Summer is here: breeding season has fully kicked off with a flurry of songs, calls, dances and frantic nest-building. For many species of birds, migrants and residents alike, summer is the time to fatten up after the energy-sapping cold of winter and exhausting springtime courtship rituals. Summer is typically a time when there is a surge of food available as flowers, fruits, nuts, seeds, and insects all clamor for space as the warm weather and growth-inducing elements makes half the planet green again. But the beauty of this season can be deceiving; birds struggle with heat and many will die as the sun beats down.
As spring progresses, the dawn chorus builds, and by the time summer arrives, you can hear a huge range of species giving it their all as the new day breaks. This aural phenomenon is little understood, but what we do know is this sound-filled time of the day is when birds are the most active, as light returns before the sun has warmed the air making any necessary task a struggle. The cool and often moist conditions provide birds with the perfect window for foraging, drinking, fixing up the nest if there’s been a storm or winds overnight, and finding food for any young ones huddled deep inside. This is when most species will be doing their flying and singing, so if you want to see them, you’ll need to get up early, and why not – the dawn chorus itself is one of the world’s most treasured performances and every birder should hear it at least once. If you are still leaving food out for the birds – and there is every reason to do so as food sources are always under pressure – then make sure you topped up your feeders the night before, and sit and quietly wait for breakfast to begin.
By lunchtime, any morning mists will have been burnt off by the rising sun, and if you are in for a particularly sunny day then the Tyndall effect of the sky gives a clear and brilliant blue, clouds banished to the horizons. This is the best time of day to spot birds of prey using the rising thermals from the heated earth to glide ever higher over their hunting grounds, laser-sharp eyes scanning the landscape below for the tiniest of mousey movements. But for many other birds, the afternoon is the most dangerous part of the day, when countless birds will be trying to hide from the glare of our solar system’s nominative giant.
Birds use a lot more energy to perform normal basic functions, which means they have a much higher core body temperature, at around 40°C / 104°F. Any external heat source that makes this rise can be very dangerous. If the air temperature goes above 27°C / 81°F, birds start to experience a condition known as heat stress that can lead to death very quickly. Lacking sweat glands and pores, they need to find other ways to regulate excess heat, and like dogs, they pant, opening their bills to allow passing air to flow over the moist surface of the tongue and inner mouth parts to cool off. Many birds also flutter the throat area, called gular fluttering, promoting heat loss from the throat membranes. Some birds like vultures have a rather effective if a little grim way of cooling off: they will urinate on their legs to utilize evaporative cooling: the white paste of the urine and feces also helps reflect the sunlight.
Some species nest in the open, making the summer a daily life-or-death challenge. These birds tend to have lighter coloured plumage on parts of their body that they turn towards the sun to reflect the heat away. For example, herring gulls turn throughout the day to present the white-feathered smaller surface areas of their heads, neck and breasts to the sun, reducing the effects of direct radiation to stay alive.
But most birds will choose to simply stay still and rest in the shade; even better if this shade is close to a water source. Some birds swim to cool off, then fluff up their feathers after their dip, opening their wings to catch the breeze, like cormorants.
Finally, the sun has passed its zenith, and our planet’s rotation makes the sun appear to vanish over the horizon as dusk settles in and the air temperature drops. The evening is the next best time for birds to come out of their hiding places and find food to cache or eat now to get them through the night. Some birds also sing again in the evening, perhaps thankful the threat of a heat-induced death has been evaded once again.
How you can help
We can take some very simple steps that will make hazy long days more bearable for birds.
A lot of people wonder where birds go during the summer, especially if they live near woods or forests: you can bet your bottom dollar that’s where they are. If you have an outdoor space that can sustain plant life, keep them nearby by populating this with plants that will give a generous perching site covered by a canopy of leaves. Trees are always best but any shrubs or hedgerows give that double whammy of safety and shade just as well. If you have plans to trim or prune any of your plants, consider leaving it until later in the year when it’s not so hot, if your personal safety is not compromised. Aesthetically, a wild yard can still be beautiful, especially if it is full of birds.
Crops are bursting forth, trees are bearing fruit, the air is alive with the flutter and zoom of insects; bird food seems to be in abundance. But there is no harm in providing your own. Often seen primarily as a winter activity, feeding the birds in summer is gaining more favor, as more people become aware of their life cycles. Raising kids, flying further to find water, hard, dry ground making it impossible to get at food hiding there, gaining fat reserves for an autumn migration; these are all challenges birds have to overcome. Leaving out high-energy food packed with water will be a most welcome act. Raisins, sultanas, apples, pears, sunflower seeds, live mealworms; all of these are perfect. Avoid suet, as even though it has the calories it can get very messy when it melts in the sun and can invite four-legged critters to your yard. Also, peanuts are brilliant sources of energy but not so good in the summer as parent birds take them to their young, the pieces are too big for a tiny new throat. If this is all you have, crush them as much as you can first.
Want to know more about summer bird feeding? Read more in our booklet HERE!
Water is life, but the sun dries it up. Many birds will try to glean it by eating insects, or buds, leaves, flower petals and other plant parts. By putting out a bird bath, you can provide them with drinking water and a place to cool off. The bath shouldn’t be much deeper than a couple of inches, and make sure the water is refreshed daily. Place the bath in the shade, and remember to do this for any feeders you leave out, as it will prevent the seeds from spoiling too quickly in the hot sun.
Summer is one of the most anticipated seasons for us, but remember that a beautiful sunny day can be torture for birds. As they try their best to hide from the heat or locate water, by helping them get through the worst of the day and providing what they need right where you are, we all have a greater chance of making it through the hot days together.