Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Why won't birds use my bird bath?

You set up a beautiful new birdbath in your yard. But it's been a week and no birds have come. Why? Why won't birds come to your bird bath?

There are several reasons that birds won't come to a birdbath:
  1. The water in the bird bath is too deep
  2. The bird bath is too slippery
  3. The bird bath is too far from cover
  4. The water in the bird bath is too dirty
  5. The bird bath is too high
  6. The water in the bird bath is too warm
  7. The bird bath has no preening perches
  8. The bird bath has no staging perches
  9. The water in the bird bath is not moving or dripping
We'll take a look at the reasons birds aren't using your bird bath now. Then we'll discuss how you can get birds to use your bird bath.

[First, please forgive my apparently random use of the word "bird bath" and "birdbath" to describe the place where birds drink and wash. People spell it both ways about evenly. Thus, I have chosen to use both spellings in order for you to be better able to find this page no matter which word you typed into the search engine.]

Photo of a beautiful shiny black bird bath in a flower garden with purple flowers and moss-covered rocks
This is what most people have in mind when planning a birdbath
Image by Stephanie McLean from Pixabay
Look at the shiny new birdbath above, set in a picturesque flower garden. Beautiful. That's what most people imagine when they think about setting up a bird bath in their yard.

Unfortunately, though there is one bird using the birdbath in this photo, it will not attract a steady stream of birds all day.

Here's what the birds like:

This is what the birds like.
Image by LAWJR from Pixabay
Why would birds prefer the rusty old pan sitting on top of a rusty pail with a bunch of sticks leaning against it? Then it's even hanging on an old rusty water spigot. How tacky! But how perfect!

Let's examine why the first bird bath may impress the neighbors, but the second bird bath will be the one used by the birds.

What are the differences between the two bird baths above? Why don't birds like the pretty one as much?

Why don't birds like your birdbath?


1. The water in the birdbath is too deep


Birds naturally like to approach water and wade in. Thus, the ideal bird bath should start out very shallow. The small backyard birds we desire in our bird baths have rather short legs. The edge of the birdbath should be no more than 1/2 inch deep and get deeper gradually.

At most, bird baths for small birds should not be deeper than 2 inches. Most birds will not wade out that deep.

This does mean, though, that you will need to refill the bath regularly. But that's a good thing, as we'll see later down this list in item 4.

2. The bird bath is too slippery


No one likes to slip and fall. Not even birds. Birds like to have a rougher surface to stand on that they can grip well. In fact, many smaller birds have feet made to grip cylindrical branches rather than to hop on a flat surface.

Glazed birdbaths hold water, don't break if they freeze in the winter, and are easier to clean. But they are slippery when wet!

Deep and slippery is a bad combination! No wonder birds avoid those larger, deeper bird baths.

3. The bird bath is too far from cover


Would you like to take a bath out in the middle of the yard? Wait--don't answer that! Let me start again. Birds don't like to take baths out in the middle of the yard because it is too exposed. All the neighbors will see. In this case those neighbors include cats and bird-eating hawks!

While birds are bathing and splashing their inner eyelids automatically close to protect their eyes. During this time they are vulnerable to attack by predators because they aren't paying as much attention and can't see as well.

Additionally, with their feather plumage wet they can't fly as well, either. This adds to the danger of a bird bath.

Thus, birds may hesitate to use bird baths unless they are positioned just right.

Birds need a nearby safe place to flee for protection.

Cats and hawks present two different problems as far as where cover is located and how exposed the bird bath is.

Hawks swoop in quickly and are very maneuverable. They can easily pick off a small bird taking a bath out in the middle of the yard, far from cover. So birds need some bushes or shrubs nearby to flee into.

Cats present a different problem. They like to hide behind low dense cover, sneak up on their prey slowly, then pounce! Bathing birds need some nearby bushes or small trees into which to flee. But there can't be any low dense plants too near where the cats can hide and spring out to surprise the birds.

4. The water in the bird bath is too dirty


Dirty water is unhealthy for birds. Yes, birds drink from recent rain puddles that we may view as filthy. But it is the stagnant water that is the problem. Temporary rain puddles or refilling stream puddles are not stagnant.

Bird baths may gather leaves, bird droppings, algae, or harmful bacteria. If you simply add water when it gets low, you don't remove contaminates.

Thus, empty, clean, and refill your bird bath every 3 or 4 days. Scrub out the algae.

