Bird Watcher's General Store

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How Birds Survive the Heat

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve read your past columns on how birds manage to stay warm in the winter. The thought of those little things surviving subzero temperatures is mind-boggling. But with this recent extreme summer weather, I’m starting to wonder how birds can cope with this endless heat. What do birds do to be cool?

– Marsha, Falmouth, MA


Birds are always cool, Marsha,

Regardless of the season or the time of year, birds are cool. They don’t need sunglasses, skinny jeans or Bernie buttons to be cool; they are cool without even trying. Birds can soar miles above the ground, dive underwater, fly backwards and walk headfirst down a tree trunk. What’s cooler than that? When it comes to thermal regulation, however, birds are no better than the rest of us. The heat makes them slow, lethargic, and very cranky. (That last adjective, the “cranky” one, might be less about birds and more about me…as my wife will gladly confirm.)

Roofers have a tough job. Whenever they work it’s either too hot, too cold, too windy, too wet or a combination of all of the above. Things are pretty much the same for birds. They are constantly fighting the elements. But unlike roofers, who can add or remove layers of clothing or take a break from the elements, birds have to deal with the conditions the best they can. And when it comes to hot weather, their options aren’t much better than ours. Walk through the center of town on a hot day and look at the people you pass on the sidewalk. They look like wrinkled bags of laundry. Their hair is all disheveled, their clothes are sticking to them in odd places and their mouths are all drooped open like extras in The Walking Dead. Birds are no different. Over the past few weeks I’ve watched crows, jays, grackles and even little sparrows just sitting with their mouths wide open, panting like bloodhounds. Most birds can’t sweat, so they pant to cool off. While I admit panting is not a good look for any creature, I’ll take panting over sweating. This year has been the summer of sweat and I’m getting tired of it. I can’t even enjoy an ice cream cone without sweating all over it. My wife, on the other hand, never sweats. She’s like an iguana; no matter how hot it gets her skin stays dry. (That last reference was meant as a compliment, but she’ll probably take it the wrong way. Some people are sensitive about being compared to an iguana.)

Another way birds cool themselves off is through their naked legs. Like Americans, Bermudians and others who wear shorts in hot weather, birds are able to shed excess heat through exposed skin. Apparently, having uncovered legs is a good way to keep cool, but you can’t prove it by me. Local bylaws prevent me from ever showing my legs in public (and for good reasons). Beaks are another area where birds can expel heat. Thermal imaging has shown that a fair amount of heat is lost through a bird’s beak. That’s a problem in the winter, but a benefit in the summer. Unlike panting, transferring heat through their beaks (or their legs) prevents additional moisture loss. And if you don’t think moisture is lost from panting, stick your hand under the mouth of the next bloodhound you meet on the sidewalk this summer…but you’d better have a towel with you.

Speaking of moisture, birds also use the same trick that we use when we overheat – they go for a dip. For the past few weeks, birds have been lined up at my birdbath like Techies waiting for the new iPhone. Robins, chickadees and cardinals have all been fighting for their chance to cool down in my birdbath. I’ve even seen a goldfinch and a catbird bathing at the same time, which I believe is still illegal in some states. On one hot day last week I watched several Whimbrels (large sandpipers) feeding along Cape Cod Bay. Suddenly one of the big birds started splashing in the water as if it were on fire. As I watched I couldn’t decide if the bird was desperately trying to cool off or simply doing routine bathing. I ultimately went with the cooling theory since it supports my answer to your question.

Like most folks, I try to get my yard work done early on hot days and then spend the next few hours in the shade, sipping on a big glass of iced tea…or whatever. Similarly, birds hunt for food at sunrise and then virtually disappear during peak heat. And while hiding in the shade, some birds will even spread out their feathers in an effort to gain some organic ventilation; much in the same way we wear baggy clothes in the summer. (Although some people should wear baggy clothes year-round, if you get my drift. Yoga pants aren’t intended for everyone.)

Hot weather is tough on birds, Marsha, but it’s tough on all living things (except for maybe iguanas). Here are two things I do to help the birds when it’s hot. I keep my birdbath filled with fresh water and scrub it out daily to prevent algae buildup. (I don’t want it to look like the pool in Rio.) The other thing I do is eat lots and lots of ice cream. Eating ice cream may not benefit the birds that much, but it goes a long way to help cut down on my crankiness.