Offer Water to Wildlife in Winter

Birdbaths fulfill bathing and drinking needs of birds and small mammals

01-06-2010 // Olwen Woodier

Robin at bird bath

ONE DAY LAST WINTER when the mercury hovered around zero degrees, I had barely finished topping off one of the birdbaths in our yard with tepid water when some chickadees and titmice flew onto its rim. Jumping in, two and three at a time, they began their bathing rituals. This delightful scene, coupled with the daily visits of a shy hermit thrush, inspired me to be more vigilant and inventive during the remaining weeks of cold weather to ensure that my birdbaths were kept free of ice.

What a difference my vigilance made. Since offering a year-round source of water, I have observed a marked increase in wildlife visiting our yard, especially in frigid temperatures when natural ponds and puddles are frozen over.

Birdbaths are an obvious and inexpensive method of providing water—they take minutes to install and can run the gamut from the simple homemade variety to an elaborate, commercial-tiered waterfall setup. In our yard in northern Virginia, I have set up several birdbaths. All of them are visible from within the house. Not only do they attract birds to drink, bathe and socialize, they also provide a water source for a variety of mammals that visit my backyard habitat. During the heat of summer, these birdbaths are also visited by flying insects like butterflies and bees, which sip from around the shallow edges.

You can, of course, buy a ready-made birdbath. Or you can make your own from garbage-can lids placed on drainage pipe sections or flue pipes. You can also place large plant saucers or ceramic bowls on tree stumps, logs or on large plant pots (filled with soil for more stability).

To entice small birds to jump in, a bath should be no more than 3 inches deep. To allow birds to get a foothold while bathing, the interior surface should be textured. If you have a container that is a little too deep and too slippery, line the bottom with gravel or stones. When setting up your birdbaths—whether you place them on bases or directly on the ground—select locations where birds have easy access to cover in order to avoid cats and other predators.

To keep your birdbaths ice-free in winter, you can use an electric heater designed for the purpose (some shut off automatically during the higher day temperatures). The simplest and cheapest method I’ve found to keep birdbaths functioning in winter is to buy some 18-inch wide by 3-inch deep, heavy-duty plastic plant saucers that don’t crack from the pressure of frozen water. When I stumble outside in early morning and find the water frozen solid, I move the birdbaths into the garage to thaw and temporarily replace them with spare plant saucers that I fill with fresh warm water.

If you have the time, you can thaw the ice by pouring boiling water onto the frozen mass, discarding the loosened chunks and refilling the bath with fresh warm water. In hot weather, you need to be just as attentive, keeping the baths filled with fresh water and cleaning them regularly to eliminate bird droppings and algae.

Adapted from "To Winterize Your Yard for Wildlife, Provide a Reliable Source of Water" by Olwen Woodier in the February/March 1997 issue of National Wildlife. The original article also includes information on building a backyard pond.

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