For the Birds Radio Program: Daylight Savings Time

Original Air Date: Oct. 31, 1994

Laura Erickson does not approve of Daylight Savings Time, and apparently neither do chickadees. 3:15

Audio missing


This is the week that everyone oversleeps–we’ve finally set our clocks back to Standard Time. Actually, Standard Time is a misnomer now that Daylight Savings Time lasts from the first week in April until the last week in October, almost seven months.

I hate Daylight Savings Time. It started when I was a teacher and had to be at school by 8:15 each morning. Beginning every March 21, I’d wake up at four and get out birding–I could get in a good three or three and a half hours before school. I’d listen for owls, bitterns, and rails before the sun rose, but as the season progressed and warblers and other tropical migrants entered the scene, sunrise was early enough to see plenty of forest birds.

But suddenly that pesky Daylight Savings Time would kick in and I’d lose an hour of light right at migration’s peak. I couldn’t get the principal to delay school by an hour to make up for it, either. So I was stuck with an extra hour of light in the evening when birds are pretty quiet, and lost an hour of light when I needed it most. This is one reason I’ve always disliked Ben Franklin–Daylight Savings Time was his invention.

But now for five blessed months we’re back on what we at Hawk Ridge call “bird time.” Birds are far too sensible to adjust their watches for such a contrivance as Daylight Savings Time. Their bodies are perfectly in tune with the solar clock. As days shorten, melatonin levels in their bird brains cause them to lay on as much fat as possible, and many of them get an uncontrollable urge to move south. In autumn, the last thing on a bird’s mind is sex–bluebirds and Brown Creepers may snuggle together for warmth at night, but the heat they produce is strictly platonic.

With shortening days, birds have a greater need to pig out during what daylength they have, to consume enough calories to sustain them through the longer, colder night. Black-capped Chickadees, which get dreadfully uncomfortable if they get too close to other Black-capped Chickadees, would starve through a long night in the north woods if they had to maintain their normal daytime body temperature of 105 degrees while sleeping alone. But a chickadee’s inhibitions against snuggling are far too strong for it to compromise its principles, so a chickadee simply turns down the thermostat at night. Its body temperature can drop twenty or thirty degrees without problems. At first light, it starts to shiver and its little metabolic furnace heats it back up to normal. Ben Franklin preferred snuggling with one of his many mistresses on cold autumn nights–but what can you expect from the guy who created Daylight Savings Time?