SOS – Birds Overheating

SOS – Birds Overheating

The last couple of weeks have been unpleasantly hot across most of South Africa. Many attribute this to Global warming. According to Nasa’s Global Climate Change website, “The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and other human activities”. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “June was the Earth’s hottest on record since tracking started 174 years ago, and July continued the trend. June 2023 also marked the 47th-consecutive June and the 532nd-consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average. Globally, June 2023 saw the lowest sea ice coverage (extent) for any June on record. This primarily was a result of the record-low sea ice in the Antarctic that occurred for the second consecutive month. The earth’s global sea ice extent in June 2023 was 330,000 square miles less than the previous record low from June 2019.”

Accounts and numbers vary, as do the reasons proposed for these changes. That said, the bottom line is that there are changes, and the wildlife are suffering. Rising temperatures affect vegetation, food sources, access to water and much more. This article will be from a global perspective (because, as we’ve seen in many of the previous articles, wildlife is a global issue). Let’s start with a couple of iconic species…

The polar bear is in a particularly dire state, as climate change and global warming are reducing the amount of Arctic sea ice – which is obviously what they live and hunt on! The less ice there is, the less access they have to food and the smaller their habitat is becoming. They are desperately trying to adapt – by foraging for food on land (which causes conflict with people) and swimming more to hunt for prey. But as the decline in sea ice continues, these beautiful bears will find it more difficult to survive. 

Turtles are another casualty of climate change. As we previously discovered, the temperature of the sand at the nesting site affects the resultant sex of the baby turtle embryos: a temperature of ≤ 28˚ C results in males; 30˚ C means there are equal chances of the turtle being either male or female; and ≥ 32˚ C results in females. As the temperatures rise, more and more females will be born (known as the ‘feminization’ of embryos) until there are not enough males for successful reproduction of the population. If the nest temperatures get above 34˚ C, there is an increased possibility of hatching mutations. Warmer seas also impact on the turtles’ prey thus having a negative effect on their food supply (which includes coral reefs). Turtles are ectotherms, which means their internal temperature varies according to the ambient environment (commonly called cold-blooded). As temperatures rise, so their metabolisms will increase, requiring more food supply to support them. Seas rising and stronger storms will contribute to their woes by decimating their nesting grounds. Overall, not a positive scenario for these creatures…

Even the beautiful monarch butterflies are being affected. Most monarch butterflies live for five weeks, except for the generation born at the end of summer. These butterflies live up to eight months as they migrate back to their wintering grounds in Central and South America, where they stay until the following spring. These butterflies depend on environmental cues (temperature in particular) to trigger reproduction, migration, and hibernation – so you could see how temperature change impacts. An increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as drought and severe storms also takes its toll – especially on the migratory routes. They depend on milkweed alone as a food source – creating a further vulnerability. Higher than normal temperatures are hindering the growth and quality of milkweed, and indications are that these plants will have to move poleward to find appropriate growing conditions…

Even bees are suffering. They have a special ability to remember scents in their search for pollen, but climate change and air pollution have resulted in plants changing their scents. Some plants growing in high temperature conditions also show significant decreases in the production of floral scents. Changes in weather patterns also alter the synchrony between flowering plants and their pollinators, causing nutritional stress.

Closer to home, in fact in your very own garden, there are ways in which you can assist. Rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns also affect our garden birds’ ability to find food and reproduce. They often suffer badly in heat waves, and need to find ways to cool down – as heat stress in birds is fatal.

Be sure to provide your garden birds with extra water for drinking – and bathing! This is a great way to help them keep cool. You can add more than one “bath” – some ground level basins, a couple of pedestal baths, or perhaps even a little fountain if you have the means. This will allow access to different birds, as well as providing more space for all. A couple of ice cubes during a heat wave gives the birds an extra cool treat.

Where you position the bath is important. Placing the bird bath near shrubs, trees, or other cover creates a greater chance they will use it, as they will feel protected and secure. It goes without saying that it should not be in direct sunlight but rather in a cool shady spot to keep the water at a more desirable temperature. This will also reduce the evaporation rate. Cooler water apparently limits algae growth, whilst also discouraging insects from laying their eggs in the water. If it cannot be in shade all day, choose the afternoon shade option, when the sun is at its hottest. If the bath is large, add a couple of rocks (or something similar) to allow the birds to perch.

Provide good quality food for your birds so they don’t have to work as hard to find each meal. You can provide nut and seed blends, as well as fresh fruit. Seed cakes are good (often found in bell shapes etc), and peanuts are a special treat for many birds. You could also take a pinecone, smear with peanut butter and sprinkle some seeds onto the peanut butter. Bone meal (available from your butcher) is also appreciated by insectivorous birds – you could even pop this into a cone.

Finally, resist the urge to prune your garden more than absolutely necessary. There will be more natural shade for your birds, and the thicker plants will provide secret, secure hiding places for nests, as well as shelter and protection from predators and storms.

Many small efforts ultimately make a difference – so let’s help our feathered friends during these unusually warm times!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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