A guide to helping our native animals with the heat this summer

By Angela Heathcote | December 19, 2017

While we enjoy the summer holidays— returning to our air-conditioned abodes when it gets too much— our native animals, especially our koalas and birds, can find it difficult to cope with the sweltering heat and limited water sources. Here’s how you can help them out this summer.

IN AN INCREASINGLY urbanised environment, Grainne Cleary, a researcher at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University tells Australian Geographic that it’s important we make our backyards into little havens for native wildlife.

Grainne has spent a lot of time observing the wildlife that visits backyards: how they use it, how often they stay and what peaks their interests. However, when the sweltering Australian summer heat sets in water becomes the animals’ main priority.

“We know that a lot of animals use water in backyards especially in this increasingly urbanised world, which has coincided with huge losses of vegetation, meaning there isn’t a lot of shade either.

SEE MORE: How to attract your favourite birds to your garden

“What we’re finding out through the use of cameras is that a lot more animals are drinking from bird baths. A huge number of birds as well as frogs, lizards, snakes and even koalas are using these baths.”

Bird baths don’t have to be elaborate

Pedestal baths — the one’s you see in those elaborate, well-kept gardens — can make the idea of having a bird bath in your backyard intimidating.  However, Grainne says that you can make a bird bath out of almost anything. 

“Some of my best birds turn up on the pots or old buckets that I’ve left out, which the birds will then use very quickly.

“If you don’t want to commit to providing water all the time but it’s a very hot day just use a pot, place a rock in it or put a stick across it so they can dip in it and come back out again. Any kind of pots, pans and bowls are fine. Birds are not fussy.”

Bird bowl placement

According to Grainne, when it comes to bird bath placement you have to think like an animal. “Where would I like to bathe or get a drink?” she questions.

“If you do provide water for birds don’t just place it in the centre of your lawn. You need to put it in a place where the birds can feel comfortable bathing.

“If you put it in the middle of a grassy area, with no trees or anything you might get your bigger birds, maybe an echidna, but we want to give smaller birds a drink as well.”

For smaller birds, Grainne says it’s even better if you can provide a rock for the birds to dry off on.

“When smaller birds get really wet they find it hard to fly really quickly. If you have a rock they can dry off on for a bit and then fly off, that’s great.”

echidna bird bath

(Image Credit: Grainne Cleary)

Try providing as many baths as possible

“Think about putting a range of different types of baths out,” Grainne says. All different kinds of animals may want to take dip, and while birds have been known to queue for their turn, the odd snake looking to cool off may not be so patient.

“We’ve found that native bees use these baths. People can get upset about that because they want birds, but we need to look after the bees as well and you can have more than one bath.

SEE MORE: The secret world of bird baths

“It’s good to observe which birds are using what bath, which ones prefer something elevated and which one’s prefer something on the ground.

“You have your rainbow lorikeets, miners and honey eaters taking water from an elevated bird bath and owning that,” she says. “Then you have the smaller birds like the superb-fairy wrens taking water from a bird bath on the ground, close to some vegetation.  The important thing is to watch and learn.” 

Bonus tip: Grainne says adding a little ice into the water is a great way to cool down the temperature and provide a little fun for the birds.

snake in bird bath

(Image Credit: Grainne Cleary)

Regularly give your baths a good scrub

Keeping you bird baths in the sun is a good way to kill disease, but this also causes quick evaporation so checking the water levels from time to time is important.

On the other hand, Grainne says that for birds trying to escape the heat in dryer months, placement in the sun isn’t the best idea so giving a good scrub is the next best thing.

“Regularly give them a good scrub, with only a tiny bit of detergent. Stagnate water can get disease growing in it, so make sure you’re keeping an eye on it.”

Knowing when a bird needs water

Grainne says that when a bird has a gaping mouth and is flaring its wings, this usually means they’re trying to cool down or they’re very thirsty so providing a nearby water source is the first step.

However, Grainne adds that for those who have formed close relationships with a particular bird and know their behaviours, you can give them something a little extra.

“Because birds are so long lived some people are probably looking at the same magpie for many years and they’ll know when that magpie is very hot.

“If you know the individual bird, giving them a spray of water with one of those garden bottles is something they enjoy. But again, these are the birds you know. Don’t go around spraying any old bird in the face.”

Helping koalas

If you live an area where there are high populations of urban koalas, such as in Queensland, there are some important steps you can take to ensure their safety.

“People have been looking into putting water up trees for koalas so if you really want to be inventive  and you think you have a koala or maybe even some shy birds  think about some contraptions you could make that would be stable in a tree.

Recently I’ve seen people put water in a plastic tub and securing it to a branch with a cable tie.”

Grainne says that keeping domestic pets at bay is also important.

“One of the biggest killers of koalas is domestic dogs.

“If you have a pool in your back garden, you have a lot of urban koalas and you have dog, on a hot day there’s a good chance that a koala will be tempted to go down into your garden and that’s when we have koalas being eaten by domestic dogs. Having water in a safe spot or keeping your pets inside will help prevent an attack.”

koala bird baths

(Image Credit: Grainne Cleary)