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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape.