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Coping with the heat

House sparrow bathing. Photo Margaret HollandHouse sparrow bathing. Photo Margaret Holland

By Dyane Silvester

Most of us love a hot dry summer; we forget all about the months of rain and wind, flock to the coast, and start joking about hosepipe bans.

But we have houses we can retreat into when it gets extremely hot and clean water on tap to drink. With these comforts it is easy to forget that the natural world might be having a harder time of it.

Yesterday, I saw a seagull panting on the roof; sitting there with its beak open. I never even knew that birds pant but it makes sense since, once they've found somewhere shady to rest, it's the most basic way that most animals cool off. Everyone knows that dogs do it, but keep your eyes open and you'll see rabbits and deer at rest with their mouths open panting. They are sweating from their tongue, each breath drawing cooler air over it and helping evaporate the sweat. 

We take water for granted but for wildlife it becomes important to conserve it in hot weather because small ponds, puddles and even streams can dry up completely. Different animals have different ways of conserving water: slugs and worms and many insects will find a damp cool nook under a paving slab or in undergrowth, or underground (slugs will even huddle together in an attempt to conserve moisture!); snails retreat into their shell and seal the entrance – they can survive for days if not weeks this way!

Larger animals such as rabbits, voles or foxes use their burrow instead of a shell; the temperature underground is relatively constant but unlike snails they still need to come out to feed. Herbivores and carnivores get a lot of moisture from their food so actually don't need to drink as much as you might think: a bit of dew on the leaves in the morning could be a lifesaver. It is generally the smallest animals which are most vulnerable: they have the largest surface area (through which they lose moisture) for their body weight. This is why keeping your bird bath topped up can be so important. Remember though that a dish of water at ground level will also help rodents and hedgehogs, but be sure that creatures can get out should they fall in, and clean it frequently to avoid spreading diseases between creatures.

So next time you're packing the car for a trip to the beach, spare a thought for those who have a harder time of the heat than you, and leave some water out before you go. 

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