We all know what the current drought in California is doing to the flowers and the trees, but I’ve recently been thinking about the birds and the bees as we enter the driest months of the year.
The drought hits home for us every time we drive past the former body of water known as Laguna Blanca. Even at its best it was more a puddle than a lake, but now it has gone completely dry and is nothing more than a shallow pit. It was painful to watch the water recede in May and June, seeing hungry birds standing sentinel over the dying fish in the circle of water that grew smaller and smaller until nothing was left but cracked, parched earth. Even the birds finally abandoned it.
We have been told that the lake goes dry roughly every twenty years and, barring a truly apocalyptic drought situation, we look forward to seeing the little puddle restored at some point. And, if not, well, we can live without it. But can the birds live without it?
I never really thought much about the birds that populate our neighborhood and our property. They were just there. Especially the crows, which can be counted on to make a cacophonous racket to announce their comings, goings and general dislike of the humans who reside in their territory. But once we started keeping chickens, we began to spend more time outside tending to the flock, and I noticed that not every bird flitting in the bushes was a sparrow or a Scrub Jay.
I recently downloaded Cornell University’s Merlin app, which gives you simple prompts for identifying common birds. I was positively triumphant the day that, Merlin-assisted, I identified a Spotted Towhee that resides in our front yard.
As I became familiar with the Towhees, Sparrows, Juncos and Black Phoebes that cluster in the chicken pen looking for leftover morsels, I started scattering wild bird seed for them in the winter months. As the drought became more acute this past spring, it finally occurred to me that ground birds need water as well as food. As we and everyone else have cut back water usage dramatically, there are fewer and fewer water sources for these birds. In an embarrassingly belated head-smack moment, I remembered the birdbath that we placed under the oaks years ago as a decoration. I have been faithfully filling it every day or two for the last several months.
If I’m stealthy, I can sometimes see birds preening at the edge of the birdbath. The birds need water not just for drinking, but for keeping their skin and feathers in good condition. Even if I don’t see the birds using the birdbath, I am rewarded with evidence that they have been there when I clean it out each morning. Bird droppings, stray feathers, a bright red berry dropped from a beak into the birdbath. All are reminders that with a small amount of water I can do our resident ground birds a big favor.
If you decide to fill a birdbath for the birds in your yard, it is important to keep it clean. According to an article in The Washington Post the water shortage raises greater concerns of diseases like the West Nile virus. “When we have less water, birds and mosquitoes are seeking out the same water sources, and therefore are more likely to come in to closer proximity to one another, thus amplifying the virus,” comments California Department of Public Health chief Vicki Kramer. A primer on cleaning a birdbath can be found here.
Along with keeping a birdbath clean, it is important that it be relatively shallow with a gentle slope that allows birds to wade into the water. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the best birdbath is the one that most approximates a puddle. And, of course, you want one that does not provide access to resident felines, since bathing birds tend to be focused on their toilette and vulnerable to predators. A shady area is preferable to full sun for bathing birds.
Lately I have noticed honey bees hovering near the edge of our bird bath and scores of them near our pool, where many have drowned in a desperate attempt to find water. Bees collect water and ferry it back to the hive for the purpose of maintaining proper hive temperature and humidity. They also use water to dilute honey and to produce the “jelly” that nourishes bee larvae. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, a 1:1 sugar/water mixture, placed in a tin well away from human activity, is just the ticket for thirsty bees. Gravel or other material that allows the bees to safely land should be placed in the container.
The drought makes everyone feel somewhat helpless as we watch our trees and shrubs struggle and our bedding plants perish from lack of water. But it’s easy to spare a bit of that precious water for the birds and the bees. Every time I hear a Towhee call from under the oaks or the Red-Headed Woodpeckers cackle from the palm trees where they are storing acorns for the winter, I feel like they are thanking me for remembering to fill their birdbath. Or maybe, like the rest of us, they are just praying for rain…