weather extremes associated with climate change include unusual cold snaps and flooding, too. To ensure that birds get adequate nutrition and water no matter what happens, grow a variety of fruit trees and shrubs rather than just one or two. Diversity is the key to stability, even in a terribly uncertain time.

This article was published in the “Attracting Birds” column in the September/October 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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