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Birdbaths Are Good for the Garden

6/24/2012 11:36:44 AM

Tags: birds, birdbath, organic gardening, organic pest control, edible landscape, pollination, wasps, Nan Chase

I believe that a birdbath is one of the best additions you can make to the garden, for a number of reasons. But before I go into those, hear me roar: Get rid of your birdfeeder!

That's right. Get rid of your birdfeeder and instead strive to make your whole garden a natural birdfeeder, with the food-rich habitat that birds will seek out on their own; just add water. Sure, birdfeeders attract lots of interesting birds, but at what price? Birdfeeders also attract squirrels, raccoons, and, in my town, bears. Who needs that?

Certainly not the birds. Keeping a birdfeeder stocked with seeds for birds to squabble over reminds me of how too much of America eats: with fast food so cheap and so universally accessible that people sit around, and worse, drive around, eating junk food as a pastime, with frightening results. Do you really want to do that to birds? 

abirdbath1

OK, here's what a birdbath can do for your garden. Birds will come to your birdbath for the water they need -- for drinking and for grooming. While they're hanging around they will hunt for the insects and worms and seeds and flower parts they like to eat. In the process they will help aerate the soil, help groom dead plant material, and help keep plants healthy as they devour pests. Yes, birds may eat some fruit, especially if you grow berries or cherries, but gardeners can certainly take steps to mitigate losses.

The birds feeding in your garden will show you more about their natural behavior than they will at a feeder. I love to watch goldfinches perch on top of my Jerusalem artichoke blooms and bend upside down as they extract the seeds.

 agoldfinch 

The males are brilliant yellow, but the females are mostly olive green and blend in perfectly with the stalks. I love to sit on the porch and watch one bird after another come to the bath and splash.

Here's an unexpected bonus: birdbaths give wasps and other beneficial insects a place to cool off and drink in the hot summer months, and some of these, like the wasps, are tremendous predators of cabbage worms and other destructive pests.

 awasp 

The more flying insects in the garden, too, the better fruit pollination will be.

Finally, a birdbath will make your garden more beautiful, giving it a calming focus.

What to Look For 

No need to get fancy with a birdbath, no need for bright ceramic bowls or ornate shapes. In my 25 years or so of watching birds at my birdbath, I have come to think that birds favor a plain concrete bowl, especially one with a very shallow pitch rather than a deep pool. The shallow pitch lets smaller birds wade in, where they can stand up and clean their feathers instead of having to jump in.

Look for concrete birdbaths at any garden center, or if you live near the country there may be a manufacturing plant nearby with roadside sales of garden sculpture.

Don't worry that the birdbath looks raw and bright at first. It will age soon enough. Place the birdbath and pedestal on a firm, level base in the garden, but, again, nothing fancy. It could be a couple of bricks placed side by side, or a square of paving tile.

The important thing is to leave plenty of open area around the birdbath so that birds can see any predators from far off. And place the birdbath near a perch of some sort, whether in a small open tree or on a trellis or arbor. That lets birds scan the horizon from high up before swooping in to the bath.

 apple pruned birdbath 

Keeping vegetation cleared back is a big challenge for me. I do fine in the winter, here in the mountains of North Carolina, when all the vegetation dies to the ground, save for the little fruit trees in the front yard. But once spring arrives, the flowers take over, and I have to occasionally prune back the growth in mid-season to keep the birdbath open.

Speaking of winter, my birding mentor, Curtis Smalling of the Audubon Society, says that birds need water most desperately in cold winter months, when open water is scarce. He recommends a heated birdbath or a birdbath heater. Sources abound. 

spring birdbath

In summer, when gloppy stuff grows pretty fast in warm water, you may need to scrub out the birdbath with a wire brush every week or so to keep it looking nice. In winter, if you live in a very cold region where ice lingers, take the bowl off the pedestal and lean it over or put it in a garage or shed so it doesn't fill with ice and crack.

Birdbath Memories 

I have lovely, distant memories of my Grandma Koch's green backyard in small-town Illinois. The lawn was neatly edged, and the creamy hydrangea bushes supplied the only real color. And there was a birdbath, always sparkling clean. I don't remember birds in it, just the little pool of water.

