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Sun, Oct. 20

Birding: The importance of water for wild birds in summer

An American Robin carries a bunch of insects in its beak to feed its babies. (Courtesy photo)

An American Robin carries a bunch of insects in its beak to feed its babies. (Courtesy photo)

The sudden arrival of summer-like weather has brought to mind the importance of water for wild birds. Have you ever wondered how baby birds in the nest get water?

As I passed through Cottonwood earlier this week on my way home from the Sedona store, the temperature was 99 degrees. Birds, like humans, consume more water when it is hot outside—but where do most birds get their water?

You might think they are getting the majority of their water from birdbaths, ponds and fountains. Certainly these sources of water are helpful to many species of wild birds. Yet, in reality, most birds get their water through the food they eat.

This is even true of seed-eating varieties of birds, and it is not because seeds have a high moisture content. Rather, it is because birds naturally switch their diet in the spring and summer months — away from seeds to foods with a higher water content.

To what do they switch their diet? Seed-eaters switch to eating plant leaves and flower petals which have a lot of moisture and they switch to a diet heavy in insects — especially when they are rearing young.

Consider an experience you’ve had over and over again. You are driving down the road, and an insect hits your windshield — splat! You can see that insects have a lot of moisture. If a bird eats enough juicy insects, it doesn’t necessarily need as much liquid water.

It would be similar to you eating a diet high in fruits. If you were to eat a lot of watermelon every day, you would probably drink fewer liquids, as your water needs would be partially met by what you are eating.

So, back to baby birds, confined to a nest, from the day they hatch until they can fly and leave the nest. When it is in the 80s and 90s (or higher), how are they to get water? They get water through the food their parents bring to them, primarily a diet high in insects.

This seasonal change in diet explains why seed consumption at bird feeders often goes down this time of year. Seed-eating varieties of birds are busily looking for insects to feed their babies. In this foraging process, they eat a lot of the insects they find.

Once the babies leave the nest, to where do the parents bring their babies? To your seed feeders, of course, and then the seed consumption goes back up! This is why in summer we hear from customers that the birds are eating them out of house and home.

Earlier in the spring, you often had pairs of birds visiting your seed feeders. After they are done rearing their young, you will then have the parents and their offspring. Thus, you will probably be feeding more than twice as many birds by the end of summer as you were before breeding season got under way.

Providing sources of water, seed, suet, nectar and fruit during the summer months takes some of the pressure off the adults who are incredibly focused on finding food for their babies. Knowing that there is a reliable, dependable food source available to them will make it possible for them to feed, without taking a lot of time away from their search for food for their nestlings.

Tonight is the last Prescott Audubon Society meeting before the summer break. The program is ‘Prescott Monarch Butterflies: The Latest Story,’ presented by Cathy Palm-Gessner and Bob Gessner. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. at Trinity Presbyterian Church at 630 Park Ave. in Prescott. The meeting is free and open to the public. I hope you can come.

Until next week, Happy Birding!

Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with three locations in northern Arizona – Prescott, Sedona and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at eric@jaysbirdbarn.com.

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