How Bird Baths Hurt Birds

Is Your Bird Bath a Threat to Backyard Birds?

Cat at Bird Bath
Lisa Birtch/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

A bird bath can be an excellent water source, but it can also be dangerous, even deadly, to birds if it is not properly used and maintained. Learning about bird bath safety can help birders be prepared to offer a cool drink or quick dip to their backyard birds without accidental harm.

How Bird Baths Can Threaten Birds

Even the best bird bath can be a hazard to birds in several ways, and understanding the dangers of bird baths is the first step toward overcoming them.

  • Disease: Water contaminated with feces, rotting debris, and mold is a breeding ground for harmful bacteria that can spread diseases to any bird that takes a drink. Even if just one sick bird sips from the bath, the water can be contaminated and dangerous to other birds. Stagnant water also harbors insects that can transmit diseases between birds or even to other wildlife, pets, and humans.
    You Can Help: Clean bird baths regularly with a weak bleach solution and allow them to thoroughly dry before refilling. Also clean nearby ledges and perches where birds may wait before visiting the bath, and clean up the area around the bird bath where feces can accumulate.
  • Predators: Desert predators are well known to lie in wait at watering holes to stalk their prey, and backyard predators will do the same near a bird bath. Birds are less wary while bathing or drinking, giving a feral cat, hungry snake, or other predator time to strike.
    You Can Help: Provide shelter near the bath for birds to retreat if they feel threatened, but avoid putting shrubbery or other cover within 3-4 feet of the bath where a predator could be concealed. A higher bath can also be safer, and taking steps to discourage feral cats will minimize the risk of hosting backyard predators.
  • Poison: Bird baths treated with improper chemicals can poison birds. Even a small concentration of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or unrinsed cleaning chemicals can be fatal to birds. If painted bird baths are not sealed properly, the paint can also leach into the water and be toxic.
    You Can Help: Avoid using any chemicals near a bird bath, and clean the bath thoroughly after chemicals have been sprayed nearby. If you choose to paint a bird bath, leave the interior of the basin unpainted or use waterproof, wildlife-friendly sealant over the paint coat. Always rinse and dry the bath well after cleaning. Never use chemicals to try to keep the bath fresh between cleanings.
  • Drowning: A bath that is too deep can inadvertently drown birds. Songbirds cannot swim well and can easily become disoriented if they fall into the water and cannot get out, and it takes only moments for a small bird to drown.
    You Can Help: Choose a bath that is only 1-2 inches deep, or add rocks, marbles, or gravel to the bottom of the basin to make it shallower and give birds more secure footing. Adding several sticks over the top of the bath can also discourage birds from getting in the water but will not stop them from drinking. At the same time, cover other deep water sources in the yard, such as rain barrels or buckets, that might tempt a thirsty bird.
  • Lack of Water: The whole point of a bird bath is to provide water, but if the bath is continually dry, it is not a good resource for birds that may be relying on its refreshment. During the hottest part of summer, many natural water sources may be dry, and birds can come to rely on a bird bath. If the water is not there, the birds can suffer from heatstroke and dehydration.
    You Can Help: Choose larger bird baths with a bigger capacity during the hottest months, and refill them as often as necessary. Adding a chunk of ice to the bath each morning can help keep it refilled throughout the day as the ice melts, or opt for multiple baths around the yard so birds have several sources to rely on.
  • Winter Droughts: In winter, a frozen bird bath is just as useless as a completely dry one in summer. While birds can melt snow and ice for drinking, doing so takes a large amount of energy and can impact how well the bird is able to survive winter's harsh weather.
    You Can Help: Winterize your bird baths, including moving them to sunny areas to stay liquid for longer or adding heaters to keep the water from freezing. Heated bird baths are a wise option in very cold areas and will give birds a continual source of liquid water even in freezing temperatures.
  • Invisibility: Even if a bird bath is clean, fresh, and filled, it's not doing the birds any good if they can't find it. A bath hidden on a patio or far away from where birds are active won't be nearly as useful as one they can conveniently access.
    You Can Help: Position bird baths in busy, highly visible areas where birds are sure to see it, and consider using a bird bath fountain so the splashing sounds and water reflections will help attract birds. Finally, have patience if no birds seem to be using the bath, as it only takes a moment to get a sip and you may be missing the birds that do visit. As more birds discover the water source, they will be easier to spot.

Adding a bird bath to your yard is a great way to attract more birds and meet their basic needs, but a poorly used, unattractive bath is more dangerous than helpful. By knowing what threats a bird bath can pose, it is possible to minimize the risks and maximize the rewards of attracting birds with water.