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?


Photo of Pine Siskins in the bird bath
When my bird bath was nearly empty and shallow
the birds used it more!
Pine Siskins. Greg Gillson.


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 place 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!


30 comments:

  1. Thank s for info. I have two glass bird baths. Only saw one gold finch use it. I have an oriole feeder with a water well to keep ants away but the gold finches are using it to drink water from rather than bird bath. I'll try putting a rock in the bird bad and see if that helps.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At least the goldfinches know to come for water--even if it is not where you were expecting! Sounds like you're doing the right thing trying different configurations. Is there a staging perch within 4 feet of the bird bath--a place they can land without flying directly to the bird bath? That may help.

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  2. Thank you for the tips. They are extremely helpful. The only thing I did right was tip #9. I will implement the other tips and hope to see birds visiting my bath soon. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad you found this useful! Now I hope the birds find your bath enticing!

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  3. I have a glass birdbath. I will try a rock. There is plenty of cover and a tree close by. I have not seen even 1 bird use it yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope the rock works for you! You might also try a staging perch-- somewhere they can land and hop down the branch to the water, rather than flying directly to the bird bath.

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  4. Have followed most of the tips other than a bubbler. Have decided I have dirty birds. They drink the water, sitting on the rim or the rocks but never get in to bathe. Squirrels love it too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing, Karen!

      The birds must be happy if they're drinking from the bird bath--even if they're not taking any baths right now. Once they get more comfortable they may wade in as happened at my bird bath recently.

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    2. I have a coat birdbath. Clean it every three or four days all my birds drink and bath it is located near backyard fence and also near a leyland cypress tree.

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    3. You are a good steward. It's great that you keep your bird bath clean!

      Delete
  5. Thank you for this very informative article! I was clueless about many of the aspects of a usable birdbath.

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad this information was useful to you, Linda!

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  6. Thank you for the information about cleaning the baths. The cement one is very difficult to keep clean, but is also their favorite. I empty it, as best as I can, once a week so the sun will kill the algae. I am fortunate to have a big yard with multiple birdbaths and feeders. While the dove and jays hog the big bath, the little birds have a shallower one under a hedge.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is just right! Have more than one bird bath so as to allow time to clean each one. That rough surface no doubt gives them confidence that they won't slip. But, as you say, it will be harder to clean.

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  7. This info is so helpful. I have a cement bird bath on the edge of the patio. I have a solar fountain in it. It's small. I have trees and bushes nearby. I plan on moving a large raised bed closer to it. I've had one bird visit. I'll try the rocks.

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    Replies
    1. Glad I could help, Linda.

      Sounds like it's a wonderful bird bath in a good position.

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  8. Very informative. Thank you ,now i know exactly what i need for a bird bath..

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  9. The birds love my cement bird bath with rocks in it for both drinking and bathing. I painted it matte white about a week ago and put the rocks back in, but they haven't used it since. Do you think they'll eventually come back? I'm considering trying to make a drip. All your suggestions are good ones!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, Colleen, that's too bad.

      I do think the birds will come back eventually. They may be afraid of the new paint job. They'll get used to it.

      Delete
    2. I think you are right. I set up a drip yesterday, and two Towhees came. They both took a drink and a bath! Thanks for the suggestion!

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    3. Wonderful! I'm glad they are starting to return.

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  10. Thanks for the tips. Moved a feeder this year to a new spot that's really perfect and feels like all the neighborhood birds and even some ducks stop by to checkout the action, so looking to add a bath this weekend. :)

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    Replies
    1. That's great! This is the time of year when birds are using bird baths more regularly.

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  11. A year since we filled our garden with trees and bushes, and a large DIY bird table feed station we have many birds coming to feed but we had no bird bath. Within a few days of buying a reconstituted stone bath in a plate style, we had blackbirds and sparrows visiting it. It all depends on your bird footfall and where you place it (not adjacent to seed feeders)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for your grwat articles! I have 2 small ceramic baths that get lots of use for baths & drinking: towhees, bushtits, chickadees, finches, jays, bandtail pigeons. They are on the deck railing opposite a large oak. I installed a new one with a recycling water pump - shallow plastic dish, water gushes up into the middle, with small drain holes and a couple of large flattish stones in it, partially submerged. It is adjacent to the rail (& oak) near one of the staic baths. Only 2 birds have shown interest, but not tried it. The only thing I might have wrong is that the water is moving too fast. Any advice or suggestions?

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    Replies
    1. I can't think of anything. Just wait and see, I guess. Don't give up too early.

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  13. I inherited a concrete bird bath on a pedestal from a neighbor. Placed it in backyard 3-4' from a fence, under a large pine tree. I used a wire brush to clean off the moss and algae. No takers after several weeks. Moved it to middle of grass area, thinking birds would feel safer from predators. No takers. After reading this article I am thinking of taking the reservoir portion off the pedestal and placing it underneath a low spigot that I can set to a slow drip. Kinda frustrating though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps birds have moved away from your immediate area for the summer/fall.

      There are fewer birds at my bird bath, too, since September started.

      I like your idea of a lower bath with a drip. Keep at it!

      Delete

Thank you so much for visiting! Would you please leave a comment to let me know what you thought and how I can make this resource better for you?

--Greg--

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