Of all the basic elements of a habitat for birds – food, water, shelter, and nesting sites to raise their young – a source of fresh water is often the most difficult to find. Many people overlook this fact when they first begin to create or improve their backyard habitat.
While there are many species that can be attracted by feeders, those that eat primarily insects will not be. However, all birds will seek out water and your yard will boast a much larger species list if you offer water on a year round basis.
Water in a natural setting is one of the very best way to attract more birds. Birds not only need water for drinking but also for bathing. Dirty feathers hamper their ability to fly as well as their ability to insulate themselves against cold weather. Aside from these needs, birds also seem to just plain enjoy a quick “dip in the pool” or a nice, long “soak in the tub.” If you’ve ever had the opportunity to observe an immature bird during one of its first experiences in a birdbath, you’ve most certainly noticed the similarities to a child’s first time in a baby pool, as they jump in and out, over and over again, in absolute delight.
Provide water at different heights to accommodate different species. Note a few stones have been added to the baths on the left to provide locations for the birds to splash about, dry and preen. A dripper provides the sound of water. The blue bowl has meal worms, a special treat after a nice refreshing bath.
There are many different styles of pedestal, hanging, and on-ground baths for birds. A variety of baths can be used for maximum success, since different species of birds have very specific preferences when it comes to water sources. For instance, you’ll almost never see a woodpecker at a pedestal bath, since the two-toes-forward and two-toes-back arrangement of their feet makes perching difficult; they prefer an on-ground bath instead.
Jays and robins like nothing better than a roomy pedestal bath to splash about in wildly, but a smaller bird like a finch will be intimidated by its large size, and would prefer instead to inch down the chain of a hanging bath to the water below. All of these baths are made more welcoming by placing flat stones or rocks in them for birds to perch upon, but none of them should contain water deeper than one to two inches.
Tiny birds, like hummingbirds and warblers, feel unsafe even with some of the smallest and shallowest of baths, preferring instead to “leaf-bathe” by rubbing against water on the leaves of trees and shrubs as they do in the wild. You can provide this preferred bathing method for them with the addition of a leaf mister placed in a leafy shrub or vine, or with a mister that is placed in a pedestal bath located underneath a leafy shrub, which will create the additional effect of a dripper.
Water features range from the simple to the sublime, with many commercially available products on the market. In addition to misters and drippers, there are re-circulating fountains that can be purchased either separately or contained within an existing bath. Budgets need not stand in your way, however, as you can create a simple dripper with an empty milk jug or by placing a shepherd’s hook over a bath to hold a slowly dripping garden hose. One note of caution: any electrical apparatus should be plugged into a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFI) socket, and any electrical extension cords should be approved for outdoor use.
The safety of the birds is a critical factor to consider when deciding on the location of any bird bath, but its location should also be in an area where you can observe the birds and their antics as they drink and bathe since some of the best moments in bird-watching involve water. The immediate area surrounding the bath should be clear so that birds have a clear view of any ground predators as they approach. Birds also need a source of cover such as an evergreen shrub or brush pile within 10 feet of the bath so they not only have a place to escape from predators, but also a place where they can perch to preen their wet feathers back into flying condition. Make sure you can see this area, too, as the “toweling-off” preen that follows a bath allows you to see every feather they have.
The temperature of the water in the bath is another factor to consider. For instance, a bath located in full sun all day in the summer or even the heat of the southwest desert in winter can get too hot, so a better location would be one that only gets direct sun for half the day. If that is not possible, either ice cubes or a large chunk of ice made from a half-used milk carton can work wonders.
In areas where the temperature remains below freezing for days at a time a birdbath heater is of great benefit. Birds forced to eat snow for moisture expend valuable energy to bring their body temperature back to survival levels. Even worse, some birds will be forced to get the water they need from street slush, which often contains antifreeze, motor oil, salt, and other harmful chemicals. These heaters are relatively inexpensive and last for years but are well worth the cost.
Another alternative to cold weather is to use a solar-heated waterer (shown below). The Happy Bird Corporation manufacturers a small, solar heated unit that keeps the water from freezing in temperatures as low as 20 deg. F.