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In the wild, birds get water from moist food sources, snow, dew, rain puddles, ponds, lakes, and streams. But water can be scarce during summer dry spells and inaccessible during winter freezes. Species that are not otherwise likely to visit a yard may drop by a birdbath, especially during hot summer months and during spring and fall migrations. Since birds carry water to their young in their beaks, a birdbath also may encourage nest construction nearby.

Birdbath Design
A birdbath can be almost anything that holds water - from an upside down frisbee to a backyard pond. Whatever form it takes, certain features are crucial.

Birds prefer a birdbath with margins that slope gradually, allowing them to wade in to a comfortable depth (Fig. 4). A dry edge or beach gives birds a dry place to land before entering the water.

Many birdbaths go unused because they are too deep. Keep the water shallow - typically 1 to 3 inches at its deepest point - since most birds bathe in water that is no deeper than their legs are long.

Few birds will try to bathe in a bath that has a slippery surface, though they may perch on the edge to drink. A rough-textured bowl is much preferred.

In winter, some birdbaths can crack because, when water freezes, it expands about 10 percent. Because ice will exert pressure against an edge, this is another reason to avoid baths with edges that turn up sharply.

If you fall in love with a birdbath that is too deep, steep, or slippery for birds, you may be able fix the problem by adding flat rocks or gravel. Bathtub stickers or caulk sprinkled with sand also provide traction on slippery surfaces.

Any size birdbath may be used by birds. However, the bigger the birdbath the more birds will use it at the same time. For communal bathing, a birdbath should be at least 18 inches in diameter.

Figure 4. Birds need a gradual slope that allows them to wade in and find a comfortable depth. An 18"-high wire fence can be added to keep cats from ambushing the bathing birds.

Types of Birdbaths
A wide variety of ready-made birdbaths are available from local nurseries, garden centers, and specialty wildlife stores. All have advantages and disadvantages: Concrete baths are widely available, have the feel of stone, fit into most landscape settings, and stay put even in strong winds. Birds like concrete baths because of their rough surface; wide, gently sloping bowls; and stability. Plastic birdbath bowls placed in iron-rod or wood supports are lightweight and easily moved, hence; easy to clean. However, the bowls often have steep sides and a slippery surface. Plastic may also crack if water is allowed to freeze in it. While ceramic birdbaths can be quite ornamental, glazed ceramic is extremely slippery. Hanging birdbaths have the advantage that they can be placed where it might not be convenient to locate a birdbath that rests on the ground. However, water spills easily from them, especially on windy days.

Ground-level birdbaths, or dipping pools, are an especially attractive feature in a garden and may be preferred by some bird species(See Fig. 5.). They can be made larger than a standard birdbath and may attract other wildlife, such as treefrogs, that might not visit a birdbath on a stand. However, because they are at ground level, they may put birds at greater risk from local cats.

Attracting Birds to Your Birdbath
To attract a wide variety of birds, place baths in different locations around your yard. A bath in a shady area with shrubs or small trees nearby can attract small, shy birds such as warblers and wrens. A bath at ground-level can attract bigger, bolder birds such as juncos, as well as four-legged wildlife. When placing a birdbath, also think about how you’re going to keep it clean and full.

Proper landscaping around a birdbath can help to attract birds. A small brush pile within ten feet of a bath will attract birds that require nearby shelter. Birds also will use nearby open shrubs and trees with low branches for this purpose. However, be careful not to put so much shrubbery so close to the bath that you give local cats the opportunity to ambush birds while they are bathing. In areas with a lot of house cats, keep at least ten feet of open space around your dust bath or birdbath to prevent birds from being ambushed.

Birds are attracted to the sound and movement of water. Commercial birdbaths equipped with built-in fountains, drippers, or misters help to attract birds, but beware that fancy baths rarely have the optimal bowl design. Modifications with stones or gravel may be needed to make bathing easier.

Incidentally, don’t worry if the ground around your bath becomes soggy. Barn swallows, robins, phoebes, and hummingbirds will use mud under the birdbath for nesting material, while butterflies will gather there to drink mineral-rich water from mud or wet sand.

Maintaining Birdbaths
Birds need to drink and bathe even on the coldest days. Although birds can eat snow and melting ice to get water in winter, a birdbath will be used and appreciated. To be sure it is a reliable source of water, keep it from freezing between dawn and nightfall, when birds are active. The water need only be kept just above freezing.

Figure 5. A ground-level birdbath can be made with concrete, plastic or other synthetic pond liner.

You can keep a birdbath free of ice by pouring warm water into the bowl, but this is tedious in extreme cold weather, as the water freezes rapidly. A stick of wood left in the water during cold snaps can help you pop out ice so you can add fresh water. (If the water does freeze, the stick will also help to prevent the birdbath from cracking.)

Birdbaths equipped with submersible, thermostatically controlled heaters will save you time. Small heaters designed to operate at a depth of one to three inches are available at garden stores and hardware centers, and through mail-order catalogs.

You will need a source of electricity to run your birdbath heater. Exercise caution here. Outdoor outlets should be on a circuit or outlet protected by a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), which will cut off the flow of electricity in the event of a short. Most outlets in newer homes are protected by GFCI. If yours isn’t and you are comfortable with wiring and electricity, you can install your own. Otherwise, consult a qualified electrician. If you are not sure whether your outlets are protected, have them checked by a qualified electrician.

When using a heater, keep the birdbath full of clean water or you may ruin the heater and your birdbath.

Diseases can spread quickly and easily in an untended birdbath. Change the water every few days in a small bath, and rinse a dipping pool every week with your hose, to get rid of regurgitated seeds and other debris. Change water more often if many birds are using the bath. (Locating your birdbath near a hose bib will make refilling and cleaning easier.)

Scrub small baths a few times each month with a plastic brush to remove algae and bacteria. Never add chemicals to kill algae or insects or to keep the water from freezing in your birdbath.

Even a bath that is refilled automatically must be monitored at least weekly for cleanliness; however— more frequently during the summer months.