As the midsummer heat weighs down on us humans, we get to choose our preferred method of cooling down: leaping into a pool, taking a cold shower, or dancing in the fountain unleashed by a burst fire hydrant—as is the preferred method during heat waves in places like New York City. But for birds and other wild creatures that inhabit urban landscapes, where water and shade may be diminished and spread out, the choices are fewer—and access to water is harder to control.
Lacking the ability to sweat, birds have developed their own, fascinating mechanisms for keeping cool. But hotter temperatures naturally drive up the need to cool down. “While we all revel in an unusually sunny summer, our garden wildlife might not be having such a good time. The hot weather could be causing natural water sources to dry up,” says Val Osborne, the head of the wildlife enquiries team at the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), in an article.
In response to the intensive summer heat, Osborne suggests that homeowners turn their own back gardens into cool respites for wildlife. “Turning your outside space into a home for nature by doing simple things like topping up your birdbath, creating a make-shift pond from a washing-up tub or putting down a saucer filled with water could offer a vital lifeline to some of our garden favourites that are already fighting against declines.”
And so in that spirit, here is a short collection of tips for altering any outdoor space you might have to suit the needs of birds.
Water, water everywhere—and all of it to drink
To keep cool, birds need fresh water to drink—but also to bathe in. Dipping into water and shaking droplets through their feathers is a process that keeps birds clean, and also cools them down. Experts suggest filling up your birdbath frequently with fresh water, and scrubbing it out when algae develops on the bottom.
If you don’t have a birdbath, shallow, wide tubs and saucers of water spread around the yard, close to the ground, and in the shade so the water stays cool, will be a welcome sight.
Birds are also attracted to gardens by the sound and movement of water—so if you want to advertize its presence in your garden, you can think about installing a dripper or a sprayer, or placing a bubbler in a pond that makes water twinkle in the sunlight.
Food provision for birds is something that people tend to think of more during the wintertime, when resources are scarcer. But Osborne from the RSPB explains that high heat can leave a gaping food hole in its wake. For instance, “when it’s particularly dry, worms tunnel right down into the soil, meaning they become out of reach to the wildlife that usually feasts on them.”
You can fill this gap by providing feeders and trays that advertize food. Sugar solutions are popular with hummingbirds, while more solid foods attract other birds. Seeds mixtures, made up of maize, sunflower seeds, and energy-rich items like crushed peanuts make a good food source for visiting birds.
Fruit is also appealing, and mealworms are good options for insect eaters—though the RSPB warns that they should be soaked first to soften them for birds. Tinned dog and cat food provides suitable nutrients for some birds in place of the worms that have burrowed too deeply into the soil.
Any food that goes moldy or mildews however—a likelihood in summer’s high heat—should be cleaned away quickly, to prevent birds from becoming ill from eating it.
A place in the shade
Of course, shade is instrumental in both keeping water cool, and bird food edible, and although transforming your garden into a shaded landscape may take a while, it’ll pay off in the long run for birds seeking cooler resting places, and for anyone who delights in watching garden birds.
Trees and shrubs that grow dense branches obviously provide the deepest shade, and it’s also helpful to grow plants that will together build layers of foliage that birds can enjoy. Vines, longer grasses, and dense groundcovers also build cooler refuges in other parts of the garden. Plants that provide food as well as shade are obviously doubly appealing for birds.
Here are some good resources that share more detailed information about how to help birds out in the summer heat -
The Audubon Society:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
By Catherine Griffin
By Susan J. Tweit