Browse along the tarmacked or Astro-turfed avenues of any garden center and you will eventually emerge into an oasis of concrete and stone ornaments of all manner of heights, widths and design. Slate-gray bald eagles stand talon-sharp astride miniature Mount Rushmore’s; cherubim toot from flutes and bugles; alabaster foxes and hedgehogs give distinctly human grins around solar lights embedded in their paws; row after row of frozen David’s, Hercules’, and Venus’ stand emotionless on their plinths forever. And there dotted among them all are the deep, wide bowls of bird baths atop waist-high pedestals, ironwork melded into looping flowers and ivy, swirling concentric patterns, or stout no-nonsense marble columns, rigid and dust-free. These bird baths are designed to wow any garden area, draw complimentary remarks from admiring neighbors, and make you feel like you’ve made it, you’re there, you have your very own Grand and Splendid Bird Bath.
Function over form
As attractive and money-sapping as these garden center items are (and there is absolutely no harm in procuring one to make your garden look pretty), many are not actually that well designed for their announced purpose. Most are simply too deep or steeply-sided for the species that will come to your garden, and they are also often poorly made, in terms of how the weather will affect it; changes in temperatures and moisture content of the air can turn a hairline crack into a gaping fissure, expanding until the entire side falls off or the pedestal buckles. They can also be too slippery if glazed, or hard to clean with their roughened surfaces, and they may even be unable to provide a decent perching edge for many a tiny-toed tit.
The world needs more bird baths
While bird feeders are increasingly common, bird baths have yet to fully make their mark, which is such a missed opportunity as bird baths are an excellent way of enticing more birds to your garden. Aside from what you get out of it, bird baths provide birds with clean water for both drinking and bathing, essential in all seasons, be it in the summer when rising temperatures can seriously endanger a bird’s ability to survive heat stress, or in the winter when natural sources may be frozen.
Birds lose water through respiration and defecation, and need to drink at the very least two times a day, but water also helps them keep their feathers clean and free of parasites, loosening dirt and helping them preen, also enabling air to become trapped between the layers, providing insulation. Studies have found that clean birds are also more streamlined, meaning they can get away from predators faster.
You can make your own bird bath from ample objects about the house. Old frying, pancake or omelet pans, a trash can lid, any saucer (minus the cup), a baking tray, the receptacles that many large plant pots come with to catch excess watering; all of these have things in common – they are shallow, provide a good surface area, and have a thin lip around the edge. Think about the baths that birds use in nature – a shallow puddle, a dip in the sodden earth, a calm harbored bend in a stream with a gently sloping beach; an area of respite.
Whether you make your own or purchase one, the main thing to consider in every choice is bird safety. Here’s a few things to think about:
- The surface should ideally be rough or stippled so the birds can grip and walk safely; adding sand, small stones and gravel can create this effect.
- The water should be no more than 2.5cm deep for the majority of species that come by, but providing one that has a “deep end” on a gently inclined slope, or a second deeper one around 10cm max deep for larger species is perfect. Enticing a variety of birds boosts biological diversity which is what the ideal balanced environment needs.
- They need to be made from a material that makes them easy to move and therefore clean. Stone baths can be good in terms of staying upright in high winds, but they are difficult to move. Ceramic baths will have some of that weight you need, but check they have been high-fired to be weather resistant. There is a range of recycled materials now available in many countries, from resins, recycled plastics, and bamboo fibers.
- If your bath seems too lightweight, consider using a system similar to that for a tent, using pegs and guy ropes (on a smaller scale) to keep it anchored down.
- You can have ground-sited bird baths, ones on a pedestal, or ones suspended from branches above. Providing all three will cater across the species.
- Placing different sized stones in the water can help birds get a good grip or get in and out of the water if they need to.
- Place the bath somewhere that affords plenty of visibility but also provides some cover. Predators will be on the lookout for birds who take the chance on relaxing for a drink or a bath just for a second, so they need to be able to perch nearby and survey the area as well as retreat to it if necessary. However, do be mindful of the frequency of objects such as falling leaves accumulating in the bath, making the need to clean it out become more pertinent.
- Stopping the water freezing over in winter can be tricky, but people have found either placing a small floating ball like a Ping-Pong ball in the water helps keep the surface moving to prevent icing up, or lining the bowl with plastic helps keep the temperature higher than the outside air. There are fancy models with built-in heaters, but one thing you must never do is use antifreeze as this is poisonous.
- Change the water every day or at least every two days. Algae build-up, mosquito larvae, bird droppings and dirty feathers, even fecal sacs left by parent birds cleaning out the nest; all of these things can rapidly lead to a very unhealthy environment.
A good bird bath will be light enough to make it easy to refill, clean, and easy to position, and it needs to be a simple, sturdy construction. Remember that siting the bath is just as important as what it is made from; you may need to try out a few places to see if the birds are happy with it, and they will let you know – water is essential to all living things, and birds will come to it if you provide it.