David Sibley describes how birds deal with summer heat

summer heat
The heat of summerHow birds deal with summer heat: a house finch in a normal posture (left) and in a heat stress posture with feathers compressed, beak open and wings outstretched. © 2017 David Sibley

With high body temperature, extremely good insulation, and limited means of dissipating heat, one of the greatest risks to birds in hot weather is simply overheating. Maintaining a normal level of activity in hundred degree heat is potentially deadly to a bird, and some of the strategies birds use to cool off can drastically alter their overall appearance.

The activity patterns birds employ to survive the heat are generally what we would call “common sense,” and your strategies for finding birds in hot weather are simple. Birds are more active in the cooler early morning temperatures, so the sooner you can start birding, the better. As the day gets warmer, birds slow down and seek shade, especially shade with water. A small pond or stream (or birdbath) shaded by trees and shrubs will attract birds throughout the day, and if you can find a shady place to sit where you can see the birds without disturbing them, you will have a really pleasant time. time.

Some birds remain active in the open during the heat of the day. These are often adults with young in the nest and have no choice but to continue to gather food and bring it back to their growing offspring. And their heat dissipation strategies can change their appearance.

Birds do not sweat, so the only option for evaporative cooling is to open their beaks and beat their throats to allow moisture to evaporate from the mouth. Other options for cooling include reducing insulation by compressing the feathers tightly against the body, making the legs appear longer, and pulling the wings away from the body to expose bare skin.

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Observing how common birds react to heat can help you understand the range of appearances exhibited by all birds and will give you a better appreciation of the challenges they face every day.


This ID Toolkit article by David Sibley appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of BirdWatching.