For the Birds Radio Program: Drought 2007

Original Air Date: Aug. 15, 2007

This year’s drought has been hard on many birds, but what’s bad for the goose isn’t always bad for those who take a gander at it.

Duration: 4′21″


This summer the upper Midwest is suffering from a drought of historical dimensions. In the Apostle Islands, birch trees already suffering from heat and dryness are getting a double whammy–saddled prominent caterpillars are feasting on birch leaves. Trees have been wilting for weeks, limiting the number of caterpillars and so food for warblers and other gleaners is at a minimum.

It’s so dry in much of northern Wisconsin that robins disappeared weeks ago, presumably searching for wetter, softer soils where worms are closer to the surface. Many fruits aren’t developing as well as normal, putting additional stress on robins as well as Cedar Waxwings and other fruit eaters.

In some ways, the drought has been good for birders in that birds are forced to wander far and wide searching for water, meaning rarities sometimes turn up. Also dried up ponds and lakes provide more mudflats which attract migrating shorebirds. So what’s bad for the goose isn’t always bad for those who take a gander at it.

When water is in short supply, we shouldn’t squander it with lawn sprinklers and other unessential uses. But unless a water shortage is presenting a critical danger for humans, keeping water in bird baths—at least small ones—can be a legitimate use of water that can serve as a lifesaver for our backyard birds and for migrants passing through.

It’s important to keep bird bath water fresh. By changing the water every 2 or 3 days, the bird bath itself should stay clean enough to not require wasting additional water scrubbing down the bird bath, and also will prevent mosquito eggs from hatching or at least prevent mosquito larvae from emerging. Since the mosquitoes that proliferate in backyard standing water—in children’s sandbox toys, rain gutters, and other small receptacles—tend to be the very species most likely to harbor West Nile Virus, this is very important. A bit of motion in the water attracts birds. Now that songbirds are starting to migrate, birds who are strangers in your neighborhood are more likely to notice your birdbath if you suspend something to drip water from above. A tin can with a small puncture or a squirt bottle that is not quite tightly sealed can do the trick. If possible, avoid electric bubblers and other appliances that use electricity, since electrical production and transmission along power lines both cause a great many environmental problems that hurt birds.

Hummingbirds are migrating in droves right now, and the drought is significantly reducing the amount of nectar flowers are producing—many flowers have simply dried up altogether. Keeping hummingbird feeders available for as long as any hummingbirds may be around can be a lifeline for many of them. Make sure not to make the solution too strong in dry weather—a quarter cup of sugar to one cup of water is exactly right. If you use more sugar than that your hummingbirds may risk growing dehydrated.

Sometimes when we’re facing a hard situation it’s easy to forget that there are others in the same or even direr straits. Conserving water and sharing a bit of it with our avian neighbors are essential if we want to make tomorrow better for ourselves, our children, and our non-human neighbors. It’s the right thing to do.