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June 20, 2013

Summer Chillin'

Help backyard wildlife beat the heat with DIY dipping spots and shade zones

All Animals magazine, July-August 2013

by Ruthanne Johnson

  • Illustration by Robert Hynes

While you and your pets can scramble indoors when the mercury rises, wildlife must tough it out outside. Though survivalists to the core, these critters aren’t impervious to summer’s soaring temperatures.

“The first thing that people notice are usually the squirrels,” says Angel Wintrode, president of the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline of Missouri and Illinois. “They’ll lay flat on their bellies and people think they are sick … but they’re just trying to beat the heat.” People also call about animals sidled up to the shady side of their house, where it’s not unusual to spot them sipping from leaky outdoor faucets. To cool down, birds will gape their mouths and spread their wings away from their body. Other animals pant rapidly. Without access to water and shade, heat exhaustion and even death can occur.

For those living in urban and suburban environments, with their expansive lawns, sporadic plantings, and heat-attracting asphalt and concrete, relief from the heat can be hard to find. You can help animals chill out with these simple tips.

Sip ’n’ Soak

Ground-level birdbaths provide a shallow water source for animals such as quail, mice, lizards, opossums, and even snakes. Pedestal and hanging birdbaths are used by birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. Special drippers and solar-powered water fountains or wigglers keep the water moving and fresh. In one of his birdbaths, Jon Friedman placed a flat rock just beneath a dripper. “I’ve seen finches, cardinals, grosbeaks, and buntings stand on the rock and let the water drip right on them,” says Friedman, who owns the Wild Bird Store in Tucson, Ariz. Locate birdbaths away from the afternoon sun in the summer and make sure to clean them once a week.

Critters in the Mist

Birdbath misters are inexpensive, use little water, and are easy to set up anywhere. Friedman places his mister (basically a special nozzle connected to a hose) in a tree at a 45-degree angle for optimum water projection. “Sunlight shining through creates this rainbow effect that birds can see from a long distance,” he says. “I’ve seen as many as 17 different species line up shoulder to shoulder on a branch on a hot day to enjoy the mist.” Hummingbirds are known to love a good mist bath.

  • Illustration by Robert Hynes

Keep on the Shady Side

Structures such as nest boxes and toad abodes make good critter cooling stations. Just make sure they’re shaded from the afternoon heat, advises animal care specialist Kim D’Amico. At The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in California—an HSUS affiliate—D’Amico’s patients have included owlets who leaped from overheated nest boxes located in the direct sun. Toad abodes should have a nearby water source, such as a toad pool fashioned from an upside down trash can lid wedged into the ground and maintained with fresh water. For these reclusive amphibians, plant sedges and ferns around the edges—and add rocks and branches in the water for easy exit.

Nooks and Crannies

Limit your tendency for too much yard tidying. “Salamanders will hide under leaf litter and logs,” says David Celebrezze with the Ohio Environmental Council. Birds and other small critters use brush piles to escape the heat. Rock and wood piles give shelter for snakes, lizards, and other small animals. “Those are great in the desert as places where animals can access deep shade,” Friedman says, “and … lots of different animals will actually tunnel in and create a permanent home.”

Nature’s Air Conditioning

Trees can reduce surrounding air temperatures as much as nine degrees. The air can actually be as much as 25 degrees cooler than the temps above nearby blacktop. Climbing vines, ground cover, and longer grasses also provide good shade sources. “Keeping grass a little longer will help retain moisture and does better against drought conditions,” Celebrezze says. “Longer grass also gives animals better cover from predators.”

  • Illustration by Robert Hynes

Dipping Spots

Children’s swimming pools, stock tanks, and rainwater catch basins are also attractive to wildlife looking for respite from the heat. Be sure to include a drowning prevention device, such as a FrogLog, Skamper-Ramp, or a floating ramp with traction strips, so animals who fall in can crawl or climb their way to safety.

The Cool Earth

Mud puddles are easy to create with birdbath drippers, which come with an adjustable valve that connects to an outdoor faucet. “Set the drip at no less than the rate of evaporation and that way you will always have a puddle,” says Friedman. Another option is to route air-conditioning condensation into a shallow container for ground-dwelling critters to sip or to create mud puddles for butterflies seeking water and nutrients. Birds and other animals will sometimes cool their feet in the wet earth. Mud puddles can also be made by filling shallow pans with soil, sand, and water. Some animals such as squirrels, cactus wrens, road runners, thrashers, and bears take dust baths to clean and cool off. Keep a mound of soft earth under a shade tree for these critters to roll around in.

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