Wildlife Digs In To Cope With Heat

By Charles Seabrook
AS RECORD-BREAKING temperatures bake much of the U.S., animals as well as people are trying to beat the heat. We humans, of course, have air conditioning and fans to help us cope. But how do wild creatures keep their cool?

A lot of them do as we do—simply retreat into the shade. They don’t eat as much, and they slow down their daily activities. Many animals, especially snakes and other reptiles, crawl into underground burrows, where temperatures are several degrees cooler than above-ground temperatures.

In that regard, Gopher Tortoises play a key role in the sandy regions of South Georgia—they dig extensive burrows in which many other animals seek refuge during summer’s heat. Tortoise burrows, for instance, are common shelters for endangered Indigo Snakes and for Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, which must maintain their body temperatures.

Like us, many creatures also shed their winter coats and go with a lighter covering for the summer. Deer, for instance, shed the long, hollow, insulating hair of winter. Come fall, they’ll don their furry winter coats again.

Many animals beat the heat by coming out only at night or at dawn and dusk. Black Bears may seek out bogs or other wet spots to wallow around in to stay cool.
Many animals also have built-in air conditioners of sorts—their ears. The ears of deer, rabbits, foxes and other animals are engorged with blood vessels that help move the heat out of their bodies and radiate it into the air. A lot of animals may pant, or breathe rapidly, to increase the volume of air moving in and out of their bodies.

Birds do something similar. Their bills are constantly open, a behavior similar to that of an animal such as a dog that keeps its mouth open and tongue hanging out. Some birds that are still nesting—sitting on their second or third broods of the year—also may dip their breasts in a stream or birdbath, then sprinkle the water over their eggs or babies to cool them off.

Insects also are seeking water. For instance, birdbaths can get crowded with honeybees, which haul droplets of water back to the hive to help cool the colony. However, many insects seem to revel in the heat. Butterflies and dragonflies, for instance, love hot, sunny days.

Provide Clean Water
How can you help wildlife survive a heat wave? Probably the most important thing is to provide clean water, preferably in a birdbath. Watching birds drinking and bathing at birdbaths can be just as enjoyable as watching them at the feeders.

In the wild, birds prefer a shallow puddle, the edge of a pond or perhaps a partially submerged rock in a stream. Therefore, birdbaths in your yard should be something similar. Birds want a water source that is shallow and sloping and, at a maximum, 2 inches deep. (Small songbirds can drown in birdbaths if the water is too deep.) A rock in the middle or at one end of the birdbath helps.

Most birdbaths on the market today are designed to accommodate the birds, and there is a variety from which to choose. Place the birdbaths in an open area that has natural shelter about 20 ft. away. After birds splash in the water, their feathers are wet, and they can’t fly very well. They need a protected area to perch and dry and preen their feathers. Placing the birdbath in an open area also helps birds spot cats or other predators.

The intense heat can have another serious consequence: Disease can spread among birds because of crowded, unclean feeders and birdbaths. Seed-eating birds, which usually congregate at feeders, are especially susceptible to infectious diseases. In particular, a bacterial malady of the eyes can cause severe problems for House Finches and some American Goldfinches. Hot, damp bird feeders can harbor mold spores, including aspergillus, a fungus lethal to birds.

To lessen the chance of spreading diseases, keep feeders and baths disinfected and restocked regularly. Seed feeders should be placed in shady areas to keep seed from becoming rancid. Refill the birdbath with fresh water every couple of days. Once or twice a week, scrub it out with a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts warm water.

Hummingbird nectar should be changed two to three times a week because the heat causes sugar solutions to become ridden with bacteria and mold.