IN THE BACKYARD : Philadelphia late-July
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Philadelphia has been hot and humid this July, but nature continues her ceaseless march forward, nurturing the next generation of birds and other creatures. My quarter-acre lot is densely planted with native shrubs and trees, providing shade, shelter, and insects for hungry fledglings. House Sparrows, House Finches, Gray Catbirds and American Robins have been busy feeding their begging young.
Small mammals like Eastern Cottontails, Gray Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks scamper across the yard, showing off their agility in jumping, rolling, and stuffing their cheeks with food. Butterfly numbers are increasing with Red-spotted Purple, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Zabulaon’s Skipper, and Horace’s Duskywing regularly seen.
Great Crested Flycatchers nested nearby, and I was delighted to watch a pair move around the yard one entire day. They called often, chased each other, and changed perches frequently.
It’s always fun to watch Gray Catbirds flitting about with bold, perky personalities. Several pairs nest in and around our yard, and are constantly busy finding food, bathing, and chasing other birds. I was intrigued to see one alight on a patch of Black-eyed Susans, and jump up-and-down to pick insects from the center of the flowers to feed its young.
Multiple July days have seen temperatures rise in the 90’s (F). While humans wilt, the birds take advantage of bathing in water and sun.
Birds don’t sunbathe for relaxation, but rather they are engaging in important maintenance for physical health. During sunning or anting, birds lay low in the sun, and spread their feathers wide. This facilitates the removal of parasites in two ways. 1) The sun’s hot rays, which get hot enough to burn off annoying or harmful parasites. 2) Ants crawl under openly-spread feathers and release formic acid which kills parasites. I’ve not actually seen ants swarming birds, but no doubt there are many small ones that crawl around and perform this important service.
Many species sun themselves in my backyard, including Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Mourning Doves, House Finches, and American Robins. They strike a vulnerable-looking pose with tails fanned-out, wings outstretched, and eyes half-closed, draped over a piece of wood, or leaning to one side basking in the heat of the day. Most have their bills open, panting to release heat.
Scientists have found that even sunbathing for a very short period of time heats birds’ wings and body feathers up to 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to kill small parasites, lice, and mites.
I hope you’re all staying safe and enjoying sunny summer days in your own backyard or local patch!
updated July 15-31, 2020