For the Birds Radio Program: This year's drought

Original Air Date: July 25, 1988

This year’s drought seems to be bringing out the worst in some people, and affecting birds as well. (3:57) Date confirmed.

Duration: 3′55″


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This year’s drought, like any natural phenomenon, is having effects on birds as well as people. The dry weather is a boon to a few birds and a disaster to others.

Most owls and hawks are probably helped by the dry weather. There are more mice around because they haven’t been drowned out of their dens this year, meaning more food for predators. Most nesting birds have managed to bring off their broods earlier than normal because we didn’t have any storms during the most vulnerable times of the nesting cycle. Crows in particular seem to have had good success–they’ve been conspicuously moving about in family groups of about four or five birds. By the time the babies leave the nest they’re full grown, but you can tell them from the adults by their calls–the young still have their baby voices. Young crows also have milky bluish eyes, which change to brown at the end of summer or during autumn, but that’s not visible in the field.

The drought may have made it easier for land birds to nest, but ducks and other aquatic species are so stressed by it that many of them haven’t even attempted to breed this year. And some land species that need mud seem to have also had problems this year. No cliff Swallows nested in some of their traditional spots in Duluth this summer, possibly because the wet clay they need for building their adobe houses just wasn’t available. And birds that require aquatic insects may have suffered seriously. Mayfly and stonefly populations are down, as are mosquitoes, and that means problems for swallows, flycatchers, and waxwings. Marsh and shore birds had a lot of trouble finding enough habitat, and fish die-offs mean trouble for herons, kingfishers, and other fish-eating birds. Bald Eagles can take advantage of the die-offs, because they’d just as soon pick up their fish dead anyway, but most birds that eat fish prefer catching their own.

The dry soil means many fruit trees won’t set fruit this year, which will hurt robins, waxwings, and lots of other birds in late summer and autumn, when they desperately need the calories for migration. And many nectar-producing flowers aren’t doing well either, which may hurt hummingbirds.

There’s not a whole lot anyone can do to help farmers and other human beings in a drought, much less birds. But there are a few things that can at least help your neighborhood birds a little. All birds need drinking water. Keeping a bird bath clean and filled will help a lot of them. And if you sprinkle during daylight hours, that will help, too. In my yard, the sprinkler attracts robins, blackbirds, flycatchers, house wrens, song sparrows, a whole family of orioles, and even a few warblers. The only problem with sprinklers is that bathing birds are especially vulnerable to predators. This year, cats are having a field day at sprinklers. I keep my dog out in my yard– she chases cats but obediently leaves birds alone. But every time I’ve checked out alarm calls of jays and crows in my neighborhood this year, it’s been at a cat, not the usual owl. Of course, cats don’t limit their activities to sprinklers. A cat killed a whole brood of five baby Blue Jays in a two-second blood bath down my block two weeks ago, and for the first time in my life I wished I had a gun. The hot weather seems to have brought out nasty, aggressive impulses in other human beings, too–the gull flying around Leif Erickson Park in Duluth with an arrow stuck through its breast is testimony to that. Probably the most important thing any of us can do for birds, during the drought or any time, is to keep our own species in check.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

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