Now that we are in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record I get very concerned that our backyard birds cannot find enough water. Many of us grew up playing close to a pond or stream where we once caught frogs, watched Snapping Turtles and observed beautiful birds like the Baltimore Oriole bathing and drinking.
Unfortunately many of those places that we and our wildlife enjoyed so much are gone for good, the victim of urban sprawl and unchecked development . While we have indoor plumbing and swimming pools that we can use for our water, our birds are not so lucky. Unless birds can find a suitable water source they cannot survive.
Imagine for a minute a beautiful Yellow Warbler on an incredibly perilous journey that has migrated all the way from South America right to your little backyard in New Jersey. They come in during the nigh, exhausted in desperate need of food and water . If they are lucky they can find some insects to help regain their strength but water can be even harder to come across in our urban wilderness.
Birds need a clean source of water for a few reasons. They of course need to drink, but they also need to keep their feathers clean so that they can fly well enough to migrate, escape from predators and gather food for their young. Water also helps birds to keep them cool on 90 degree New Jersey days.
A few summers ago, I spent a hot day birding at DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. I decided to rest on a bench near a sprinkler system that was spraying a fine mist of water on the dry flower beds. It turned out to be the best spot of the day, and I didn’t even have to walk around. As I quietly sat there, I watched Baltimore and Orchard Orioles coming in to cool down.
Yellow Warblers, Cedar Waxings and Barn Swallows flew in to scoop up mud to repair their nests. If fresh water is important to birds in a vast area like the Meadowlands, it can be an even more sought out resource in your backyard where water is less common. Try to imagine your yard from an aerial view. How close is the nearest water source? A few blocks? A few miles? Urban sprawl has eliminated many small ponds and waterways. Your home pond or birdbath can be an important source for birds, providing water that they otherwise may have to travel long distances to find.
So now that we know that it is important to provide water to our feathered friends, just how do we go about it ? The first thing to realize is birds don’t care how fancy your birdbath is. The best water source you can provide is a shallow one. Small birds are very cautious of water as they can easily drown. In order for them to bathe there should be spots in your bird bath or pond that are only about knee deep .
So if you can imagine the knee on a Goldfinch you need to create some pretty shallow places to get them to use it. Just a few flat stones or even fish tank gravel will work just fine. Pond kits are sold everywhere, but they can be harmful to birds if not used correctly. The kits are generally made of molded plastic, maybe a foot and a half or two feet deep with sides that go straight down.
Often, when birds land on the sides of these ponds to drink or bathe, they fall or slip in and drown. These ponds, in a way, act as traps for birds. Pond kits are a good idea, but they need to be restructured. Rocks and stones that are gradually sloped into the pond can create shallow areas that are safe for small birds to enter and exit the water and will make them great for the backyard bird sanctuary.
The next step is finding a good place to put your new bird spa. If there are cats that roam your neighborhood, keep the bath away from shrubs and places where cats can hide and possibly catch your birds. Place the bath in a more open area where birds can see predators approaching and make a quick getaway.
But if hawks frequent your backyard the opposite may work by keeping your birdbath closer to cover where birds can get away. If you can, landscape around your pond or birdbath with native plants which will create a small wetland habitat of sorts right in your backyard.
It may take a while for birds to find your backyard water resort, so be patient. Birds find water by sight and sound. They can see ripples in the water and can hear it running. Both of these can be easily accomplished in a pond. To achieve similar effects in birdbaths, add items like re-circulating rocks, which are pumps with covers made to look like stones that add a nice running water sound and movement to the bath. All you need is a nearby electric source.
If electricity is not an option, drippers and misters that run off your outside faucet can also be a lot of fun for birds. You don’t even need to have a birdbath to use the misters. They can simply spray a fine mist onto your lawn or onto trees and shrubs, letting birds bathe in leaves. If you’re really lucky, Hummingbirds will dance through the water spray, giving you a surreal experience you will not forget.
A question I often get asked is, “What about mosquitoes?” If you keep your birdbath clean, which you should for the health of the birds, mosquitoes will not be an issue. You should never allow your birdbath to sit that long without attending to it. When it needs cleaning, you can use a solution that contains one part bleach to 10 parts water and a good brush. Vinegar can be used instead of bleach with the same 1:10 ratio. Moving water also prevents mosquitoes from breeding.
Water is a vital part of your backyard wildlife habitat. Whether you have a pond or a simple birdbath, providing a good clean water source for the area’s birds can mean survival for them and another way for you to enjoy your backyard wildlife habitat. Remember, every New Jersey backyard is important; put a part of it aside for wildlife.
If you have any questions you can E-mail me at Greatauk4@gmail.com