For the Birds Radio Program: Fire and Birds

Original Air Date: May 13, 1988

Fire and drought affect birds as well as people. We can at least help our backyard birds. (3:56) Date confirmed.

Duration: 3′59″


Fires and Birds

(Recording of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak)

This year’s drought and fires have affected birds as well as people. Low lake levels and dry ponds are hard on ducks, sandpipers and other shorebirds. And many field birds like Savannah Sparrows have trouble getting enough drinking water. Birds are physiologically more vulnerable to heat than cold because they don’t sweat and they’re so well insulated. Imagine yourself running around in a down jacket all summer and you’ll get the picture. Water birds can at least hop into a lake, but the only way land birds cool down is by panting. And if a bird doesn’t get enough drinking water it can easily dehydrate.

Forest and grass fires this time of year destroy many nests and baby birds, who, unlike the Phoenix, never rise again from the ashes. Adult birds can escape a blaze by taking to the air, but nestlings are helpless. Baby Killdeers, pheasants and grouse, sparrows, and other early nesters in fields must have been killed in enormous numbers already this spring. Most species re-nest if their first nest fails, which works out for the species in the long run but is nonetheless tragic for the individual birds that succumb.

In the forests, many robins, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches have nestlings now, and the heat of nearby fires or actual flames have probably taken a large toll.

But fires aren’t dreaded by all birds. Some species, like Cattle Egrets, manage to take advantage of fires by grouping near fire lines to catch grasshoppers and other insects hopping ahead of the flames. And species that require second growth often flourish after a fire.

Charred trees left after a burn are often taken over by woodpeckers. As the dead snags decay, natural cavities and woodpecker holes become more numerous, providing housing for owls, bluebirds, and other cavity nesters. And even a desolate, burned landscape doesn’t stay that way for long–green shoots sprout up within days, and snakes, mice, and other small animals quickly return to the scene. Hawks and owls take advantage of clearings to hunt, and many birds feast on the abundant insects in decaying tree stumps. It takes only a few years for aspen and jack pine to reach a respectable size, and by then there are many species of birds back in the area.

People feel helpless any time there’s a drought like this spring’s, but there is one thing you can do that’ll go a long way towards helping the birds in your area–set out a birdbath. You can get a cheap plastic one at most garden supply stores and discount department stores–just put rocks or sand in the stand to weigh it down. If you prefer, it’s not hard to find a more upscale, trendy version, but you should remember that birds are not influenced by status, and would just as soon take a dip in a cheap bath as a hand-crafted marble sculpture. If the water’s wet the birds are happy.

Keep your bird bath clean–a few splashing grackles can make the water filthy fast. And to compound the problem, some parent birds use bird baths as diaper disposal sites–many species regularly dispose of their nestlings’ fecal sacs in water, and if your birdbath is the only water handy that’s what they’ll use. Rinse out the bath with a hose and rub it with a paper towel every few days, especially in summer when algae grows. All this may seem like a lot of trouble, but in a dry spell like this one, a birdbath may not only attract an interesting variety of birds to your home; it will also literally help keep some of them alive.

(Recording of an Oriole)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”