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In dry times, try offering water to birds

A migrating Nashville warbler stops in our backyard, drawn to the presence of running water. Keith Corliss

It's called the "universal solvent," if I can maintain the thin threads of foggy memory from high school science class; so named for its unparalleled ability to dissolve more substances than any other chemical.

What magical compound occupies such a lofty perch? Water, good old H-2-O.

This wonderfully adaptable stuff covers no less than 71 percent of the earth's surface which, oddly enough, is roughly equivalent to the ratio of water in the human body. All forms of life -- at least the ones we are aware of -- require water in some form. There is a reason NASA scientists and others painstakingly seek the presence of water on Mars and other celestial bodies. For them to find extraterrestrial life, it is entirely necessary for water to be present.

Yet most often water is an afterthought, a permanent but taken for granted item in the cluttered backdrop of our lives. Like seeing the morning paper when we open the door or receiving light from the bedside lamp when we turn the switch, we fully expect fresh water to flow from our taps when we open the spigot. It's only when that does not happen that we take notice.

Likewise, we only notice when the natural sources of water around us misbehave in some fashion. That usually means too much or too little depending upon our point of view. After several bouts with high water including a couple of close calls, the city of Fargo is well into the planning stages of a $2 billion dollar project to protect the city with a diversion similar to West Fargo's, only larger.

Smart city leaders, though, cannot ignore the other end of the spectrum; the times when the rivers turn into trickles, when yesterday's brimming wetlands become alkali-encrusted patches of cracked earth.

So plans are wisely being laid down to bring Missouri River water in our direction. That's good news considering the current drought we find ourselves in and the potential for it to linger.

The ebb and flow of water conditions are not lost on wildlife. Wet cycles are beneficial to nearly all organisms, dry ones, not so much. A robust prairie wetland is one of the most biologically productive zones in the world. When dry, however, productivity drops off a cliff.

During such periods, certain plants become scarce and animals drift away as best they can, seeking life sustaining water. Birds shift nesting and feeding areas in response to water conditions, particularly waterfowl.

It's funny how we seem to desire that which we don't have. In times of drought, water becomes nearly an opiate for wildlife. Watch carefully if and when a soft September drizzle should fall. Small songbirds can often be seen taking leaf baths in the trees, fluttering and shaking and drenching themselves in nothing more than the ephemeral wetness of tree leaves.

Should you be fortunate enough to maintain a bird bath of some sort, you no doubt have seen a steady stream of feathered guests giddily availing themselves of the now-scarce resource. We maintain a tiny little trickle of water in our backyard in the form of a modest water feature. In the past two weeks nearly 30 species of birds have been noted either bathing or drinking from this oasis.

We know nothing of what the future holds in terms of the ongoing drought. History, however, reminds us that we do indeed live in an area where weather is dictated by a continental climate, one where periods of dry are normal events, some lasting years.

While we humans have the ability -- however limited -- to alter our condition by fending off high water or supplementing our supply when scarce, nature does too. It has seen this many many times before, shifting, altering, and adapting in ways we may not even fully understand.

When the dry cycle ends, either tomorrow or ten years from now, the natural world will readily modify itself to those conditions too. Productivity will once again rival what we've witnessed since the wet cycle began in 1993.