Most of us have heard the old English proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” It means that it’s better to hold onto something you have rather than take a risk of getting something better which may come to nothing.
I have decided to develop a new proverb, “Three birds in a bird bath are worth more than two in a bush.” It simply means that it is more fun observing and watching three or more birds in a birdbath than it is to try and watch two birds hidden in bushes.
Why do birds need water? Of course, birds need water to drink, but it is also essential to keep their feathers in good condition as part of feather maintenance. After all, feathers are needed to fly! Dampening the feathers loosens dirt and parasites making them easier to clean and realign, called preening.
We have mentioned many times in this column about how to use bird feeders to attract birds to your yard, but seldom have we talked about providing essential water to attract birds. Water will actually attract more species of birds than feeders will.
Birds require habitat consisting of food, water, shelter, and space. Water is a key component of habitat as all life needs water to survive. By providing a birdbath in your yard, you will attract both insect and seed-eating birds. For example, ornithologist Ryan Brady has attracted 78 different species of birds and counting to his bird bath at his home in northern Wisconsin. You can do the same, and get the kids involved too by making a list of and learning more about the birds they see in a birdbath. Here are some ideas gleaned from various sources on how you can get started with a fun, educational activity.
Birds love birdbaths. Once one bird starts to bathe, it often attracts others to join in and soon you have a fun bathing frenzy to watch. Parent birds will often bring their babies to bathe after they fledge and show them where it is and how to take a bath. All you need for your birdbath is a cleaning brush and some water from a hose, faucet, or watering can.
You can purchase a premade birdbath or make your own. You can place large plant saucers or ceramic bowls on tree stumps, and logs. To entice small birds to jump in, use a sloping bath, shallower at the edge and no more than three inches deep at the center; song birds do not like to bathe in deep water. To allow birds to get a foothold while bathing, the interior surface should be textured. If the container is a little too deep or too slippery, line the bottom with gravel or stones, but this will make it harder to keep it clean. We place big, flat stones in ours, so they can perch on them before they wade in.
Birds need water in winter too, so keep your birdbath ice-free in winter by using an electric heater designed for the purpose (some shut off automatically during the higher day temperatures). Heaters can be purchased at bird or farm supply stores.
In order to keep the water fresh and healthy for birds, clean the birdbaths regularly. This involves scrubbing out any bird droppings and algae. It’s important to change standing water regularly to avoid breeding habitat for mosquitoes.
The sound of moving or dripping water is an invitation to birds and dramatically increases the number of species that will be attracted to a birdbath. For example, hummingbirds would never wade into the bath the way a robin does, because hummingbirds bathe only in flight. We have watched hummers zipping back and forth through the water coming out of our pump, so they can catch water droplets on their backs on each pass. Amazing and fun to watch!
Birdbath placement is important. Whether you place birdbaths on bases or directly on the ground, select locations where birds have easy access to cover in order to avoid cats and other predators. Cats like to lie in wait beneath shrubbery or behind a concealing object and then pounce on birds when they're wet and can't fly well. So put your birdbath at least five to ten feet from such hiding places. Give the birds a chance to see the cat coming. Better yet, keep cats indoors; they live longer than outdoor cats.
A pedestal birdbath is easy to see from the house, easy to clean, and somewhat safer from predators than birdbaths placed on the ground. If you locate your bath on the ground, it's important for the birds to have overhanging branches nearby for cover and a getaway from predators.
Make sure your birdbath is easy to clean and refill. But locate your birdbath away from your feeding station, because seeds and droppings would contaminate the water quickly. Change the water every few days, or even every day in hot weather. Dump it out or squirt it out with the hose. Keep a scrub brush handy, to brush out any algae, etc. that begins to form.
And lastly, place the birdbath where you can see it from indoors, so you can enjoy watching the birds from your desk, dining room, or kitchen sink. You also might want to consider placing a birdbath in your garden. Nothing is more decorative in a garden than watching birds bathe in your garden.
Watching birds at a birdbath brings great happiness to a home. It's one of the easiest ways to bring birds up close where the whole family can get a good look, enjoy their beauty, and learn more about them. Keep a pair of binoculars, camera, and a bird book handy.
And remember, three or more birds in a birdbath will provide you with more splashes of happiness than two in a bush!
The private Nature Education Center in Fifield operated by Tom and Mary Lou Nicholls is open seasonally by appointment only.