Open Water: 5 Tips for Maintaining a Winter Bird Bath

Written by: Debra Carr Brox

A winter birdbath adds color to a sometimes drab landscape in your yard.
Photos by Debra Carr Brox

Ralph Waldo Emerson described the winter song of the chickadee as “a silver tinkling on a frosty morning.” Though many of us think of the warmer months as the time when we can observe and enjoy birds, the ice and snow bring to our backyards many birds we don’t see in summer, as the harsh conditions bring them out of their forest homes.

Their songs may sound cheerful, but in fact, winter can be a difficult and dangerous time for these small creatures, particularly when open water is unavailable. According to the Humane Society of America, “animals expend valuable energy and risk dangerous exposure searching for alternate sources of fresh water, which might mean the difference between life and death in the coldest season.” Even in places with abundant snow and ice, it costs birds precious calories and body heat to melt frozen water.

The ability to find open water to drink is important to winter survival.

It’s easy to provide fresh water to our feathered friends in winter. Not only will you have the satisfaction of helping protect wildlife, but the birds will provide color, entertainment, and thoughts of the spring to come during the gray and stormy season. You’ll also enjoy fascinating behavior and rare songs reserved for cold climates. Expect animals other than birds to visit your birdbath, as well, including squirrels and rabbits. It’s sure to become a favorite watering hole for wildlife in general.

Here are some tips for creating and maintaining a winter bird bath:

1. Turn Up the Heat
There are many choices of heated birdbaths, as well as heating elements that can be added to a birdbath you currently own. Most are inexpensive to buy and run. Many will turn on and off automatically, triggered by temperature and low water levels.

A little birdsong can help you look forward to springtime.

2. Keep It Moving
Adding an aerator will prevent freezing while attracting visitors with the natural motion. A low-cost alternative to an aerator is a tennis or ping pong ball placed in the bowl. It will move with the breeze and help keep the water in a liquid state. Do not add glycerine or any other chemicals, such as antifreeze. These can mat birds’ feathers or poison them.

3. Use the Sun
In northern locations, days are short and often overcast, but you can have some success in providing fresh water to feathered friends with a solar-powered heated bird bath. As an alternative, a container placed in a sunny or southern-facing area of your deck or yard will do. Using a piece of a black trash bag as a liner will greatly increase the heat retention. Any heavy-duty bowl that won’t be cracked by ice is suitable. Choose plastic or metal, rather than ceramic, concrete, or glass. It will require you to remove the frozen and add fresh, warm water each morning, but the avian display and the satisfaction of caring for your backyard neighbors will make it worthwhile.

Watching the birds at your bath adds to the joys of morning coffee.

4. Make It User-Friendly
Most birds do not bathe when the temperature is low enough to freeze water. Though it may seem more efficient to use a deep bowl, a shallow bath is, by far, more appealing, safe, and efficient. Placing twigs across the top of the basin, or rocks in the center, give birds a place to perch and get a good drink without getting wet. Keeping birds out of the water makes it easier to keep the bath clean—which bring us to the next important tip.

5. Keep It Clean
Birds are more susceptible to disease when they gather in large numbers to feed and drink. Minimize this danger by placing fresh water in birdbath daily and cleaning it once per week. Placing the bath within easy reach will make this less of a task.

Good luck! We’d love to hear about your experience and ideas!

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