July 17, 2015
By Karen Rose
Hermit Thrush. Photo by Karen Rose.
All of us need food, water, and shelter, whether we are human, or whether we have feathers, fur, or scales. That’s easy to forget, in this day and age when abundant food is at the grocery store and our water is available from the tap whenever we want it.
In natural ecosystems, water is often the deciding factor as to what can live and grow and what can’t. Even birds can have a hard time finding water to drink every day, especially in the heat of summer or any time a few weeks go by without rain.
One of the nice things about having a bit of property, no matter how large or small, is being able to change it for the better. Most of us don’t live on a lake, pond, or stream. No problem, you can still have an oasis in your backyard, at least as far as the birds are concerned, even if you’re not up to installing a backyard pond this weekend. The easiest and simplest way to add water to your landscape is with a birdbath.
Choose a birdbath with a shallow basin. Just an inch of depth is ideal. Most birds will only go into water as deep as their legs are long. Since birdbaths mimic shallow rain puddles, look for one shaped more like a rounded plate than a steep-sided bowl.
A rough bottom is better, for better footing. Plain cement is better for birds’ feet than a slippery glazed ceramic. Fiber and resin is great, too. Run your fingers across the bottom of the bath before you buy, testing for roughness.
Cats are a very real concern when choosing a location for your birdbath. Birds would prefer to bathe on the ground, and small, shy birds like warblers need to be near lots of cover. A birdbath in the middle of a lawn is very safe from cats, but will probably be ignored, possibly because it’s too exposed to aerial predators. It is a balancing act to protect your birds as much as possible from cats, but still have your birdbath in a location where it will be used often. Choose a tall birdbath, and place your birdbath ten feet away from low-growing shrubs, so that there is cover nearby, but not too near. You want your cover to be far enough away from the birdbath so that the cats have no place to ambush from, as well as to make sure that the birds can see the cats coming towards them. Also very important and helpful, is to place the birdbath near a tree where there are overhanging branches within two or three feet of the birdbath for the wet birds to easily escape up into. The birds can also use these branches as places to perch in and preen after bathing. A brush pile ten feet away is also helpful. If you are really serious about deterring cats, consider installing wire fencing all around your birdbath at a height of 18”.
It is equally important to locate your birdbath near a spigot and a hose, to make it easy for you to change the water often. Mosquito eggs can be laid and then hatch in a matter of days, so you will need to flush out the water once or twice a week. Moreover, birds bathe not only to clean their feathers, but also to remove parasites. Changing the water every few days is highly recommended, as this helps prevent the spread of diseases from bird to bird.
In a full sun location the water will evaporate quickly, so be ready to replace it every day in summer. A shady location will keep the birds and the water cooler, as well as make it easier for you.
Scrub your birdbath out regularly. No need for cleaners, all you need is a scrub brush to loosen the algae, and a hose to wash it away. If you neglect your bath, if you let it get dirty or let it run dry often, the birds will learn that it is not a reliable resource. In the wild, a reliable, clean, shallow pool of water is a rare thing indeed. If you provide that, the birds will remember your yard and return to it often!
Something else to keep in mind: birds are attracted by sound. If you are interested, you will find you will have many more visitors if you install a misting nozzle onto the end of a hose and attach that to your birdbath, or hang a bucket of slowly dripping water over it, or buy a “water wiggler” or even a fancy solar pump that fits right in the birdbath. It’s not only that the sound lets the birds know exactly where the water is. It’s also that it turns out that just like people, some birds definitely prefer showers over baths. Hummingbirds, for example, would probably never bathe in a regular birdbath, but they will come to take a shower if that’s available. (In the wild they wait for the water dripping from trees after a rainstorm.)
And finally, of course, locate your birdbath near a window you look through often, or near a deck or patio, so you can enjoy watching who’s coming to visit. There are many species of birds who eat only insects and therefore never visit bird feeders. But every species needs water. Parent birds will even bring their newly fledged babies to the bath to teach them where it is.
I have a favorite birdbath story I’d like to share, even though it doesn’t exactly involve a birdbath. Years ago I was at a friend’s house, and for some reason she had a sprinkler running underneath a young magnolia tree. It made quite a bit of sound, the spray of water hitting those lower magnolia leaves every ten seconds or so. Luckily for me, it also happened to be fall, and a day that a whole flock of scarlet tanagers were migrating through that particular Tallahassee neighborhood. I am sure the birds heard the sound of the spray on the leaves, and came down to investigate. I watched through the window for a long time, totally amazed at the sight of 10 or 15 scarlet tanagers (in their winter colors) drinking, bathing and seeming to revel in the wet grass growing near that little magnolia. I will never forget that. So keep your eyes open and enjoy!!
Karen Rose is a gardener-for-hire and a volunteer writer for Leon County UF/IFAS Extension. She can be reached at email@example.com. You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.