How Sonoma County residents can help wildlife survive the heat

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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.

Protecting open space for wildlife migration and preserving native habitat for food and water availability will remain critical strategies for stewarding our wild neighbors. “Simply having open space to move through is important to wild animals,” Halbur says. “Some of the strategies we employ at Pepperwood Preserve to encourage wild nature can be scaled down to the individual garden.”

“It’s the old story of when you build it, they’ll come,” Hannibal adds. “There’s no way to overstate this—we have to protect wild nature. It will take a group effort. It’s a mob source thing. But the good news is, there’s still a lot of wildlife left, there’s plenty to save, and when you provide habitat, they come back.”

How you can help wildlife though the dog days

— Keep your garden wildlife friendly. Minimize stressors to wild animals that exacerbate pressure due to heat. Read the Sonoma Land Trust’s suggestions for wildlife protection in Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor here. Learn about wildlife corridor essentials and apply relevant ideas to your garden.

— Conserve water like lives depend on it — because they do. Whether or not we’re in an official drought emergency, California is always prone to being hot and dry. Creeks and rivers are wetted from underground flow from the water table, which can be drawn down by overuse. Ongoing conservation information from the Sonoma County Water Agency, such as what’s current in graywater systems and news on rebates, can be found here.

— Be kind to distressed wildlife. “People notice more animals around their fountains, ponds, and yards where there’s water,” Fowler says. “The animals are following their instincts, and they’ll move on once the heat wave is over. No need to panic. Some may be animals that are otherwise nocturnal, like raccoons that are out during the day.” Know the signs of heat distress (long tracked by Australian websites such as and open up access for furry and feathered water seekers as much as possible.

— Build a simple birdbath. The Madrone Audubon Society website notes that clean water is important in most gardens, and especially those wishing to invite birds and wildlife. “Birdbaths are very useful for small birds especially, or perhaps a fountain with a slow enough trickle for birds to wade and splash about in.” Build your own birdbath per the National Audubon website here.

— Become a citizen scientist. To help provide critical information to professional scientists tracking wildlife and climate data, Mary Ellen Hannibal recommends learning about and using tools such as iNaturalist and eBird. Pepperwood Preserve’s Sentinel Site offers volunteer opportunities to track indicators of natural ecosystems over time.

Rebecca Lawton is a Sonoma-based author and scientist who writes about water and climate.

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