Water is a source often overlooked by many people wishing to attract birds to their garden. As birds have no sweat glands they do need less water than mammals, but they still lose water through respiration and their droppings. While they can gain some of their water requirements from their food, a clean source of water is still important to birds for both bathing and drinking. This is especially true for seed eating birds, whose diet is a lot dryer than insectivores. So the birds you are most likely to attract to your feeders are those that will need the water most.
There are a number of ways you can provide water to your bird visitors, but the simplest (especially for those without room for a pond) is a bird bath. Like feeders, there are a number of bird baths available on the market, but it’s worth keeping a few points in mind:
- Keep it light, simple, and sturdy: making it easier for you to clean and refill the bath whenever necessary.
- Make sure it has shallow sloping sides: to ensure that a number of different species can use the bath for both bathing and drinking.
- Ensure the surface of the bath is rough: so that the birds can grip onto the sides, especially when bathing.
Which design you buy depends entirely on you as birds will happily use a plant saucer or up-turned dustbin lid. If you do use these place shallow stones in the middle to allow smaller birds to bath and drink safely, and, if the surface is smooth, add gravel to the bottom to provide grip.
Where you put your bird bath is just as important as birds will only use it if they feel safe. This is especially true when bathing as they can become a little bit preoccupied, making them more vulnerable to predators. Make sure that the position of the bath ensures clear, all-round visibility, with bushes or trees nearby for cover when needed. These will also provide preening perches after bathing. Placing a number of baths in different areas of the garden will give you the chance to determine which area is the best by the number of visitors each one gets.
If you are going to provide water it’s important to provide it all year round, especially during winter time, when their natural supply is usually frozen, and during the dry, warmer summers, when water can be harder to find. It important to bear in mind that, during dry periods, birds will try to use water found in water butts and troughs for drinking, usually leading to drowning. If these can’t be covered, place something like a branch into the water to allow them to drink and bathe safely. Though it shouldn’t be an issue over summer, freezing can also be a problem. There are a number of solutions to this, which range from the simple method of pouring hot water into the bath, to the more high tech, adding an immersion heater controlled by a thermostat. In most cases, a light plastic ball will keep the surface ice free as it’s moved around by the wind. It should go without saying, but never use chemicals, such as anti-freeze, in the bird bath as this can remove oils from the bird’s feathers, making them less waterproof, and can poison the birds themselves.
As with the food you provide, the water should be kept topped up and changed regularly. Bird baths must also be cleaned every week or so to prevent any disease from spreading and to remove algae, dirt, and bird dropping that cumulate through use. Diluted household disinfectant can be used, as long as you remember to rinse the bath thoroughly afterwards to remove any chemical residue, or there are some non-toxic cleaners available, such as Enviroclens and Crystal. As with cleaning feeders, always use gloves, never clean the baths inside the house, and always wash your hands afterwards.
Georgina Bowie, Visitor Centre Assistant