Birdbaths & Water

Water can literally turn your yard into a mecca and oasis for wild birds.Bluebird in a birdbath  ALL birds need water in some form.  And along with food, nesting sites, and shelter are the KEYS to attracting more birds.

Birds need water for…

  1. Drinking – for their normal dietary and metabolic needs
  2. Bathing – to keep their feathers in good shape for insulation and flight
  3. Cooling off – in hot weather this can make a big difference

In the dry and hotter areas of the continent, water can literally attract more birds than bird feeders.  If you live in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California and other dry states, birds will flock to water like nothing you’ve ever seen!  But even if you live in other areas where water is plentiful, it can still “out-draw” seed.

Many backyard birds love to bathe.  In my yard, I’ve noticed bluebirds, robins, goldfinches, cardinals, house finches, mourning doves, and blue jays.  But, there are many more birds that will also.

So how do you provide water to attract the most number of bird species?  Here are some general guidelines.  Then, we’ll get into the specific ways of offering water.

  • Shallow water is best.  Most birds won’t bathe in water deeper than 1 to 1 1/2″.
  • Keep water clean and fresh as you can.  Birds will respond much better.
  • Be mindful of dense plant cover near baths.  Birds are vulnerable when bathing and you don’t want to create “cat lurking areas”.
  • The sound of water dripping or flowing attracts birds like a magnet.  (See ideas below)
  • Don’t use hanging baths.  It’s not natural for birds.  In nature, water is on or close to the ground.
  • Birdbath surfaces should be rough, not smooth.  It’s easier for the birds to walk on them.
  • Ideally, the slope of birdbath sides should be gradual and not steep.  This will encourage birds to walk into the water and bathe.
  • Place baths near some higher tree branches if possible so birds have a place to fly to for safety and to preen their feathers after bathing.

Okay, so how do you offer water in your yard.  There are a number of ways.  Here are the best “tried and true” methods…..

Pedestal Birdbaths

Pedestal birdbathThis is the traditional and most popular way to offer water to the birds in your garden.  Many people like them because they also add an elegant “look” to their landscape.  But there are some practical matters to consider when choosing a pedestal bath.

First, the depth and shape of the bowl is very important.  Most birds won’t walk into water that’s more than 1″ or 1 1/2″ in depth.  So, deep birdbaths won’t get used as much.  Also, steep sides make it more of a barrier for birds to enter the water.  You want a more gradual slope to attract more birds.

Second, the texture of the bath material is important.  A rough surface will encourage birds to walk or hop into the water.  Smooth surfaces of ceramic, metal, or glass or less attractive.

Third, look at the stability of the top on the pedestal base.   Unless it’s a one-piece bath, you want a bath bowl that sits firmly on the pedestal and isn’t unstable.  Some have a peg and hole arrangement to help keep the top of the bath on the base.

Fourth, the weight of the bath can be a problem if you have to take it in the garage in the winter (concrete baths can crack in freezing weather).  Also, heavy birdbaths require more preparation of the soil underneath otherwise the bath will settle and tilt to one side.

Ground Baths

Ground baths are very attractive to birds because this is where they find water in nature – in shallow depressions on the ground or in shallows of slow moving streams.  Sometimes having the bath slightly elevated over the ground (short legs) can help keep the water a little cleaner however.

Heated Birdbaths

Blue Jay at heated birdbathBirds can and will use water year-round.  In areas of cold winter weather, unfrozen water can be hard to find.  Heated birdbaths typically have a thermostatically controlled heating element that keeps the water just above the freezing point – not like a hot tub!  They cycle on and off as needed depending on the weather.  Your winter birds will love these baths.  You can also use a submersible heater to put in an existing bath.  But, it is best to not use concrete baths for this purpose, as they may crack.  Try to use plastic or metal baths for heaters.

Water Drippers

Ground bath with dripper

Photo courtesy of Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc.

Water Misters

Misters shoot a fine spray of water vertically into the air to attract birds like hummingbirds mainly, which can’t land in a bath due to their tiny feet.  Hummingbirds will fly through the mist over and over to get water on their feathers.  However, you can get more “mileage” from a mister by putting it in a bath under some overhanging tree foliage.  This will cause the water mist to collect on the leaves and fall back into the bath creating a “dripper” effect.

Waterfalls and Moving Water

Bird bath with water bubbler

Photo by Julie Zickefoose

The sound of flowing or cascading water is not only relaxing to us, but a BIG draw for wild birds.  They associate the sound with streams and rivers where they naturally find water.  Fortunately, it’s easy to create this “sound effect” in your garden.  There are a variety of water gardening products that create waterfall-like effects.  Some can be put in a regular birdbath and just recirculate the water.    Others are complete units that contain a water reservoir, waterfall, recirculating pump, tubing, and filters – like the “bird spa” in the picture.  All you need to create this effect is  a low point to collect the water and then a high point to pump the water to that creates the “waterfall effect”.   (NOTE:  many home centers sell all the components necessary for water gardening.  They also have some excellent books to get you started)


If you’re really ambitious and want to create a mini water ecosystem, small backyard pondconsider putting in a small pond.  These can be as little as 3 by 5 feet.  To do this you’ll need to do some digging and install a pond liner and gravel.  Then putting stones and aquatic plants in and around the pond will add the perfect natural look.  Make sure to create a shallow area where small birds can bathe and drink.  And it’s a great idea to add a water fall in one corner to provide the sound birds love.  But, also this will help keep the water clearer by oxygenating it.


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Cornell Lab of Ornithology