Ways with Winter Water
Birds need water year-round for drinking and bathing. Consider these hints for your winter backyard water source:
· Offer shallow water, no more than an inch deep.
· Use a commercial birdbath or shallow container, like a garbage-can lid, set solidly on the ground.
· Add rocks or gravel to make a too-deep container suitable for small birds.
· Add a bubbler or dripper. Moving water attracts more birds than does still water.
· To prevent freezing, add a heat source plugged into a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet.
· To save energy, choose a thermostatically controlled heat source that shuts off on warm days.
· Place water within 10 to 15 feet of cover so that wet birds can fly quickly to safety to preen.
· Keep water fresh, free of leaves, seeds, bird droppings, or other contaminants.
It takes water. Moving water.
Moving water. That’s the magnet that draws migrants, especially warblers, to the yard. That’s the magnet that beckons them down from where they forage in the treetops. That’s the magnet that pulls them within view of the kitchen window. What better way to see these tropical lovelies passing through!
Most autumn migrants feed on bugs and berries. Given that diet, very few visit seed feeders. Other than an occasional Rose-breasted Grosbeak checking out black-oil sunflower seeds, feeders hold little attraction for migrating birds.
But water! Every bird wants a drink. Almost every bird wants a bath. They’ve been on the wing for weeks, having left Canada’s boreal forest after breeding season ended. Now they need to rest, refuel, and rehydrate. And clean up a bit. That takes water.
Like most folks, we started out in our yard with a traditional pedestal-mounted birdbath. Then we removed the pedestal, situating the bath on the ground. After all, we reasoned, we’ve never seen a natural water supply three feet above ground.
Later we added moving water. A little yard pond, about eight feet by ten feet at its widest, includes a tiny “waterfall” that drops about six inches and gurgles along a one-inch deep “creek” before flowing back into the pool holding the recycling pump.
Unless you’re hoping to attract hawks and herons, though, everything about water for birds must be shallow. Very shallow. Warblers, for instance, may be only four inches long, beak to tail, and stand only three inches tall. Water less than an inch deep lets them stand, drink, bathe, but not drown.
This week, however, we’ve watched an assortment of winged wonders at our compact little homemade bubbling rock. We created the “bubble” part by drilling a hole through the high point of an irregularly surfaced rock, inserting a tube through the hole, and attaching the tube to a fountain pump. The pump is adjusted to bubble, not spout. So water gurgles up about an inch, spills across the irregular surface of the rock forming tiny “pools,” and spills back into the reservoir underneath.
The little skim of water, the half-inch deep pools, and the spill over the rock’s edge give little birds safe drinking and bathing.
Above all, though, it’s the gurgle, the splash, the sound that provides the magical magnetic pull. Still water, especially atop an unnatural pedestal, may serve year-round residents who have had the leisure of getting to know that odd water source. But migrants don’t have that leisure. They may stay no more than 24 hours, so the musical sound of naturally moving water welcomes them.
And for these long-distance travelers, what a welcome it must be. Aside from the usual array of American Goldfinches, Carolina or Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Mourning Doves, White-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Cardinals, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the bubbling rock, we’ve had an eye-catching parade of creatures that made me ooooh and aaaaah—and utter an occasional exclamation.
Among those sipping and splashing: Black-throated Green Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Swainson’s Thrush, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak