Despite taking steps to winterize a bird bath or opting for a heated bird bath during the coldest months of the year, every birder is occasionally caught with a basin full of ice. It could happen during a late fall freeze, an early spring cold snap, or from a faulty heating element that should have kept water liquid without trouble, but it does happen. Fortunately, there are easy steps to safely thaw a bird bath and be sure the water stays fresh and flowing.
Why Freezing Is a Problem
No matter why the bird bath freezes, the end result is less water available for birds to drink and preen. Instead of taking advantage of a convenient liquid water source, birds will have to use valuable calories and energy to melt ice or snow. This means they have less energy available for foraging, migrating, staying alert to predators, or just keeping their body temperatures at a healthy level. A frozen bird bath will also attract fewer birds, diminishing backyard birding enjoyment every time the temperature drops.
Ice can also damage even sturdy bird baths. Because water expands as it freezes, the ice may form in a tiny crack or crevice and gradually warp a bath. With large ice buildup, the entire basin may crack or shatter, especially if the basin is thin or made of delicate material. Small cracks can develop in any surface, including stone and concrete baths, and may not be noticed until warmer weather, when the basin leaks more noticeably.
By taking steps to thaw the bath, however, damage can be minimized and birds will once again have a reliable water source to visit.
4 Easy Ways to Thaw a Frozen Bird Bath
Bird baths freeze from the surface, developing a thin layer of ice on top of the water. If left to freeze, the ice layer gradually thickens, eventually freezing completely solid. The ice may be flat or could have ridges, bumps, or lumps depending on how consistent the temperature was as the water froze, and whether the wind or other disturbances caused imperfections in the forming ice. Regardless of the shape and thickness of the ice, however, there are easy ways to thaw it.
- Break Thin Ice
If the ice layer is very thin and brittle, it is easy to simply break it into pieces with a few gentle taps. Those pieces will melt quickly as they are in contact with the remaining water, provided the temperature does not continue to fall. Even before the shattered ice melts, birds will be able to take advantage of the water source more easily.
- Remove an Ice Sheet
If a thicker layer of ice has developed but there is still liquid water in the basin, the entire frozen layer may be able to be picked up and removed. Discard the ice in a safe spot where it won't be slipped on, and top off the basin with extra fresh water. The thicker sheet could also be broken into smaller pieces and returned to the basin to melt, though it will melt more slowly.
- Add Warm Water
When a bath is completely frozen, it can be gently melted by pouring warm water onto the ice. Slowly pour warm (not hot!) water onto the thickest part of the ice, allowing it to melt gradually. The thinner parts of the ice will also melt as the warm water covers the surface, and the bath will also be easily refilled.
- Use Solar Heating
If a bath is fully frozen and needs to be thawed very gently to avoid damage to a delicate mosaic or other finish, cover the bath with a black plastic trash bag and move it into a sunny spot. The black plastic will more efficiently absorb heat from the sun, warming the bath gradually. If the bath is not too heavy, it could also be moved into a garage, screen porch, or other warm area to thaw, but may be difficult to move back into position without spilling.
Any of these techniques can be effective for the occasional frozen bird bath. If the water is freezing frequently, however, it may be best to investigate heated bird baths that will keep water liquid and accessible to birds even on the coldest days.
Techniques to Avoid
No matter how solidly frozen a bird bath may be or how thirsty visiting birds may seem, some thawing methods are never safe to use. Do not use any of these techniques to thaw a bird bath:
- NO Sharp Blows
If the ice is so thick that a hammer or ax may be necessary to break it, the entire bath may break when it is struck. Furthermore, flying shards of ice can be sharp and dangerous, not only to anyone nearby, but also to windows, pets, or other structures in the immediate vicinity.
- NO Boiling Water
Never dump boiling water on a frozen bird bath in an attempt to melt the ice. The rapid, extreme temperature change from frozen water to boiling water, a change of 180 degrees between freezing and boiling, can shatter a bath. If the water spills or splashes unexpectedly, it can also cause severe burns.
- NO Flames or Open Heating Elements
Do not use open flames or exposed heating elements to thaw a bird bath. Even immersion heaters that are designed for bird baths are meant to be used in liquid water, not on top of solid ice. Burns and electrical shorts are strong possibilities if these techniques are used.
- NO Salts or Deicing Chemicals
While salt, antifreeze, or other deicing chemicals may indeed melt the ice in a bird bath, they will contaminate the water and can be deadly to birds. If the water or basin is exposed to these chemicals, it will need to be thoroughly cleaned and rinsed before it can be refilled with water for the birds.
It can be frustrating to find a bird bath covered in ice, but with care it is easy to thaw out the bath quickly and safely, giving birds back their essential water source.