Tips for getting birds to use a bird bath

Like many backyard birders, I started my journey by buying feeders and seeds. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, many birds are happy to visit feeders. But unless you’re already familiar with your local bird populations, jumping into food can lead to a false starts. Instead, consider starting with water. Nearly every bird, even those who rarely visit feeders, needs water, for both hydration and preening.

Setting up a bird bath to attract birds

That sounds pretty straightforward, but let me assure you, the rabbit hole of providing water for birds is deep. I decided on a pretty standard concrete fountain.  My reasoning  was twofold – one, concrete is more durable than resin, which a lot of the fancier bird baths and fountains are made from. Two, it wasn’t as expensive.

Because I had spent weeks trying to attract birds to my feeders, I was somewhat prepared for the total lack of interest in the bird bath. To help entice them, I planned to add a solar powered pump, because birds really like moving water. A bonus is that the pump helps keeps the water from stagnating and becoming overrun with algae and other gunk. Plus, who doesn’t want a little fountain in their garden? I had to order the pump from Amazon, since I couldn’t find one locally. I picked this model, because it was small, solar, and inexpensive

Setting up the solar pump

Two long days passed while I waited for it to arrive . I kept the bath cleaned and filled. And I kept scattering seed around the ground near the bath to help attract attention.  Finally, the pump arrived! I literally ran outside with it, stuck one of the 8 included “nozzles” on it, and popped it into the water. It was so solar sensitive that it started pumping while I was walking through the yard with it, making a sort of sad, futile whir.

It floated in the bath and immediately began to produce a charming plume of water. I was delighted and I was sure the birds would be, too. I went back inside and settled in to see what would happen. By the time I got in, the small but enthusiastic pump had more or less drained the fountain.

Some trial and error led me to realize our bowl was too small for any of the more “fountainy” spray tips so I just left it open, producing a gentle gurgle. However, that gurgle was enough to start getting some of the birds to notice it. It really didn’t take more than a day or so before sparrows started landing on it and sipping. Victory! Sort of. The Cardinals and other birds wouldn’t go near it and I had yet to see a single bird actually bathe it in.

Picking a better location

I moved the bath under a nearby apple tree, in hopes that the birds would find the bath more appealing with a bit more coverage overhead. Birds are reluctant to feed or drink in areas without nearby cover, so it made sense they were a little hesitant about the bath. Moving it to a more sheltered location definitely increased bird visits, and I eventually settled the bird bath near the apple trees with a large patch of Rudbeckia surrounding it.

Some research also suggested adding in some flat rocks to make areas of the bird basin more shallow, and thus better for smaller birds.  I experimented a bit with that, but no matter what size rocks I used, or how I placed them, it didn’t seem to help, no birds were getting in the bowl.  Finally, I decided that the pump was taking up too much water real estate, leaving too little room for the birds. Since it had mostly done it’s job by then of getting the birds’ attention, I decided to take it out and see how things fared. I am happy to say that almost immediately, we began having bathers.

Eventually, I replaced the pump with this small style. The solar panel is outside the bath so the birds still have plenty of room to get in. It keeps the water circulating and doesn’t drift around and splash water out.

Use a birdbath to attract birds

Bird bath maintenance

It’s very important to keep bird baths (and feeders!) clean. A dirty bath won’t appeal to birds and unclean water can make them sick. The circulating pump helps a lot with this, but the bath still needs to be cleaned. Since the bath is concrete, I just use the ‘pressure’ setting on my garden hose to blast the build up out of it. If it gets really dirty, I use a scrub brush to give it a hard scour. A resin or glass bath may require different methods or products, so it’s best to check manufacturer guidelines if that’s what your bath is.

I also clean the pump periodically by taking it into the house and soaking it in warm water with a drop of dish soap. It’s really important to rinse it thoroughly afterwards.

What about those anti-algae chemicals?

There are algicide/fungicide products that can be added to the birdbath. These are safe for the birds to drink or bath in but since they are designed to kill plant growth, they will also kill everything around the bird bath when the birds splash water out. My preference is to avoid  things that end with ‘cide’ in my garden, and this is no exception. It’s easy to keep the bath clean just by changing the water regularly and hosing or scrubbing the bath as needed.

In short, adding a bird bath is a great way to lure birds to your yard. And it can work great even if you don’t choose to put out feeders, making it a very easy way of hosting birds. Be sure to check out Getting Started Backyard Birdwatching and Things to Know About Backyard Birds, too. They’re both full of great ideas for making your space safe and appealing to birds.