Extreme weather events like heat waves remind us of how urgent the climate crisis really is. Climate change is happening already, and it is straining human and natural systems alike. Recent, deadly heat waves have broken records across the United States and around the world, and summers are expected to get even more sweltering from here on out.
This is a dangerous trend for birds. Audubon’s 2019 Survival by Degrees report found that global temperature rise threatens the survival of many of the continent’s bird species as their historic ranges become uninhabitable. Extreme heat waves, coupled with droughts, are likely to “cause large amounts of mortality” and “add another stressor to bird populations,” says ornithologist Blair Wolf of the University of New Mexico. “If it’s really hot, they can’t evaporate enough water to stay cool, so they die of heatstroke. If it's hot and there’s no water, then they get dehydrated and may die of dehydration.”
Avoiding the worst effects of a warming climate for birds and people will require decisive action. “We need a holistic approach to extreme events because they’re a part of the climate change story, and they’re only going to get worse if we don’t do anything,” says Brooke Bateman, Audubon’s director of climate science.
You don’t have to be a lawmaker to make a difference, though—helping birds can start in your own backyard. So grab a cold beverage, turn on a fan, and read on for some ways you can help birds deal with extreme heat.
Wolf, who has been studying avian responses to extreme heat for over two decades, says that water and shade are the two most important things an individual can provide to help birds stay cool. That’s because both are essential for the strategies birds use to avoid overheating.
When temperatures spike, birds vent excess body heat by evaporating water from their lungs and upper respiratory tract—panting, essentially. This can be effective for offloading heat, but it quickly uses up a bird’s water resources. “The higher the air temperature is, the more water they have to evaporate, and the more frequently they have to drink,” Wolf says.
Birds can also cool down by bathing. The water directly lowers their temperatures and absorbs heat energy as the liquid evaporates from their skin.
A simple bird bath can make a big difference, providing water for bathing and drinking when natural sources are scarce. Whether you purchase a bird bath or make one at home, be sure to clean it regularly to help prevent the spread of disease.
In addition to panting and bathing, birds beat the heat by simply avoiding it. Many species will stop foraging during the hottest parts of the day, choosing instead to shelter in cooler, shady spots. By planting a diverse garden with native trees, shrubs, and ground cover, you can provide places for birds to rest out of the sun.
Make sure that any nest boxes for cavity nesters like chickadees or bluebirds are shaded as well. Since human-built nest boxes aren’t as insulated as natural cavities, their occupants can be exposed to extreme temperatures.
While any tree casts shade, native plants are key to helping entire ecosystems, birds included, adapt to rising temperatures. Species that have adapted to a region are well equipped to handle its extremes, helping to maintain ecosystem integrity.
In addition to the direct benefits to birds, native plants also help reduce your garden’s carbon footprint—emissions from lawn mowers and leaf blowers contribute to ongoing global warming. A native garden, on the other hand, is much more low-maintenance, especially once the plants have settled in.
Native plants also provide plenty of seeds, berries, and fruit, as well as hosting insects—food resources that can become scarce during periods of extreme heat.
Heat waves typically happen during breeding season, when 96 percent of native North American bird species depend on butterfly and moth caterpillars to feed their young. You can help those birds feed their babies when temperatures spike by cultivating native plants.
For some species, bird feeders can also help supplement food resources. Bird seed is best for finches, sparrows, and doves, while fruit and insects can attract species like bluebirds and mockingbirds. Make sure to take down your suet feeders in the summer, though—hot weather can turn suet rancid. Instead, you can slather a log or pinecone with a mixture of one part peanut butter to five parts cornmeal.
Next, coordinate with your community to influence local government. Advocating for native plants in municipal landscaping, for example, can be a great way to make a difference if you don’t have much space for planting of your own, says Marlene Pantin, partnerships manager for Audubon’s Plants for Birds initiative: “In your community park, are they putting in native plants? Or are they still putting in non-natives?” Campaigning for the creation of a native plant corridor can be another great way to support birds and insects.
Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Communities team has resources to help you lobby for native plant proclamations, resolutions, and ordinances. Even a non-enforceable proclamation or resolution, Pantin says, can go a long way when it comes to creating awareness for an issue.
Providing shade and water is still an effective way to help your local bird populations weather extreme heat. To truly protect wildlife, however, requires coordinated action. Change starts in your own backyard, but it doesn’t have to stop there.
An earlier version of this article contained a photo of a bird bath by Ryan Raz.