Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere II: Birds, warming and the desert

More blathering from the morning paper, this the tale of the fascinating work of Blair Wolf (sub/ad yada yada) a University of New Mexico biologist who studies the water consumption of desert birds:

The smaller a desert creature, the more water loss matters, and little birds like verdin are especially vulnerable, Wolf said. Sometimes, that teaspoon is not enough. On the hottest days, small desert birds can lose 5 percent of their body weight an hour to evaporation in a desperate struggle to cool off. If they cannot keep up, they die.

That rarely happens, but new research by Wolf, a University of New Mexico biology professor, suggests heat waves because of global warming will make survival far more difficult for desert birds.

This is in part a global warming story, because that was the narrow point of the paper at hand. But mostly, it was a chance to riff on Dr. Wolf’s work on how creatures survive in extreme desert environments. In particular, I found some fun parallels between the verdin Blair studies and the Bushmen of the Kalahari, which I happened to be simultaneously reading about in James Workman’s excellent Heart of Dryness. From the story:

The verdin, a bird that typically weighs less than a third of an ounce, for example, hunts insects in the cool of morning and evening, and sits still during the heat of the day, using shade whenever it can.

The technique is not that different from the approach used by people who live in the same environment, noted James Workman, an author and expert on desert water use by human societies.

For on-the-go 21st century Westerners, the techniques described in Workman’s book “The Heart of Dryness,” about the bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Africa, might seem odd.

“If you’re not in motion,” Workman said of the Western approach to living, “you’re wasting your time.”

But like Wolf’s desert birds, Workman notes, the bushmen have become extraordinarily adept at sitting still during the heat of the day and doing absolutely nothing.

They keep their mouths closed to avoid evaporation in their breath. Their only movement, Workman said in an interview, comes as they shift with the angle of the sun to stay in whatever bit of shade is available.

I’ll be doing a more full review of Workman’s book at some point soon (both here and in the newspaper). It’s a great read if you’re interested in water.