All creatures need water, and birds are no exception. Birds bathe in water to keep their feathers in top flight condition and to help keep parasites at a minimum. Songbirds extract enough water from the fruits, berries and insects they eat in spring and summer, but these foods aren’t available in winter. That’s why providing drinking water in winter is especially important. Even an early fall frost can create an impenetrable layer of ice over a bird’s normal water sources. Many times you will see birds gleaning water from leaves where melting frost provides a few small droplets, pecking at snow or drinking from a dripping icicle. But this is energy better spent in keeping warm. A bird bath supplied with fresh water will make winter much easier on the birds. (Waxwings and Robins photo by Joyce Gibson).
A heated birdbath or birdbath heater can keep an area of water open enough for birds to get a drink. Birds won’t normally bathe in temperatures lower than 32 degrees because the water may freeze on their feathers. For this reason, make the bath shallow enough that birds won’t be tempted to bathe. This can be done by adding sand, pebbles, aquarium gravel or clay bird bath fillers to the bath to create different levels of water and also ice-free places for the birds to land. If there is suddenly a warm, sunny spell, go ahead and add more water to your bath on that day so the birds can bathe if they want to, but remember to empty some when the weather turns cold again.
It’s alright if the heated bath or water heater leaves some ice around the edges of the bath. This is a visual cue for birds to refrain from bathing when the weather is too cold.
If you have an existing bath and plan to use a separate heater, be sure that the bath is rated to be safe with a heater. Then, make sure that the heater is completely submerged. This enables the thermostat in the heater to work properly, turning on when the water temperature approaches freezing and shutting off when the water reaches about 40 or 45 degrees. If the heater is exposed to the air, it will detect air temperature rather than water temperature and may not turn off properly. You can anchor the heater in place with a rock or other landing place for the birds.
The wattage of a heater will tell you how effective the heater will be. Most heaters are in the 75 to 200 watt range which is more than enough for most situations. Compare it to the heat radiated from a 100 watt light bulb. All heated baths and bathheaters come with a relatively short cord so the connection with an extension cord will be above snow level. Make sure your extension cord is rated for outdoor use and waterproof the connection by wrapping with electrical tape. A last precaution is to plug your extension cord into a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet.
Another consideration for the winter bath is its location. Keep the bath away from bushes and shrubs where predators can hide. Having your bath near a tree is better so the birds will have a high place to retreat if they are disturbed when drinking or bathing. Having the bath in a sunny, southern location will also cut down on the amount of time the heater needs to stay on. And keep the bath clean . A change of water and a scrubbing at least once a week is best; more frequently if bird seed or droppings are seen in the bath. Bird diseases are frequently spread through droppings and contaminated seed, so it’s very important to keep your baths and feeders clean all year round.