by Julia Sneden
Always come to some bad ends.”
That was just one of my great Aunt Martha’s bits of folk wisdom (guess who the whistling girl was). I found the little rhyme hilarious, inasmuch as she herself was a great whistler. In fact, it was she who taught me how to whistle, and we used to whistle together, at least until she hit her eighties, and her hearing became so bad that she couldn’t hold a tune.
Another of Aunt Martha’s dictums that made me giggle was:
“Horses sweat; men perspire; ladies glow.”
Born in 1864, Aunt Martha grew up wearing corsets, bloomers, petticoats, and voluminous skirts. Trust those ladylike late Victorians to pretty-up the term for the heavy sweating their clothing must have occasioned. Of course by the time I knew her, Aunt M., along with the rest of the country, had forsaken the long skirts and heavy woolens and silks for the simple cotton housedresses of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. They hung somewhere below the knee, but at least they were lightweight and washable. She wore a corset, however, until the day she died, and I’m sure that on a sunny California day, she “glowed” mightily beneath it.
I thought about all this early one morning as I was pulling weeds from a bank of stonecrop beside my driveway. In North Carolina in July, “early” is the only time we old folks can do yard work without risking heat stroke. Even so, by the time I had finished my chore and put away my tools, the thermometer read 89 degrees. On top of that, there was humidity so heavy that, had you squeezed a handful of air, it might well have dripped. The sweat band I wore to keep my wet hair back from my wet face was streaked with dirt because despite wearing gardening gloves, I had automatically wiped the back of my hand across my brow. Glowing? Perspiring? Sorry: I was sweating as hard as any sturdy Percheron in the traces, lugging both farmer and plow under the summer sun.
Victorians, I think, used lots of talc and corn starch, which absorbed but didn’t stop the perspiration. Of course these days, we have the advantage of anti-perspirants. It wasn’t until I had come indoors and stripped off for my shower that I noticed a curious thing: while every part of me seemed to be sweating, my armpits were completely dry. It is possible, I wondered, that by stifling the most natural place for sweat glands to do their thing, the rest of my body had to take up the slack?
We have so long considered sweat as nasty, smelly stuff that we have forgotten that it has an essential purpose. It is our bodies’ means of cooling us down, because the moisture evaporates from our skin, lowering its temperature. The real problem isn’t the sweat itself, but the bacteria that love damp, dark places. It is they that make the infamous “body odor” problem in every crevice and fold, and God knows, as you get older, there are plenty of crevices and folds!
Mind you, I’m not advocating tossing out your deodorant, or even the sweat bands that hold your hair off your forehead, another area that produces sweat in copious amounts. There’s a reason for the phrase “by the sweat of your brow.” But the next time you throw yourself down in front of a fan and feel the evaporative glory of sweat in a breeze, stop for a moment to appreciate the body’s marvelous systems.
Which brings me to one of those tangents my mind finds irresistible. As I sprawled limply on a reclining porch chair in front of that fan, I watched the birds fluttering around our bird feeders. They seemed awfully energetic for a hot day.
“I wonder how birds stay cool,” I muttered.
“Well,” my brain replied, “you’d be cool, too, if you could soar through the air like that.”
It was an answer that satisfied me for the rest of the afternoon, until my mind began to pick at it at about 2 a.m. Moving through the air would work to cool birds by evaporation only if birds sweat.
I assume that birds can endure cold temperatures by virtue of their feathers, which must provide good insulation, especially if a couple of birds are cuddled down in a nest together. But surely feathers would become sodden and unwieldy if birds sweated. So there I was, back to my original question. Fortunately, I have a neighbor who is a bird guru. His response to my query was as follows:
“Birds employ several means of coping with hot weather, as you might guess, but they do not have sweat glands, so they don't sweat. They do pant, though. Panting is one of the commonest ways that birds cool themselves. A more extreme version of panting is called gular fluttering. Several kinds of birds have a gular pouch, including cormorants, pigeons and owls. That is the big expandable part of the pelican's bill and throat. When it gets really hot, you can watch a perched pelican's throat-flutters. That's just a more active way of moving air over a part of the body that has a lot of blood vessels. That helps cool the blood, ergo the bird.
“Birds will also seek shade to escape the heat and they probably decrease their food consumption, too. This decreases their activity level because they are not moving around hunting for food. Birds eat to meet their demands for energy, unlike humans who eat for recreation, for socializing, or just because it's there.” 1
So horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow, but birds do the gular flutter: however it happens, it’s the coolest.
1 Thanks to Ron Morris, retired Curator of Birds at North Carolina’s wonderful zoo.