Bird Baths


The question "are you for the birds?" may stimulate a variety of thoughts. Some may see the phrase "for the birds" as having a contemptible meaning or maybe a humorous play on words. Still, others may see it as asking the question do you really care enough about our birds. It is the later that we need to consider.

There are 92 million bird lovers that feed birds and 65 million active birders, in the United States. Each year bird lovers add over $ 20 billion dollars on binoculars, spotting scopes, clothing, food, lodging, field guides, books, magazines, art, pictures, feeders, nest boxes, organization memberships, cameras, film, air fares, vehicles, boats and other forms of transportation and equipment. The presence of birds supports jobs, careers, industries, families and communities. This does not count the benefits of aesthetics, seed dispersal, insect control, pollination, stress reduction, art, literature, creativity, and the joy and purpose that birds can add to life, whether you are a birder or not.

Some birders and bird lovers support activities that help birds. Birdseeds, birdbaths, and birdhouses (nest boxes) are bought and flowers, shrubs, and trees are planted for habitat. All of this helps, but there is more that we can do for these birds that provide so much for us.


Birds need habitat with food, water, cover, and space. Birdbaths, and water are important elements that we can provide and this can be even more important than bird feeders. The motivations of people and the purchase and placement of birdbaths are interesting aspects to observe and ponder.

For several years I have studied people's use of birdbaths. I had naively thought that birdbaths were made for birds to drink and bathe and that they were purchased for this purpose. But most of the birdbaths that I have seen are not for the birds. They are used as flower pots, plant stands, ash trays, artistic expressions, decorations, status symbols, and a dozens of other uses, other than being for the birds. Only the property owners are able to explain the real reasons they have birdbaths.

Birds use my birdbaths for drinking and bathing every day of the year. On summer days there is a line of birds waiting their turn to take a bath and some refuse to wait their turn and chase other birds out of the water. In winter, I have watched birds walk on the ice, pecking at it, trying to get drink. On Christmas day in 1994, it was 36 degrees, 5:40 PM, with a 10 M.P.H. wind and I was entertained and enlightened to watch a White-throated sparrow taking a bath. Some people turn their birdbaths upside down in winter. I suppose, they expect birds to buy a drink at the grocery store or find a shower someplace to take a bath for feather maintenance.

Many people have good intentions. They may spend several hundred dollars for a big deep birdbath, thinking that a bigger birdbath is better for the birds. Some birdbaths even have multiple tiers, a water fountain and maybe even nude Cherubs spouting water. These are commonly centered in the front yard many feet from the nearest cover, perch, and shade. The depth, size, and location discourage bird use and people lose interest and stop providing water. They fail to consider that birdbaths need to be of the right design, location, and have water, before birds can use them to drink and bathe.

Bird baths do not have to be elaborate or expensive. Water for drinking can even be provided by using the solid clay base to a flowerpot, a garbage can lid, or a discarded hubcap, but a few simple things are important to keep in mind.

Bird baths should have water about 1/2 inch deep around the edges and two inches deep (knee deep to a Robin) in the middle. Some birdbaths are big enough and deep enough to drown a Great blue heron. If the birdbath is too deep, it can be filled with sand or mortar to create the correct depth. If you want to attract more birds provide a drip system above the birdbath. There are many simple and inexpensive ways of doing this.

The bath rim should be one that birds can easily perch on. When birds come out of the water they need perches and cover within 10-12 feet for safety, and to perch and preen their feathers. The weight of the water affects flight and makes birds vulnerable to cats if perches and cover are not close.

In summer, shade is important to keep the water cool. A birdbath in the summer sun may have water so hot that it would be like drinking from a hot water heater. Keep several sources of water filled for the birds every day of the year. Every time you take a drink ask yourself if your birdbath has water in it?

In my studies, only two of every 100 bird baths are properly constructed, placed, and contained water. This is a wasted resource and lost opportunities to improve habitat and to help the birds.

Are your birdbaths for the birds? Ninety-eight out of every 100 are not, but they all need to be.

Jerry W. Davis Certified Wildlife Biologist July 1995 Edited 4/08/2004

Used with permission of the author.