As most of us will have experieneced, the last few weeks of exceptionally warm weather have proved slightly uncomfortable for humans, including those working at the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary!
The owls and other birds of prey, however, seem to take the soaring temperatures in their stride.
Some of the species resident at the sanctuary are particularly well equipped for dealing with heat, for example, Pungu the Bateleur Eagle and Vera the Hooded Vulture, both native to the African continent.
Hoever, all birds are equipped with the physiology to regulate temperature, whether cold or hotter weather conditions prevail. Even the snowy and great grey owls from the coldest climes are superbly adaptable to diversity of temperature. Like all birds they have a naturally higher body temperature than humans and many other creatures, and on very hot days they bring into play several additional behaviours to help them keep cool.
Visitors to the sanctuary may notice some of the birds standing with open beaks to assist with cooling. Birds do not have sweat glands like humans, so cannot perspire to regulate temperature, neither can they pant like dogs, so opening the beak wide and breathing more rapidly is a quick way to increase air flow around the body. Rapid breaths move hot air across the moist surfaces of the lungs throat and mouth - this moisture then evaporates, expelling hot air from the body.
Spreading and puffing feathers also helps to reduce body temperature by allowing air to circulate close to the skin. Birds will also be seen holding their wings away from their bodies to help to lower temperature.
The bare skin patches on the legs, feet and faces of most birds allow greater heat loss that the feathered areas of the body; even a fleshy eye ring can help to dissipate heat. Some birds can swell such fleshy patches to increase their surface area if it is necessary to cool off quickly.
During the centre’s public flying displays, some birds will also soar at higher altitudes on the hottest days, seeking out the thermals to lift them into higher, cooler air.
Water baths are provided for all birds in all weathers at the sanctuary, for preening and cleaning feathers - in the recent hot spell several birds have been standing in their baths to keep their feet cool! As temperatures really peaked in the last couple of weeks, the falconry staff have also augmented the water baths with cooling blocks of ice!
As all the sanctuary’s aviaries are naturalistic and species appropriate, they contain a variety of trees, shrubs and plants which offer cool shaded areas for the birds to enjoy. Visitors may rest assured, however, that the centre’s landscaped public gardens also offer plenty of respite from the sun and ice creams and cold drinks are available on demand in the gift shop!