The Best Way to Offer Water to Wild Birds
Here at the Ornate Bird Garden, water is the most important thing you can provide for the wild birds in your backyard. This is especially true in winter when no one is watering the lawn or washing the car, and standing water tends to freeze. Plenty of casual birders provide birdseed in the odd feeder but not water – possibly because it's more of a chore to keep the birdbath filled with clean water every day.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
That leaves thirsty birds trying to steal a few sips from the water bowls of cats and dogs throughout the neighborhood. That, or they resort to even more
dubious sources of water: drinking from puddles of standing water at the car wash, gas station, or local garden center! Admit it, you've probably seen pigeons attempting to drink and bathe in icky-looking standing water in urban areas.
This fountain is made of resin and only cost $40.
First, birds need to drink. Next, they would love the opportunity to bathe and put their feathers in order. (The next time it rains, look up at the power wires in your neighborhood. I'll guarantee that you'll see a row of pigeons enjoying the shower. Watch long enough and you'll see them lifting their wings one at a time to let the rain clean the feathers underneath!)
For sheer amusement, you can't beat the sight of eager birds crowding into your birdbath to duck their heads, fluff their feathers, and shake their tails! Offering water is also a wonderful opportunity to attract exotic bug-eating birds that would never come to your seed feeders: robins, flickers, and woodpeckers.
Water attracts bug-eaters like this robin that won’t come to your seed feeder.
Something to remember: even if you don't have cats, someone in your neighborhood does. Cats will swarm to your backyard when they notice the increased bird activity. You'll need to locate your food and water stations away from any foliage or objects that could hide a cat. Out in the middle of your open backyard is safest for the birds. However, if you'd like to keep the birds close to your window for observation, you'll need to clear away all cat hiding-places.
- Figure out where you want to locate your bird water. Close to your window or out in the open?
- You'll need a wide, shallow dish at minimum. The wider the dish, the better. This is because birds like to do things together as one big flock. Often one bird will start bathing, and his entire flock will cram itself in alongside him. A wide dish lets a lot of birds bathe at once.
- Determine how you want to place the water dish. It has to be convenient for you to dump dirty water and fill it with fresh every day – and to break the ice in the winter.
Possible placements: on the ground is the easiest for you, but the most risky for the birds. They will tend to prefer higher-up locations. Your water dish can be suspended from your eaves, standing on a pedestal, attached to your window, or mounted on the railing of your deck. The possibilities are numerous.
Put a clay saucer in a pedestal birdfeeder.
- The little birds need water no more than one inch deep. You can offer water in a really shallow dish for them, and water in a three-inch deep bowl for the big guys like flickers and pigeons.
- Prop a rock or a piece of wood on the bowl's rim, letting it angle into the water like a ramp. The birds will appreciate safe footing. It's hard for them to judge the depth of the water. You'll know they're worried about it if they hop around the rim, peering in. Often the larger birds will lurch nervously into the water anyway, but the little guys like sparrows will refuse to bathe if they're not certain of the water's depth. The reason that many birds have poor depth perception is because (with the exception of raptors and other birds with binocular vision) their eyes are placed on the sides of their heads. This is why you’ll see birds such as pigeons engaging in head-bobbing as a way to estimate distance while they are walking .
Consider getting a heated birdbath for winter. This may not be necessary in more temperate areas where you can break the ice off the bath in the morning and have daytime temperatures keep the fresh water liquid. But if you experience harsh winters where water remains frozen all night and on through the day, a heated birdbath might just bring every bird in the region flocking gratefully to your backyard. Heated birdbaths are about $50 and are available on Amazon (see below).
Birds love the sound of running water!
- The best way to offer water: in a fountain. The basin should be wide and shallow. Your fountain doesn't have to be elaborate or huge. All you really need is a small pump to circulate the water, and you can get one at aquarium shops or even hobby shops now that desktop fountains have become popular. You'll still have to perform your daily chores of replacing dirty water (or ice) with fresh. But a fountain is the best way to attract birds into your yard because of the enticing sound of running water. An inexpensive, simple alternative: put a tin pie-pan under a slowly dripping faucet. Birds can hear this from far away, and will come to investigate! Bird expert Sally Roth agrees, stating that “the most reliable way to attract birds to your birdbath is to create the sound of dripping or running water. If you have an outside electrical outlet, a small, inexpensive recirculating pump is worth its weight in warblers.” 
- “Hawk-Eyed” by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. Copyright ® 1988. Retrieved 10/22/07 from the Stanford University website at http://www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Hawk-Eyed.html. The authors invite readers to close one eye and bob their heads while watching the relative motion of close-by and faraway objects.
- Attracting Birds to Your Backyard, a Rodale Organic Gardening Book by Sally Roth, Rodale Press Inc., 1998. p.19. ISBN 0875968929
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