By Terry W. Johnson
Scientists tell us that water covers some 80 percent of the Earth’s surface. With this much water blanketing the globe, it is hard for us Georgians to understand why most backyards are veritable deserts for many wildlife species. With this in mind, if you do one thing to help your wildlife neighbors this year, provide them with a birdbath.
Although water is arguably more important to wildlife during the summer months, it is a necessity throughout the year. For example, birds need water to drink and bathe. Other animals, like frogs, need water to reproduce.
When water is scarce, some birds will travel up to two miles to drink. This allows them to continue to use a backyard even when water is absent. Other creatures that are not so mobile will simply abandon a backyard when it lacks water.
You cannot overestimate the need for water. In fact, you can attract more wildlife to your backyard with water than food. Water will draw a host of animals including birds, raccoons, frogs, salamanders and others. Some backyard wildlife enthusiasts have reported seeing at least 65 species of birds alone using birdbaths and other water features in a single backyard. Although you may never attract that many birds, providing water will dramatically increase the number and variety of wildlife using your backyard.
Water can be offered in a number of ways. However, for the sake of this column, let’s concentrate on birdbaths. These “concrete swimming holes” are available in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be as simple as a garbage can lid, clay dish or pie pan or as fancy as an ornate concrete model adorned with the likeness of a Georgia Tech yellow jacket or Georgia bulldog. They also vary widely in their value to wildlife.
The best birdbaths have rough, gently sloping bottoms and are only 1½ to 2 inches deep at their deepest point. This allows even the smallest birds to bathe and drink, while robins, mockingbirds and other large birds can still wade into the depths of the bath.
If you have a birdbath that does not fit these specifications, don’t toss it out. Simply cover the bottom with a layer of coarse gravel, pouring enough into the basin to bring the water level to the desired depth. Another solution is to place a gently sloping rock in the middle of the bath. Even a piece of wood that floats can make a deep bath accessible to the smallest birds.
Birdbaths can be on the ground, suspended from a tree or perched on a pedestal. While predators can be a threat to critters at a birdbath, wildlife seem to visit birdbaths on the ground more often than those on pedestals. However, pedestal birdbaths are especially valuable if cats prowl your backyard.
A bathing bird will often thoroughly drench its feathers with water, making flight difficult. Yet if a bird with waterlogged feathers is attacked at a birdbath at least 3 feet above ground, it has a better chance of escaping a predator attacking from the ground than if the birdbath is sitting on the ground.
On the downside, it should be noted that mammals and amphibians rarely use elevated birdbaths. Also, concrete pedestal birdbaths pose a threat to children. Since the heavy basins aren’t permanently attached to the pedestal, they can easily topple off – making them risky for an inquisitive child.
Since I have been unable to find birdbaths with short pedestals, I place my birdbaths atop large containers designed for use as container gardens. I stabilize the pots by filling them with soil, bricks or rocks. These pots have wider bases and are much shorter, making them more difficult to tip over.
It is extremely important to keep birdbaths clean and filled with fresh water. Over time, leaves, birdseed, algae and seed hulls will accumulate in birdbaths. Larger objects can be washed away with a stream of water from a hose. Scrubbing the bath with a stiff brush and cleaning agents such as soap and water can remove stubborn algae. All of the cleanser should be removed before the bath is refilled.
Changing water on a regular basis reduces the chance a birdbath will serve as a breeding place for mosquitoes. This concern has become particularly acute since West Nile virus now plagues birds and humans across the Peach State.
Where you place a birdbath will have a lot to do with how much wildlife use it. In the case of birds, some prefer a birdbath close to cover. Yet placing a birdbath no closer than 15 feet or more from a shrub or small tree reduces the chances that birds using the birdbath will be surprised by predators.
If possible, locate birdbaths in shady locations. This will reduce the rate at which water evaporates. In the heat of summer, the water in a shallow birdbath can disappear in a single day.
At times, birds are slow to use a birdbath. This seems to be more of a problem with light-colored baths. Often this problem can be remedied by simply placing a dark rock or branch in the light-colored bath.
The surest way to increase use of a birdbath is by creating moving water. For some reason, the sound and sight of moving water are a powerful magnet for birds. The simplest way to accomplish this is to punch a small hole in the bottom of a bucket or 2-liter bottle. Fill the bucket or bottle with water and hang it above the bath. The slow drip creates a sound and sight birds simply can’t resist. You can get the same effect by placing a shallow bath below a slowly dripping faucet or a hose hung over a limb. You can also buy misters designed for birdbaths, or run a small recirculation pump in the bath.
When you install a birdbath in your backyard, you are giving your wild neighbors one of the necessities of life. At the same time, you will be providing you and your family with countless hours of fascinating wildlife viewing opportunities.
Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”