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Attract Birds With Birdbaths

A small bird with a brilliant orange iridescent neck splashes in a birdbath.
Allen’s Hummingbird by Bob Gunderson/Birdshare.

Once you’ve got feeders set up, perhaps the best way to make your backyard more attractive to birds is to just add water. Birds need a dependable supply of fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing. Putting a birdbath in your yard may attract birds that don’t eat seeds and wouldn’t otherwise come to your feeders. (Other ways to attract birds are to supply a roost box and to provide nest material.)

Traditional concrete birdbaths sold in garden shops make nice lawn ornaments, but they aren’t the best type for birds. They’re often too deep; glazed ones may be slippery; and they’re often hard to clean. Also, concrete may crack if the temperature drops below freezing. The best birdbaths mimic nature’s birdbaths: puddles and shallow pools of water in slow streams. So look for a birdbath that’s shallow, with a gentle slope so birds can wade into the water.

Looks aside, you can even make your own birdbath using a trashcan lid, saucer-type snow sled, shallow pan, or old frying pan.

Setting up your birdbath

Birds seem to prefer baths that are set at ground level, which is where they typically find water in nature. While birds are bathing they are vulnerable to predators, especially to cats. If you have a cat, please keep it indoors. And if cats roam your neighborhood, make sure there is open ground separating your birdbath from the nearest thick shrubbery, so birds have a better chance to see prowling cats and get away in time.

carolina wren at birdbath
Carolina Wren by Maria Corcacas/PFW.

During hot months place your birdbath in the shade if possible. Having trees nearby will also provide branches on which birds can preen after bathing.

Arrange stones (or branches) in the water so birds can stand on them to drink without getting wet (this is particularly important during freezing weather).

The water should be no deeper than 1 inch (2.5 cm) at the edges, sloping to a maximum of 2 inches (5 cm) deep in the middle of the bath.

To make your birdbath even more attractive, provide some dripping water. Many birds find the sight and sound of moving water irresistible. You can use a commercial dripper or sprayer, or make your own by recycling an old bucket or plastic container. Punch a tiny hole in the bottom, fill it with water, and hang it above the birdbath so the water drips into the bath.

bluebird at snowy icy birdbath
Eastern Bluebird at heated bird bath. Photo by Jo Anne Doyle/Cornell Lab.

Winter birdbaths

Birds will come to birdbaths year-round. Fortunately, keeping a birdbath ice-free in winter is not critical. Birds have several physiological mechanisms for conserving water, and can usually get what they need from snow or dripping icicles.

The simplest way to provide water in winter is to set out a plastic bowl at the same time each day, and bring it in when ice forms.

If you do want to keep a birdbath ice-free during subfreezing days, manufacturers now offer birdbaths with built-in, thermostatically controlled heaters. Immersion heaters are also available at most places bird feeders are sold. Most new models turn off if the water in the bath dries up. Plug your heater into a ground-fault interrupted circuit to eliminate the chance of electric shock.

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Never add antifreeze to a birdbath—it is poisonous to all animals, including birds. Don’t use glycerin, either: it can saturate and mat a bird’s feathers leaving it susceptible to hypothermia.

Maintaining your birdbath

When the temperature is above freezing, it’s a good idea to keep your birdbath filled at all times to attract the widest numbers and variety of birds. But to provide a safe drinking and bathing environment, it’s important to change the water every day or two. Bathing birds may leave behind dirty feathers and droppings, making the bath increasingly unsanitary for other birds. Also, mosquitoes often lay their eggs in bird baths, including the mosquito species that carry West Nile virus. By frequently changing the water, you won’t give the eggs time to hatch or for the larvae to emerge.

For more information, please see our free PDF download, BirdNotes—Providing Water for Birds.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library