Water is crucial in any bird-friendly backyard, but not all water is equally friendly to birds. Some bird baths can actually be hazardous to birds, and backyard birders should always take steps to keep their bird baths from causing problems for thirsty birds.
Why Birds Need Water
Birds need water not only to drink and stay hydrated, but also to bathe, preen and keep cool. A backyard bath can be especially important in arid regions where natural water sources are unpredictable and during periods of extreme drought when even long-standing water sources may vanish.
Bird baths are also essential during the winter when much natural water is frozen and birds need to conserve energy for body warmth rather than melting water. If the bath is not suitable, however, it can actually cause more problems for birds.
Top 10 Worst Bird Baths (And How to Fix Them!)
There are many ways a bird bath can be problematic for birds, even if it may seem to be a good water source. The worst bird bath offenders include…
- The Empty Bird Bath
If there is no water in the bath, it does no good for birds. Even a deeper bath may empty out quickly from the vigorous splashing of bathing birds or evaporation on hot days, and shallow baths will dry out more quickly than deeper basins.
The Fix: Opt for a slightly deeper bath and position it properly to stay full longer, taking advantage of sprinklers, water downspouts or other refilling options.
- The Too Deep Bird Bath
A deeper bath will stay full longer, but a very deep basin is not suitable for smaller birds and may actually present a drowning risk if birds tumble into the water. If the water level in a deeper bath drops, birds may not be able to reach the water from the basin's edge.
The Fix: Add several large stones to the basin to create a shallower area where smaller birds can access the water, or place a few sticks in the bath to create accessible perches.
- The Dirty Bird Bath
Birds are not always fussy about their water sources, but a dirty bath contaminated with discarded seed hulls, shed feathers, feces, algae and other debris can be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and insects, spreading diseases to all the birds that visit.
The Fix: Clean the bird bath regularly with a weak bleach solution, and rinse it daily to minimize contamination. It is even possible to clean a bird bath without scrubbing!
- The Hanging Bird Bath
Hanging baths can be very useful and are a welcome water source for birds, but they can also be unstable and will spill or splash as they swing. Many birds will avoid a hanging bath no matter how thirsty they may be, if they can't feel secure while they visit.
The Fix: Choose a hanging bath that is large and heavy enough to stay stable when birds land, and hang it in an area away from breezes that could cause additional swinging.
- The Hunting Ground Bird Bath
Birds aren't the only wildlife to visit bird baths, and predators – including feral cats and different raptors – will quickly learn to stalk a bird bath for an easy feathered meal. Birds are more vulnerable when drinking and bathing, and can be easy prey for savvy predators.
The Fix: Position a bird bath so it is close to adequate shelter where threatened birds can retreat, but avoid placing a bath directly in shrubbery that could conceal hunting predators.
- The Frozen Bird Bath
When a bath freezes in winter, the water is inaccessible, and ice buildup can damage delicate finishes or crack concrete bird baths. Birds then need to use additional energy to melt snow or ice for drinking, energy they need for body heat to survive cold winters.
The Fix: Use a heated bird bath from late fall to early spring to avoid any risk of frozen water, or add an outdoor heating element to an existing bath to keep water liquid.
- The Metal Bird Bath
Metal bird baths can be attractive and durable, but they can also become excruciatingly hot in the summer sun. Warmer water is less appealing to birds and is more likely to become a breeding ground for algae and bacteria, and in extreme cases, hot metal can cause burns.
The Fix: Avoid using a bird bath with a metal basin, or position a metal bath in a thickly shaded area where it will stay cooler throughout the day.
- The Tiny Bird Bath
A small bird bath will not only dry out quickly, but it does not provide adequate room for multiple birds to drink simultaneously and it may not be deep enough for birds to bathe, making the bath less useful for backyard birds.
The Fix: Choose a bath with a larger, deeper basin, or group several tiny bird baths together to create an impromptu water feature that will meet more birds' needs.
- The Stagnant Bird Bath
While birds will drink from any source of water, a still, stagnant bird bath is less attractive and more likely to harbor dangerous bacteria. A still bird bath may also not be noticed by passing birds that would likely visit a water source, even if they won't visit feeders.
The Fix: Add a dripper, mister or wiggler to the water to create ripples and splashes that will attract birds' attention and keep the water moving, or try a bird bath fountain.
- The Poisoned Bird Bath
A bird bath might appear fresh, clean and otherwise ideal for birds, but could still be hazardous if it has become contaminated by pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or other backyard chemicals. These chemicals can be toxic and fatal to birds, even in small doses.
The Fix: Minimize backyard chemical use and always cover bird baths when chemicals must be sprayed. Clean bird baths regularly to remove any lingering toxic residue.
Make a Better Bird Bath
While there are many ways bird baths can be dangerous to birds, many problems are easily fixed and both birds and birders can continue to enjoy the advantages of appropriate backyard water sources. With regular, gentle care – daily or weekly as needed – any bird bath can be a fantastic backyard feature and many different birds will appreciate the reliable water.
Photo – Bathing Robin © James Schumacher