Don’t Forget Water for Birds in the Winter!

Throughout the hot summer months, backyard birders like me faithfully supply all the fresh water our feathered friends need for drinking, bathing or simply cooling off. By this time of year, however, most of us have covered up or put away our birdbaths, fountains and other water features, assuming that birds won’t need them until next spring. But that’s not true, experts say.

“For birds and other wildlife, water is just as important in the cold months as it is during summer,” says NWF Naturalist David Mizejewski. “If there’s no snow in your area, there is literally no water, which means birds can be in trouble.”

An American robin visits a heated birdbath during a snowstorm in Smithtown, New York. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Elaine Davis.
Even in places with abundant snow and ice, it costs birds precious calories and body heat to melt frozen water. Backyards that provide fresh, clean, liquid water during winter tend to host more avian visitors than do frozen yards. In winter, “water is as big an attraction as feeders,” says Sally Roth, author of The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible.

Here are some tips for easily—and safely—providing water for wildlife during the cold months:

  1. Before the cold sets in, replace delicate solar or fountain birdbaths with sturdier, winter-ready water features. Because ice can cause cracks and leaks, concrete baths should be stored or covered in winter.
  2. Place baths in a sunny area to make them more visible to birds and to help keep the water liquid.
  3. While birds are unlikely to submerge themselves in very cold weather, you can help them stay dry and drink more easily by adding several stones to the bath or placing a few sticks on top that the animals can use as perches.
  4. Even during winter, birdbaths (as well as feeders) should be cleaned regularly.
  5. To keep water from freezing, consider adding an immersion-style water heater. More recent models will turn off if the water in the bath dries up.
    Eastern Bluebirds by John Kinney
    A group of eastern bluebirds gathers at a birdbath on a snowy day in Burlington, North Carolina. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant John Kinney.
  6. If using a heater, add a ground-fault interrupted circuit (available at hardware stores) to prevent electric shorts. Check that cords and outlets are sheltered from snow or ice buildup.
  7. As a homemade alternative to a heater, place a light bulb in a flower pot and put a small water basin on top of the pot.
  8. A simpler option—particularly if you have no outdoor electric outlet—is to buy several heavy-duty plant saucers that will not be cracked by ice and replace frozen baths with fresh ones each morning.
  9. Avoid adding glycerin to a birdbath as antifreeze; if birds ingest too much, it can dangerously elevate their blood-sugar levels. Glycerin solutions also may mat birds feathers, decreasing insulation at a time when the animals need it most.


Garden-For-Wildlife-150x26Help backyard birds and other native wildlife all year long by becoming a wildlife gardener!


Sources:Make Winter Your Top Birding Season,” National Wildlife, December/January 2014; “Offer Water to Wildlife in Winter,” National Wildlife, January/February, 2010; Cornell Lab of Ornithology.