By Keith Michael
A lightning flash. Bang. Crack. How I love summer thunderstorms! When it’s hot and humid, the air seems to thicken as the sunlight is sucked behind darkening clouds. Then, I hope for the flashing, rumbling, and trees thrashing in the wind to begin. Of course, I’m thinking of being able to run safely inside somewhere to watch the storm (or at least dash under a sidewalk construction shed) not being stranded on a beach as a lightning target or clinging high in a tree chancing to survive.
I often think about the weather extremes that birds endure in the course of a year. Their small bodies have the resilience to withstand the blizzards of winter, the heat waves of summer, and all the eccentric variations of wind, water, and temperature in between. But right now, it’s hot.
Birds don’t have the luxury of flipping on their air-conditioners to cool down, though their outdoor strategies are similar to ours. Shifting their schedules to be most active in the early morning and evening hours when it’s cooler helps. Many birds nest early in the spring to try to concentrate the Sisyphean aerobic workout of feeding chicks before the temperature rises. Honestly, birders hate the summer afternoon hours. It’s not only because it’s unpleasant—with hats and sunblock and carrying all that water—but because the birds are taking a siesta waiting it out quietly in the shade. No movement. No singing. It seems like no birds are around. Oh, they’re there. They’re just smarter than we are sweating to look for them.
The same feathers we admire that insulate birds through sub-zero temperatures must feel to them like wearing quilts in the summer. Fluffing those feathers up allows for air to cool their skin and may even work like a parasol to create shade. Drooping their wings can also help to take advantage of a breeze like we might sprawl on a lawn chair under a tree. I love the summer “unkempt” look of Great Blue Herons taking a sunbath with their wings let down by their sides.
Birds don’t perspire like we do for that cooling evaporation advantage. Like dogs, birds pant. Every rapid inhale and exhale of breath moves heat out of their bodies. But any activity has the disadvantage of dehydration. Without a water bottle constantly tucked under their wing, they do need to find water to drink.
After a storm there are puddles everywhere, but during a long, hot dry spell, the man-made water features in our parks become essential for them, and entertaining for us, playgrounds for birds to drink, bathe, refresh, and cool off. The Christopher Street fountain in Hudson River Park can attract some avian splashing on a hot day, the Bleecker Street Playground sprinklers and the 12th Street St. Vincent’s Triangle water jets are magnets to the neighborhood birds when human children aren’t similarly cavorting to cool down, and likely, there are dozens of backyard, rooftop, and balcony bird baths around the West Village hosting their own thirsty regulars. A charming spot is the fountain in Jackson Square. Go there and find a shady bench on a sweltering day. If not already, within minutes, the triple tiers of the fountain will be lined with pigeons, sparrows, starlings, and fancier local birds chilling in the cascading water.
My absolute favorite spot in Manhattan to watch bathing birds is the Bathing Rock at the southeast corner of The Pool in Central Park near West 103rd Street. Yes, it’s a man-made waterfall, but the pitch and depth of the water burbling through a variety of wading pools on the natural rock is intoxicating to birds. This spot should be studied by landscape architects as a perfect confluence of human aesthetics and avian desirability.
It’s summer. Slow down, turn off your phone, and go watch birds cooling off. You’ll be cooler because you did.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.