Emptying and refilling your bird bath twice a week will remove any mosquito larvae or other insects before they grow into flying adults.

Cement bird baths aren't slippery, but are a bit harder to clean compared to the glazed ones. Copper bird baths help slow algae growth.

5. The bird bath is too high


Think about it. Birds naturally seek out water to drink from the ground. Most birds seem to prefer bird baths at or near ground level. Lower is better.

Raised bird baths may have one advantage, though. They make it harder for cats to successfully launch an attack against a bathing bird. (But, they may make it easier for hawks to attack.)

You may like to read my article How high should a birdbath be?

6. The water in the bird bath is too warm


Keep bird baths in the shade if possible. This keeps the water cooler and may slow the growth of algae. Partial shade is okay. Perhaps situate the bird bath to get shade in the afternoon.

When seeking placement of the bird bath for shade, avoid placing the bath under a tree that sheds a lot of leaves. Leaves provide food for algae and other living organisms and can quickly foul the water.

7. The bird bath has no preening perches


When a bird is done with its bath it seeks out a nearby perch. Why? To shake out its feathers and preen. Birds preen by rearranging each feather, straightening it with its bill and tongue, removing dirt.

The preening perch may be down low to hide while performing this task. Alternatively, the bird may seek out a more exposed perch to fluff up and dry out with the sun's warming rays.

8. The bird bath has no staging perches


Birds will usually approach the bird bath cautiously. This is especially true when the bath is newly set up. A series of perches--branches or artificial--aids the bird on its approach.

Birds first fly to a perch near the bird bath. This may be up high where the bird can survey the area. The bird looks for any dangers. Then, cautiously, the bird flies to another perch slightly closer. Eventually the bird reaches the edge of the water.

Some people place these staging perches above the water. Better still, have a branch placed to lead right down into the water! Then the bird will have secure footing, as we discussed in item 2.

For an example of a low birdbath with a rock as staging perch, please see my article Why you should put stones in your bird bath.

9. The water in the bird bath is not moving or dripping


Nothing attracts birds to a bird bath like gurgling or dripping water! That is the main reason why the rusty bucket in the photo above is so desirable--a slow drip of water from the spigot. One drip every 5-10 seconds is enough. Kerplunk. Drip. Drip.

To conserve water, you might fill a one-gallon plastic jug with water. Poke a hole in the bottom to let water drip out very slowly into a shallow tray. This may last 2 hours, dripping very slowly.

What kind of creative, do-it-yourself dripper can you devise that hides the jug from view and looks attractive? Perhaps a clay saucer on the ground. A jug with small clear hose reaching above the water. The jug hidden behind some decorative bricks and flowers?

Of course, you can purchase a fountain that recycles the water. Most birds would like something that barely trickles, not gushes. But there are misters and drippers, too. They need to be cleaned and kept full, too. So they are even more work. But they are worth it if they attract far more birds!

You might even create a decorative pond with recycling stream or small waterfall. A bird bath can be as simple or complicated as you want!

Just remember that these recycling fountains require electricity from your home. Use a GFI plug for safety. You may try a solar powered fountain, but these only start working after a half hour of full sun. They likely won't work until a couple of hours after sunrise.



How do you get birds to use a bird bath?


As you have read, birds love water. They need it to drink every day. They need water to bathe regularly in order to keep their feathers in top shape for warmth and flight ability.

Birds will use a bird bath if you design it for them. But there is no reason for it not to be stylish and pretty, if you also add these necessary things:

Birds like plain and simple bird baths where they feel safe.

Bird baths shouldn't be too deep or slippery. Clay and cement are good, but can crack in freezing weather. Plastic bird baths are easier for birds to stand in than glazed.

You should keep bird baths clean. Drain, clean, refill every 3-4 days.

Provide staging perches leading to the bird bath. Try a rock or branch leading right into the water.

Birds like bird baths near the ground.

Position bird baths near cover for the birds to flee into and have a lace to preen after their bath. But don't place a bird bath within 10 feet of a low dense bush where cats could hide and pounce.

Finally, think about adding a fountain or mister or dripper. The birds will really like this if it is not too strong of flow.

Perhaps you are thinking that you can't get style and beauty along with the requirements of the birds. That's okay. No one says you can only have one bird bath, right? Have one decorative bird bath out in the middle of your lawn or garden to impress the neighbors. Have a functional bird bath hidden off to the side to attract the birds! Create a bird bath that birds will actually use!

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