An excerpt from

A Birds-Eye View: A Practical Compendium for Bird-Lovers
by David Bird

Giving the Birds a Bath

If you think watching birds is fun, try giving them a bath! And before you decide what kind of bird bath to buy or create, you have to consider your situation. For example, living in an apartment doesn’t negate setting up a bird bath. They can be hung from a balcony, eaves, or a wall bracket, and even stuck on a window by suction cups. If you’ve got a yard to play with, there’s loads of possibilities.

Some simple inexpensive baths include an inverted metal garbage can lid weighted down on an upraised tile drainage pipe, a chiselled-out stump or log, a ceramic saucer on a tree stump, or even a naturally formed river rock. Commercially available are hanging ceramic dishes, plastic bowls at ground level, concrete or plastic basins on pedestals, and even wood frames with removable plastic trays. Wood baths are difficult to clean and metal ones should be stainless steel or coated with rust-resistant paint which may flake and require occasional repainting. If you’re planning to keep your bath in service during possible freezing weather, stay away from terracotta or glazed baths because they’ll crack. For a year-round, tough, attractive bath, you can’t beat concrete or stone.

Here are the basic principles when setting up your bird bath. Let’s start with size. Baths less than30 centimeters in diameter are too small and those between 30 and 45 centimeters are a little crowded for more than one bird. The ideal diameter is about 60 to 90 centimeters.

To avoid slippery footing, the floor should be rough or textured. Concrete, sand, stones or pebbles are preferred over metal or plastic. Roughening the latter surfaces by sanding with coarse sandpaper or sticking on the textured footing commonly found in bathtubs should overcome any problems.

Don’t think deep, either. The depth of the water should be no more than 5 to 7 centimeters. A gradual slope is ideal, say about 2.5 centimeters every 20 cm. Providing a lip or some kind of perch in and around the bath facilitates a slow entry and provides a place to dry off.

But the three most important factors to consider when installing a bird bath are location, location, and location. Remember the famous bathroom shower scene in the movie, Psycho, where the victim did not hear or see the approach of the killer? Never mind the surprise of an ambush, a thoroughly soaked bird will also not easily escape ground and with about five meters of open terrain between it and any vegetation where cats and hawks can hide. Having a high perch just a few meters away where a bird can dry off without worrying about ground predators is helpful.

It is also important to consider the practicability of refilling and occasionally scrubbing the bath with a stiff brush (yes, birds do poop in their bath!). Of course, you’ll want to locate your bath where you can enjoy watching the birds, too.

Since many birds splash about in their baths, you might want to prevent the area from becoming a soggy mudhole by placing the bath on a well drained sand or gravel base, or even on a patch of patio stones.

To attract birds to your new bath, incorporate the sound of moving water by installing a commercially bought spray-maker. Even water dripping from a hose or from a leaky bucket suspended over the bath will do nicely.

For those of you living in colder climates for the winter months, be a little cautious with heated birdbaths. Under normal winter conditions, they’re not a problem, but when things become extraordinarily chilly, you might want to restrict access to the bath by covering it or turning the heater off. I have had a number of people complain to me that they have experienced birds incapacitating themselves and even freezing to death after bathing in heated water. Yes, I an aware that there are unfrozen bodies of water, such as suburban streams, available to birds in winter, but it may be that the water is very cold and inhibits their desire to bathe, whereas a heated bath does bot. Better safe than sorry.

Bathing in the dirt sounds like an oxymoron, but not to the birds. Lots of backyard birds like quail and sparrows like a good dust bath. The function is not well understood, but it is probably to control ectoparasites like lice and mites. Making a dusting area is easy. Over a square meter or so, excavate the soil to a depth of about 15 centimeters and line it with rocks or bricks for aesthetics. The best dust mix is a third each of sand sifted and loam. Watching birds taking either a water or a dust bath is even more pleasurable than taking in their feeding behavior. There is something refreshing about it.