For the Birds: Winter birdbath brings them in

Attracting birds to a birdbath is one of the more underrated joys of the hobby.

Perhaps it is because I failed on my first several attempts to get birds to visit the birdbath I offered. I started to think it was a waste of time to even try, but about then, I glanced out at the birdbath and saw a magnolia warbler cleaning itself. Of course, birds such as magnolia warblers are not going to visit your birdbath too often, but to see even the most common of birds at a birdbath is a thrill.

Many people focus the majority of their attention on bird feeding, and rightfully so, as that has a high success rate of attracting birds. Bird houses are another aspect of the hobby that get a lot of attention, particularly bluebird boxes. That is also understandable as it is nice to know that you are helping to assure the next generation of birds.

I have found that far fewer people discuss the birds that show up at their birdbath. It is a bit trickier to attract birds to a birdbath than to a feeder, but when it does happen, it makes the extra effort well worth it. 

It is particularly rewarding to see birds at the birdbath in the winter. More than any other aspect of birdwatching in any other season, I think a birdbath in the winter is the biggest help to birds.

Feeding birds is really supplementing their diet. It may help the birds more in the winter than in other seasons, but even without birdfeeders, birds would find enough food to survive. There are also many natural cavities in the woods for birds to find homes. Granted, there are far fewer natural cavities because so much land has been developed, but there are still plenty of dead trees for birds to find homes. An argument can be made, of course, for the necessity of bluebird boxes, as that species was in peril due to the lack of suitable places to nest. The bluebird box program has helped the species immensely.

Even birdbaths, while convenient for birds, are not completely necessary for most of the year, as there are plenty of other water sources to be found. But when a hard freeze occurs and those other water sources are frozen, birdbaths are a godsend to the birds, which need to drink and keep their feathers clean for survival.

Which begs the question, how do you keep water in a birdbath unfrozen so the birds can utilize it? There are a few different ways to do this.

The easiest way is to buy a heated birdbath or a heater designed for a birdbath. This requires a bit of an investment to purchase the bath, a sturdy extension cord and a reliable outdoor electrical outlet.

Another way is to try a bubbler system. This requires either a strong extension cord and outdoor outlet, or there are some on the market that run on batteries. I have tried one that runs on batteries and did not have much success as the water simply froze around legs that were supposed to be wiggling.

Or you can try my labor-intensive method, which is to bring a pot of hot (not boiling) water and dump it in the birdbath whenever it freezes. Sometimes this is required only once after a cold night followed by a relatively warm sunny day. Or it requires several trips to the birdbath when temperatures remain bitterly cold throughout the day. To me, it is worth the effort to make these several trips.

Of course, this method works only when you are home and have the time to make those multiple trips. I am lucky enough to be able to work from home a few days a week and those are the days I can take the time to make the trips back and forth. When I am at work, unfortunately, the birds are on their own.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when offering water to birds in the winter. I would not recommend using a glass or ceramic birdbath as they can easily crack or otherwise break when ice forms in the bowl. I lost a nice ceramic birdbath one winter when I let the neighbor kids come over to try to break up the ice with a hammer. Looking back, it was not the most intelligent decision I’ve ever made, but you live and learn.

Putting the bath in a sunny spot will help keep the water from freezing completely. Even if the water is mostly frozen, a few puddles of liquid are better than nothing as the birds can take a drink.

I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary at my birdbath this winter, but I have had pretty good luck with the more common species. I get daily visits from cardinals, blue jays, song sparrows and mourning doves. Less frequently, there have been goldfinches, chickadees, robins and bluebirds. Then there was the day the Cooper’s hawk perched on the birdbath and used it as a lookout.

Keeping unfrozen water in a birdbath in the winter gives you a leg up on your neighbors for attracting more birds. The birds may still get food from various backyards, but there are likely not too many places to get a drink from a birdbath.

Let me know your birdbath tips and what interesting birds you are attracting.