Keeping Cool is For the Birds

By MT WILD July 26, 2021
Yellow-breasted Chat by Bob Martinka

The heat wave ripping through the west makes outdoor chores miserable. Humans have their AC units and popsicles to make it through the heat, but what about birds? Last time I checked, nature didn’t have any air-conditioning.

Thankfully, our wildlife is programed to handle tough conditions. Birds have been able to adapt through millions of years of changing climates. Our modern heat waves pale in comparison to what this group of animals has already survived—events like ice ages, volcanic explosions, and meteors.

So, 100 degrees? No sweat (literally).

Birds regulate their body temperature in this heat by doing several things. Their first line of defense will be a bath. They can’t sweat like humans but they can utilize evaporation by dousing themselves in water. Using everything from puddles to sprinklers, birds enjoy a good swim. You’ll often see this used in conjunction with another cooling technique: wing drooping. If you lift your own arm up, there is a massive vein and artery highway running beneath your skin. Birds have this same highway and when you apply air or water to this area, it acts as an efficient way to cool the body down. Try it next time you’re on a run: place your hands behind your head; the air drying your sweat will cool you down better than you would think.

Birds can also lift their feathers away from their body. In winter, this allows them to trap heat close to the body, but during the warm months, it provides a path for air to get to the skin.

Another cooling adaption birds have is called “gular fluttering.” It’s a mechanism like panting in which they expand their throat and flutter it. You can call it panting if you want but the main difference between the two actions is that gular fluttering doesn’t involve moisture evaporation through the tongue.

There are several things you can do to help keep your backyard birds cool this summer. Providing a water source is a no-brainer but studies have found that moving water is more likely to attract attention and keep disease at bay. Sprinklers, misters, or bubbling fountains are great choices. A simple bird bath isn’t a bad choice but remember to clean it every couple days. Mosquitos also will take advantage of stagnant water. You can place ice cubes in the bath to provide an extra cooling factor.

Along with a water source, providing ample shade in your backyard is another way to help keep birds cool. Combine with your water source for double the relief!

While birds are made for dealing with the heat, a little help can go a long way. And birds have excellent memories: creating an oasis out of your backyard can keep birds returning year after year.