More recently I have lived for about five years at a busy street corner near downtown Asheville, N.C. The birds don't seem to mind the noise and traffic, and come to the bath every day; they're mostly brawling, bossy mockingbirds anyway. For 25 years before that, though, I lived in a small mountain town and the birdbath was a major source of entertainment.

There might be two or three species at the birdbath at once: sparrow, robin, and pigeon, for example. One time five little birds got in the bath together to splash around. And there were rare, exciting visits from hummingbirds. A friend of mine had a wild turkey in her birdbath.

Place your birdbath where you can enjoy the show.


Nan K. Chase is the author of EatYour Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape



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Post a comment below.

 

Lora Fleming
7/7/2012 1:53:59 PM
Great article. But you say "The important thing is to leave plenty of open area around the birdbath so that birds can see any predators from far off." and then two of the three pictures show the bath surrounded by flowers. While beautiful, it seems to be contradictory information.

Carole Soule
7/4/2012 1:02:17 PM
I keep 3, yes THREE birbats in my yard. My porch is screened in so my cats love to watch the activity going on. I keep it clean from algee by scrubbing with 1 part bleach and 4 parts hot water. then, rinse and rinse, many times to get rid of the bleach residue. The birds are Cardinals, Florida blue jays, mocking birds, doves, Hummingbirds, bees, wasps, and many more. I have a butterfly garden and they like it too.I enjoy your articles very much. Keep up the good work.

Arnold Fishman
7/3/2012 3:28:00 AM
we have a small multi-tier 20" diameter fountain that our birds love...in fact there is often a waiting line to get in which is fun to watch and hear them splashing--mostly robins and black birds and sometimes sparrows. its painted metal aluminum and wrought iron from Lowes. But the only problem is there are so many guests, it has to be dissassembled and scrubbed every week. I also tried the pennies and worked for a while until our feathered friends discovered this oasis...the pennies will not keep the water clean from birds cleaning themselves...for sure.

Sam Mineo
7/1/2012 2:29:22 AM
If the penny is 1982 or later, it's make of 97.5% zinc.

Cherrie Icee
6/29/2012 11:15:46 PM
thank you soooo much, this is very helpful info

Toni Kellers
6/29/2012 9:24:36 PM
A few pennies in a bird bath help to keep algae at a minimum - the copper does the trick.

Debra
6/29/2012 7:43:07 PM
My birdbath got destroyed by a tree limb during the tornado in Springfield, MA last year. I think when I get a new one I will head this advise. Thanks for the info.

Lori Walker
6/29/2012 6:55:59 PM
My night time raccoon visitors tipped the incredibly heavy cement bowl off the base of the bird bath, hopefully they didn't injure themselves. I'm now setting the bowls on the ground but since I read your article I'm concerned about predators. A connected bowl and base may be even more dangerous if tipped by furry bandits. Now what? Plastic is probably full of some deadly chemical, and birds are so.sensitive. Anyone else have to deal with this? Appreciate some help. Thanks.

Bob Smith
6/29/2012 6:33:37 PM
THIS WAS THE BEST PRESENTED ARTICLE I HAVE READ IN MOTHER EARTH NEWS ON LINE. IT HAD PICTUERS TO HIGHLIGHT THE ARTICLE AND MADE FOR INTRESTING READING.THANK YOU

Kathleen Appelbaum
6/29/2012 4:46:47 PM
I just went out and filled my birdbath. Thanks for reminding me. You are so right about the wasps drinking. I have a lot fewer cabbage moths and larvae since I have quit trying to remove wasp nests. My friend got a photo of a Red-shouldered Hawk in her birdbath.

Melissa
6/29/2012 4:32:57 PM
I really enjoyed reading this article and viewing the beautiful pictures - what a lovely flower garden around the bird bath! I cannot however stop filling feeders although I would save so much money; the price of quality bird seed has gone sky-high! I have also spent way too much on fancy feeders to give up my hobby. I have been adding flowers to my yard that attract birds and butterflies and I do witness the birds eating bugs quite often. I do very much so believe in the need for bird baths in the yard (I have three) and see birds and other wildlife at them constantly. Thanks again for all the info and well-written article!!!!!







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