What to Watch for in August – Hot and Thirsty Birds
By: Jim Spencer
Here’s the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon
People can retreat into air-conditioned comfort in this hot weather but what do birds do? Just like us, they have to maintain their body temperature regardless of the outside temperature or risk heat-related complications. Watch carefully and you’ll see birds using various strategies to stay cool.
Birds don’t sweat, but like dogs, birds can pant. As they speed up their breathing they move more air across moist areas of the lungs, throat and mouth. The moist air absorbs body heat and, as it evaporates and is exhaled, birds cool down. Birds also droop their wings and hold them away from their bodies. They fluff their feathers, to expose more skin, which releases heat too. Birds are most active in the cooler parts of the day and seek shade in the heat of the afternoon.
Some species including herons, cormorants, owls, doves, and roadrunners have a unique behavior called gular fluttering. They open their mouths and visibly vibrate their throats, which increases airflow across moist membranes in the throat area. This dissipates heat more effectively than panting. Sometimes they both pant and gular flutter simultaneously.
Arguably the most bizarre cooling off behavior is used by vultures which excrete waste onto their legs to stay cool. This highly acidic excrement also helps kill bacteria that vultures are exposed to in their role as nature’s janitors.
Help Thirsty Birds
You can help panting and thirsty birds by providing clean, fresh, and shallow water.
Providing water is easy – in a pinch you can use an upside-down garbage can lid or shallow plant saucer. If cats are a problem you can even hang a bird bath in a tree. No matter which bird bath you choose, change the water frequently so that it remains fresh and mosquito-free. Use a brush to remove algae. If your birdbath is a little too deep and has steep sides, put a stone in it so that small birds can use it safely.
To make your water feature more appealing to birds, provide a perch close by. Once a bird wets its feathers it can’t fly well and is more vulnerable to predators. It will use the perch to dry out and preen its feathers, and you get a great photo op.
Another guaranteed way to get birds’ attention is to provide moving water. You can get commercial drips and misters, or make one cheaply by hanging a plastic milk jug above the bird bath. Punch a small hole in it so it drips slowly. This is also a good way to help replenish a bird bath that gets a lot of use. Where to put your bird bath? A shaded spot is good, with an eye to minimizing ambushes by cats, so place it several feet away from shrubs where they can hide.
Deck-mounted bird baths, concrete bird baths, hanging bird baths, backyard ponds and streams – pick one or several. They will give our resident and migrating songbirds something to sing about.