Water, Water Everywhere - Not Really

Photo Group
Ruth's Water Feature
Photo by: 
Ruth Simmons

If you have heard one my presentations about feeding birds, you know how I feel about providing water for birds. Aside from the obvious need to replenish their body’s moisture, birds need water to keep their feathers healthy. Damaged or worn feathers affect their ability to find food, evade predators and defend their nesting territory.

Unfrozen water in winter is often the most difficult survival need for birds to locate. In the summer months, we often experience very dry conditions. Even if there is a pond or stream fairly close to your yard, that may not be enough. A study I worked on right out of college showed how vulnerable Northern Bobwhites were to predation once they left their immediate territory. Think of it this way: a bird, like you and I, knows its territories very well. We know all of the short cuts, hiding places, best restaurants and even where to park. A bird knows its favored singing perches, food sources and hiding places. Once it has to leave that area to find, say water, he is more easily captured or likely to collide with a window.

How can you help out with the water issue? The simple solution is to provide water for them. Are there any tricks? There are several interesting ways to present the water that can enhance the benefit to birds and increase your viewing pleasure. You can simply turn over a trash can lid and fill it full of water every day or you can try a few of these:

Classic pedestal or hanging bird baths come in many different materials, shapes and sizes but they all serve the same purpose. Don’t forget to add a rock or two to give different water levels for different size birds.

“Mini” pond structures have really caught on in the past few years. These are fancier versions of an overturned trash can lid. They also vary a lot in materials and sizes but as a rule they are about 3 or 4 feet around and sit on the ground. Most are made to look like rock and may or may not have a pump to move the water around.

Some people like to build a full scale water structure, like a small pond in their back yard. Most of these are dug out areas in your yard with a specially designed liner and lots of landscaping. They are very nice and provide enough water to attract frogs, toads and other wildlife.

Moving water is the next thing to consider when presenting water. Resident birds will quickly learn where your water source is and visit it frequently. Transient birds on the other hand need more help. Sound will often help birds find water. To add sound, consider these options:

A bubbler is a device that does just that. It makes the water bubble or move from one part of you water feature to another. The simplest design looks like a pile of rocks that you place in the bath and the water is pulled up through the rocks and it cascades back down into the bath.

Drippers attach to your outdoor spigot (a special splitter is provided). You have to turn your water on, but the valve allows just enough water through to allow for a slow drip of water to fall into your bath. This creates a tantalizing sound that birds will be drawn to and helps keep fresh water in your bath.

The final type of device is called a mister. The concept and set up is similar to the dripper but instead of a drip, it releases a fine spray. The mister is usually placed in a shrub or on a low tree branch. The mister is pointed at another limb for the birds to perch on and enjoy the mist. The mister is best known perhaps for its reputation for attracting hummingbirds.

Everyone wants to increase the number of bird species that they can see in his or her backyard. We can talk about landscaping and bird feeding but consistently the answer is water. Warblers, tanagers, thrushes and other birds that rarely come to a feeder must have water. A water structure placed close to good cover will really enhance your chances of seeing more birds in your back yard. Good luck!

By Mark McKellar

SPRING 2002