The blazing dog days of summer are upon us, named not for the lazing about of overheated canines but for Sirius the Dog Star. Between July 3 and August 11 in the Northern hemisphere, Sirius rises with the sun. Greek and Roman people believed that the combined incandescence of the two stars brought on summer’s stultifying temperatures. Now we know that the tilt of the earth’s axis alone, which moves us closer to our Sun, is responsible for the so-called dog days of July and August. Sirius is too far away to blame for the heat.
Wild birds and animals are familiar with the dog days as well, and seek shelter to survive it. “Wildlife does a good job of taking care of itself,” says Michelle Fowler, Education Outreach Manager for Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, “unless we provide shelter that we don’t maintain. Then we just make things worse for the animals we’re trying to help.
“For instance, a roof had blown off an unmaintained barn owl box during the winter,” Fowler says. “No one was looking after the box, so when the heat wave hit, the babies were basically sitting in this little oven with no shade.” Wildlife Rescue repaired the roof to provide better protection. “It’s baby season right now. Young wildlife are at risk because they can’t do anything to avoid the heat.” In the wild, the owlets might have climbed onto a branch to cool, Fowler says, but “once they were in the box, they couldn’t just up and leave.”
Making sure our backyards are wildlife friendly in other ways promotes animal survival as well. “In our rural county,” says Michelle Halbur, Preserve Ecologist at Pepperwood Preserve, “our backyards are part of a larger landscape. As temperatures continue to rise, animals move to cooler coastal and higher-elevation regions. Allowing them passage by protecting open space is a way to help them deal with extremes.” Often a homeowner who builds or buys a new house immediately fences the perimeter, which blocks movement. “Wildlife friendly designs could be used, or fencing put up only around smaller spaces, leaving room for wildlife to pass.”
Other aspects of our gardens can be checked for whether they hinder animals moving to water. “Night-lighting and noise should be minimized if it’s keeping wildlife from moving to water sources like creeks, ponds, and fountains. Diverse native plant life can be encouraged, providing food sources and better water holding qualities in soil. Gardeners should also ask nurseries where their plants come from, what’s the source of the seeds? Nursery stock treated with neonicotinoid pesticides may be harmful to bees and other pollinators.”
With climate change and more days projected to climb above 90 degrees in coming years, wildlife will have to cope with additional heat-caused stresses. The same loss of habitat that limits animal movement in hot weather now also hurts them in terms of sheer living space and diversity. “We’ve seen huge declines in biodiversity,” notes author and citizen scientist Mary Ellen Hannibal. “Over the last forty years, we’ve lost 28 percent of the world’s vertebrates, 35 percent of butterflies and moths, and 1.5 billion birds. This is happening in our own backyards, not just Africa, not just Asia, but right here at home.”
In addition to habitat loss, lack of precipitation in drought years contributes to wildlife decline. Even with normal or wet winters, however, extreme heat in the dry season increases evaporation at our reservoirs and raises demand for irrigation in fields and gardens. Modest, mindful use wastes less of the groundwater and surface water essential to native habitats like creeks and wetlands. The lovely natural landscape that attracts so many residents and visitors depends on the same sources we do.