Delaware • New Jersey • Pennsylvania
New York • United States of America
Drought can be a very stressful time, not only for us humans, but for plants and wildlife as well. We all do what we need to make it through. Humans react by cutting back on water use to conserve existing resources. Plants and animals react in a similar way.
Plants react to drought by slowing down and conserving the water that is already available to them. Grasses are a good example of this. During a drought, you may have noticed your lawn slowly turning from a lush green to a sickly, yellowish brown. Believe it or not, despite its appearance, it was not dead. Instead, the grass went into a semi-dormant state to conserve water.
Water is crucial for any plant's survival, from the the shortest blade of grass to the tallest, mightiest oak in the forest. Water is an important component of photosynthesis - a process through which plants make their own food from carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water. Without water to assist this process, plants will not grow and will eventually die. So to conserve the water they do have and desperately need to get through a drought, certain plants, such as the grass in your lawn, slow down and go semi-dormant.
Deciduous trees (trees that drop their leaves each year) have their own drought survival mechanism. Their tactic is to drop their leaves early in an effort to conserve water. All leaves contain microscopic openings known as stomata through which water is lost in a process known as transpiration. During dry periods when there is a lack of water in the leaves, the stomata will close to try to limit water loss. However, if too much water is lost, the leaves will begin to take on a wilted appearance. During very long periods without water, some trees will drop their leaves long before autumn and go dormant in an attempt to survive the drought. Trees which do not drop their leaves each year, such as pines, hemlocks, and junipers, are better adapted to drought than their deciduous counterparts. They have narrow leaves which naturally reduce the amount of water lost through transpiration.
It can be a sad sight watching your yard turning brown, so if you must water, please water wisely. Start by using water which might have normally been wasted. For example, use a bucket to catch extra water when you run the water before a shower. If you take a bath, use the bath water to water trees, shrubs, and non-edible plants (not your vegetable or herb garden!). The same goes for dishwater. Finally, try placing a bucket under downspouts to catch runoff from any rain that falls. Water the plants that are most important to you, such as trees, shrubs and perennials.
You can conserve water and prepare your garden even before drought hits by planting native instead of non-native plants. Natives are plants that naturally occur in the local environment and have evolved under local conditions. They usually require less care (water and fertilizers) than non-native species and are therefore more likely to survive when a drought does strike your area.
Times of drought make life hard for all living things. This includes wildlife. During periods of water shortages, ponds, streams, and puddles may dry up, reducing the amount of water readily available to wildlife. Severe dry periods may cause some trees and shrubs to drop leaves and fruits (sometimes before they fully ripen) early, reducing the amount of food and water available.
Birds are especially vulnerable during dry periods as they require water for drinking and bathing while other species get much of their water from consuming fruits and vegetation. You can help birds by putting out bird baths to replace the rain puddles, ponds, and streams they normally use. Bird baths come in many shapes and sizes. You may use a saucer and pedestal bath from a garden store, or you could use any large, flat saucer filled with water. Garbage can lids (clean before using) make great baths too. Just be sure to put a few stones inside the lid so birds will have some place to perch while drinking. The water level in baths should be no deeper than 3" in the center and the surface should be rough so birds can maintain footing. Place baths near a sheltered location, such as a tree, as birds need to have a place to sit and preen after bathing. Baths placed on the ground offer water for squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks. Be forewarned, though. Since birds are quite vulnerable when they bathe and drink, keep the bird bath off the ground if you have prowling cats in your neighborhood. Remember to keep the water fresh, dumping the old water (use it to water the tree!) at least once a week and using a brush to remove accumulated algae. By offering birds a place to bath, not only will you be helping them get much needed water, but you'll be rewarded with the antics of many species of birds--right in your own yard.
Sources: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service.