How to Winterize Your Bird Baths

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Randen Pederson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

It's no surprise that birds need water year-round, but frozen temperatures and seasonal fountains may mean that many struggle to find it during the winter months. The good news: Instead of stashing away your bird bath when the weather turns chilly, you can actually winterize it, granting your winged friends available water all year long.

Winter Water Sources

Like many animals, proper hydration is essential to a bird's survival—it allows them to keep their body tissues insulated, properly preen their feathers, and generally thrive all year round. In winter, many birds resort to melting snow or ice with their bodies or beaks to get a few drops of water, or they visit puddles or fast-moving water sources (such as rapid rivers or creeks) that are not completely frozen. Because of the potential scarcity of liquid water during the colder months, winter bird baths can be an ideal source of easy, clean water, and backyard bird fans who provide that water may be surprised at the wide variety of species that visit even on the coldest days.

Select the Right Bird Bath

If you're looking to winterize your bird bath, it's a good idea to start by taking your current bird bath's condition and construction into account. Not all bird baths are suitable for winter use—it's often a good idea to put away or protect any delicate designs so they're not damaged by ice or storms. In general, solar bird baths, glass styles, bird bath fountains, and structures featuring complicated mosaic designs should be protected from winter’s ravages (though less fragile, ceramic and concrete bird baths can also be subject to cold weather damage). On the other hand, plastic, fiberglass, and metal bird baths are typically usable all year round.

Prepare Your Winter Bird Bath

If you want to use your bird bath throughout the winter, these simple steps will help you maximize its efficiency and keep it safe and practical for winter use.

  1. Empty and clean the bath thoroughly, sterilizing it using a weak bleach solution. Algae and bacteria are less likely to grow in cold weather, but it's still good practice to start each season with a very clean bird bath. Allow it to dry out completely for several days.
  2. If your bath isn't too heavy (or attached to another structure, like a stone patio), move it to a more suitable winter location. A bath in a sunny area will stay liquid longer even on the coldest days, and you'll definitely appreciate the bit of warmth should you have to go out to refill or clean it. If you plan to add a heater to the bath (or are using a heated bird bath), place your structure near a safe, functional outdoor outlet.
  3. Add a thick plastic sheet (like a painter's tarp) or layers of black plastic trash bags to the bottom of the basin, weighing it down with a few stones if necessary (opt for black river rocks, which will help reflect sunlight and keep the water liquid with less effort).
  4. Using durable twine or zip ties, gather the tarp or covering around the pedestal and base of the bird bath, securing it tightly in several spots to ensure it doesn't blow up during any winter storms.
  5. If available, add an immersible heater to the bath, which will prevent ice from forming. Use only a heavy-duty, outdoor extension cord, and, if possible, wrap the cord to protect it from excessive moisture or snow. Similarly, protect the electrical outlet from moisture to avoid short circuits. If you're using a fully-heated bird bath, now is the time to check that it operates properly. Note: Immersible heaters should not be added to fully-heated baths.
  6. Fill the bath with clean, fresh water, checking for any leaking through the tarp or liner.
  7. Float a tennis ball in the bird bath. The ball’s gentle motion will help break up ice as it forms, keeping the water liquid more easily. Bonus: The bright color of the ball will also attract birds' attention in an otherwise white winter landscape.
  8. If desired, you can also add several sturdy twigs across the top of the bird bath to provide additional perches for drinking birds and discourage bathing. Most birds will not bathe when temperatures are low enough to freeze the water on their feathers, but many backyard birders feel more comfortable preventing bathing altogether, as it helps keep the bath cleaner.

Other Helpful Tips

Many birds visit winter bird baths—even species that do not regularly use bird feeders—so it's important to keep your bath safe and appealing throughout the winter. Here are just a few more things to keep in mind:

  • Keep your bath full of fresh water (you can even add a handful of clean snow to the basin to top it off). Low water levels freeze more easily and could damage a heater if you're using one.
  • Continue to clean the bath as needed, and when cleaning, also clean perches or edges where birds congregate to drink.
  • Never use salt, antifreeze chemicals, or other additives to prevent the water from freezing. These chemicals are toxic to birds and can be deadly.