To Winterize Your Yard for Wildlife, Provide a Reliable Source of Water

Since offering water year-round, the author has observed a marked increase in animal visitors to her yard

  • Olwen Woodier
  • Feb 01, 1997
ONE DAY LAST WNITER 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 cheap 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 can 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.

While the birdbaths fulfill avian needs for bathing and drinking, an in-ground pond will attract a broad range of wildlife activity, especially when surrounded with ground cover, grasses, flowers and shrubs. A pond not only offers water for birds and mammals, it also provides a permanent refuge for some amphibians. Even a pond no larger than 4 feet wide and 2 feet deep will attract salamanders, toads and wood and tree frogs, which only enter the water during their breeding period.

A small pond can be installed in a day and, depending upon whether you use a fiberglass mold or heavy black plastic, cost between $100 and $400 to build. For less money, you can recycle a child's wading pool and camouflage the bright interior with a layer of soil or gravel on the bottom and plants tucked around the sides. An old bathtub or large utility sink can also be pressed into service.

An above-ground pond, made from a half whiskey barrel and lined with black plastic, will also provide a permanent source of water for birds, chipmunks and squirrels. Even tree frogs will negotiate the barrel's 18- to 24-inch sides to lay their eggs among plants floating on the water's surface. To enable small birds to drink from a half barrel, keep the water level close to the rim or provide a branch for them to land and perch on.

Now is a good time to plan a site for an in-ground pond. Once spring arrives, you'll be ready to install it and put out the welcome mat for wildlife.

In your planning, select a site that is not directly under trees to avoid root-growth problems and falling leaves. Consider easy access to an electrical outlet, in case you will need to operate de-icing equipment or a pump for recirculating water.

Outline the pond perimeter with a garden hose or length of rope. Sloping the walls gently inward, dig toward a flat bottom about 2-1/2 feet deep. (The depth will vary depending upon whether you are using a PVC liner or a fiberglass mold.) Remove all of the rocks and stones and smooth the soil.

If using a PVC liner, cover the entire hole with either a 1-inch thick layer of newspapers, 2 inches of sand or used carpeting--anything that will pad the hole to prevent punctures in the PVC.

Drop the fiberglass mold into the excavation and check to make sure it is level. Or drape the PVC liner completely and evenly in the hole, allowing it to overlap the rim by 12 inches. Fold the liner into pleats where it bunches around the curving edges. Anchor the liner on the top with a few rocks.

Fill the pond with water. Arrange flat stones around the entire rim to completely cover the PVC overlap (or the fiberglass mold) and slightly protrude about 2 inches over the pond's edges. (Hiding the PVC liner from sunlight will safeguard it from becoming brittle and cracking.)

Add some soil to the bottom of the pond if you want to invite frogs overwinter. Plant in and around the pond and allow the water to settle and clear for about a week before adding fish. However, don't be surprised if some toads and frogs to jump in while it is still as foggy as pea soup.

The author, who lectures and writes frequently on gardening techniques, has been certified in NWF's Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program since 1981.

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