On the Wing

No, We’re Still Here. For Now.

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It’s late summer, early fall. Temperatures went from the near-unthinkable 100-degree mark for a few weeks down to the 50s in the evening. It feels like a blast furnace when you walk out into the sun, but at twilight you may need a sweater.

The bird feeders in my back yard had been busy since early spring. Word had clearly gotten out that I served hulled sunflower chips, the bird food equivalent of crab, steak and dessert all rolled into one. The discriminating hordes of goldfinches, pine siskins, nuthatches and chickadees, the busloads of galumphing band-tailed pigeons, the occasional flicker and red-winged blackbird and even the multitudes of ground-feeding juncos, towhees and, inevitably, starlings had been at the trough daily. The feeders went from full to empty in a matter of hours, so by early summer I instituted two daily sittings, filling the feeders a little more than halfway in the morning, then once again mid-afternoon. Two meals a day, guaranteed!

That was before the arrival of what the Romans called the “dies caniculares,” the dog days of summer. Once the oppressive late August heat settled in, all activity at the feeders seemed to slow down. I only had to fill the feeders once a day, and they didn’t go empty until evening, or sometimes the next day. There were still winged visitors, but their numbers had definitely gone down.

I wasn’t the only one to notice. Several friends expressed concern, since they were suddenly seeing and hearing fewer birds, or none at all. Where had the birds gone? Were they dying from the heat? Had they started migrating?

Understandable concerns. Extreme weather can feel threatening even to us, and it’s not surprising that we worry about the well-being of the rest of the creatures we share our yards with. Loss of habitat and the effects of climate change threaten hundreds of species, so most of us are acutely aware of the fragility of life — including, in these days of pandemic, our own.

Although these threats are real, there are often more benign, less apocalyptic explanations for the behavior. It’s good to recognize them for what they are and reserve our concern for the true threats.

For starters, birds, like all animals, are less active in the daytime during hot weather. Like us, they’d much rather seek refuge and stay cool in the shade; since they have no sweat glands, they can’t cool off by evaporation. They can dissipate heat by panting like dogs; you see larger birds like crows doing that, perched inside the cool shade of tree foliage. Decreased activity means reduced caloric needs, so the feeders are not as busy, claw-licking good though the fare might be.

On the supply side, late summer is when natural food sources are most abundant. Seeds are everywhere, courtesy of trees like alder, pine and hemlock, or plants like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, daisies and sunflowers. Then of course there are blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, salmonberries and berries on mountain ash trees. As I write this a friend just posted that cedar waxwings were feasting on the berries on her aralia and cascara trees. Cornucopia time!

Birds migrate in search of food sources; they certainly wouldn’t leave when the buffet here is overflowing. Their migratory response is triggered by shorter days, which coincide with a decrease in some food sources. In our latitudes, that typically happens later in the fall. Until then birds will be busy building up their reserves for the journey south.

What about songbirds going silent? Why are the woods so quiet late in the summer?

Birds sing in the spring and early summer for a number of reasons: first to claim their turf, then to attract mates, and later to make sure baby birds learn the correct version of the song of their species. There’s evidence to suggest that if baby birds are not exposed to their adult song in the first few months of their lives, they may not learn it properly. Once that cycle is complete. many songbirds will take a break from singing.

As I write this, the smoke that blew in from the terrible fires to our south has cleared. The heat wave has broken and my feeders are once again busy as can be. A large flock of band-tailed pigeons just swooped in; the goldfinches ignored them and kept at it.

All’s right with at least this small part of the world.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.