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Hot weather and drought, and the fires they promote, are becoming more extreme around the world. People facing these hardships may be unable to consider the extreme weather conditions that burden wildlife, but those of us who can help the birds may find some satisfaction in easing their suffering during difficult times.
Within normal temperature ranges for a given area, birds tolerate cold better than heat, but only if they have enough food and water. Many insectivorous birds died during last winter’s extreme cold spell in southern and central states; they couldn’t find enough cold-blooded prey to survive. Desert birds are adapted to the limited availability of water in a way that birds in wetter climates are not, as are seed eaters compared to frugivores. Severe droughts, especially when combined with record hot temperatures, can have dire consequences.
Simple birdbaths and flowing water fountains can be lifesaving. Storing rainwater is an excellent practice where water is scarce. Several 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 to drink and bathe near the ground rather than at the height of the birdbath pedestal. Keeping water sources in the shade reduces the rate at which they evaporate.
Since birds bathe and drink in birdbaths and some species, such as the common grackle, deposit the faecal sacs of their chicks there, it is important to keep the water clean. Even when the water seems clear, change the birdbath water every few days to prevent mosquito eggs from hatching. Mosquitoes that breed in standing water are most likely to transmit West Nile virus and other diseases.
As important as drinking water is, during droughts the water content of food can be even more critical, especially for birds that eat fruit and insects. Many birds learn to eat dried mealworms, but it 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 potatoes, apples, or carrots to your container of mealworms daily or every other day.
Your fruit trees and shrubs can be an important source of water as well as nutrition. Local native plants require much less fertilizer and watering than plants adapted to other locations, as they are adapted to normal local extreme weather conditions. Of course, global warming changes what is normal. When planting new trees and shrubs, research which local native trees are most likely to survive hot, dry conditions.
Unfortunately, even as Earth’s temperatures slowly rise, extreme weather patterns associated with climate change also include unusual cold spells and flooding. To ensure the birds receive adequate feed and water no matter what, grow a variety of fruit trees and shrubs rather than one or two. Diversity is the key to stability, even in terribly uncertain times.
This article originally appeared in the “Attracting Birds” section of the September/October 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.