Birds need water in every season, and too many backyard birders deprive their feathered friends of that water by putting away bird baths when the weather turns chilly instead of winterizing their bird baths. By preparing bird baths for winter use, it is possible to offer birds liquid water year-round and enjoy their company for a quick drink even on icy days.
Winter Water Sources
Birds need water to stay hydrated, keep their tissues insulated and to properly preen all year round. In winter, many birds melt snow or ice with their bodies or bills to get a few drops of precious water, or they visit melting puddles or fast water sources such as rapid rivers or creeks that are not completely frozen. Winter bird baths can be an ideal source of easy, clean water, and backyard birders who provide that water will be surprised at the wide variety of species that visit even on the coldest days.
Not All Baths Can Be Winterized
Before planning to keep your bird bath filled and available throughout the winter, it is important to take the bath’s condition and construction into account. Not all bird baths are suitable for winter use, and it is often best to put away or protect a delicate bath so it is not damaged by ice or storms. Even a heated bird bath will develop ice around its edges, and as water freezes and expands, delicate materials can be harmed. In general, solar bird baths, delicate glass styles and complicated mosaics should be protected from winter’s ravages, while ceramic and concrete bird baths are also subject to freezing damage. Plastic, fiberglass and metal bird baths, on the other hand, are usable all year round.
If you choose to remove a bird bath or want to winterize it for storage until spring, it should be thoroughly cleaned and completely dried long before temperatures drop. If possible, move the bath into a protected storage area such as a garage or shed, but if it is too heavy or bulky to be moved, cover it with heavy plastic such as a painter’s tarp or several layers of plastic trash bags. Gather the bags or cover around the pedestal and tie it securely with string or twine to keep the cover in place even during fierce winter storms. In the spring, the bath will only need to be uncovered and filled to be a welcome spot for backyard birds.
Prepare Your Bird Bath for Winter
If you want to use your bird bath throughout the winter, just a few simple steps are necessary to maximize its efficiency and keep it safe and practical for winter use.
- Empty and clean the bath thoroughly, sterilizing it with a weak bleach solution. Algae and bacteria are less likely to grow in cold water, but it is best to start the season with a very clean, healthy bird bath.
- If possible, move the bird bath to a more suitable winter location. A bath in a sunny area will stay unfrozen longer even on cold days, and the bath should be easy to reach for refilling or cleaning as needed. If you will be adding a heater to the bath or using a heated bird bath in winter, the bath should be near a safe, functional outdoor outlet.
- Add a dark plastic plate or sheet of a black plastic trash bag to the bottom of the basin, weighting it down with a few stones if necessary. You can also use black river rocks to form a layer on the bottom of the bath. This will help absorb more solar energy throughout the winter, keeping the water liquid with less effort. This step is not needed if the basin is already dark.
- Add an immersible heater to the bath if available. These heaters will prevent most ice from forming. Use only a heavy-duty, outdoor extension cord, and if possible, protect the cord from excessive moisture or from being buried in snow. Similarly, protect the electrical outlet from moisture to avoid short circuits. If you use a fully heated bird bath, now is the time to check that it operates properly and set it up in place of an unheated bath.
- Add a tennis ball to float in the bird bath. The ball’s motion will help break up ice as it forms, keeping the water liquid more easily. The bright color of the ball will also help to attract birds' attention in a winter white landscape.
- If desired, add several sturdy twigs across the top of the bird bath to provide additional perches for drinking birds and to 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. Keeping birds out of the water will also help keep the bath cleaner, minimizing the need for cleaning winter bird baths.
- Fill the bath with clean, fresh water, and enjoy the birds that appreciate the drink!
Tips for Winter Bird Baths
Many birds visit winter bird baths, even species that do not regularly visit bird feeders. It is important to keep your bath safe and appealing throughout the winter.
- Keep it full of fresh water (you can add clean snow to the basin to top it off). Low water levels freeze more easily and could damage a heater.
- Continue to clean the bath as needed, and when cleaning, also clean perches or edges where birds congregate to drink.
- Never use chemicals or additives to prevent the water from freezing. These chemicals are toxic to birds and can be deadly.
With a few simple steps when temperatures begin to fall, it is easy to winterize your bird bath and prepare it to be a welcome drink station for all your winter backyard birds.