June 19, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Thursday, 12 July 2012 15:15
After a week or more of temperatures in the 80s and 90s, we appreciate water now more than ever. So, says Flo Vannoni of Redding, do the birds.
“During these days of extreme heat, we know enough to drink a lot of liquids to prevent dehydration,” Flo writes. “Our avian friends are also in need of water, whether to drink or bathe (to freshen up their feathers and dislodge critters).
“It can be a chore to maintain bird baths especially during the hot weather. For me with three birdbaths, it is a daily task, keeping them clean and full, that I do not mind.
“Helping them provides many moments of amusement. When the babies have fledged is the time of most activity — seeing four to five baby bluebirds taking turns dipping into the ‘pool’ is delightful. Orioles, catbirds, titmouse, goldfinches, cardinals and many others can be seen taking advantage of the available water.
“Some are pushy (starlings) but most are willing to share.”
Having a birdbath is one of the best ways to draw birds to your yard. We have one with a thermostatically controlled heater that keeps the water from freezing in winter, when the bath is very popular.
As Flo suggests, the water needs to be changed and the bowl cleaned regularly, especially in summer when bacteria, algae, and other substances grow quickly.
Fortunately, we are not in the midst of a drought and birds still have plenty of sources of water. But a clean birdbath is a convenience that’s much appreciated — maybe moreso in winter when many other sources of water are frozen over.
How do birds drink? Most do so by dipping their bills into water and then tilting their heads back to let the water flow down their throats. Some birds, such as Mourning Doves, suck the water down their throats.
Some pelicans practice perhaps the most unusual way of drinking: When it rains, they hold their beaks open wide and let the water fall in.
Many water birds, such as gulls, have the ability — shared with certain reptiles — to drink saltwater, something that would cause mammals to vomit. Biologists used to think that this ability was due to special filtering abilities of the kidneys, but recent research has shown that sea birds have special salt-removing glands above their nostrils and near their eyes.
Some birds, like loons, will drink either fresh water or saltwater while most seabirds stick to saltwater.
Birds have also been smart enough to figure out that snow serves the same function as water. Often after a snowfall, you will see a bird on a snow-topped branch, eating a drink. However, birds would prefer to get water in a liquid state because melting the snow in their mouths consumes energy.
A few species have evolved the ability to find moisture where there is seemingly none, and to conserve what they do find. Vegetation, even seeds that seem dry, contains some water. In the huge deserts of Australia, the Zebra Finch can survive well over a year without a drink, meeting its meager water needs from seeds. These birds retain as much water as possible, giving off very little in respiration or through their feces. On this continent, the California Quail can live four to seven weeks without water, surviving instead on vegetation.
Gambel’s Quail, found in the Sonoran Desert, also obtains water largely from grasses, herbs, and cacti, and their fruits and berries. Biologists were once concerned that Gambel’s Quail lacked enough water sources to survive. David B. Williams, a natural history writer, reports that in the 1940’s and 1950’s, scientists in Arizona, California and Nevada built small water catchments, which they dubbed “gallinaceous guzzlers,” to collect rainfall on an impermeable apron and save it to storage tanks that have access ramps at which the birds could drink. While these were aimed at providing the quail with rarely available water, observations later revealed that Gambel’s Quail could survive just fine without human help, so installing gallinaceous guzzlers for these birds was abandoned. However, the federal Bureau of Land Management in Needles, Calif., reports that these devices are still being built today in dry country in an effort to extend the habitat range of upland game birds.
Copyright 2012 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.
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