Record temperatures, drought, smoky air and loss of habitat make it increasingly difficult for feathered and other winged creatures in urban and suburban areas to find the water they need.
But there’s a simple way that humans can help them out: install a birdbath.
“A source of clean, fresh water can be one of the hardest things for birds to find,” said Kim Eierman, an environmental horticulturist and the founder of EcoBeneficial, an ecological landscape design firm, who teaches at the New York Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Putting in birdbaths is something that’s easy for homeowners and even apartment dwellers and tenants of commercial spaces, she said. “You’re increasing the health of the birds by providing a resource that’s really tough to find,” said Ms. Eierman, who lays out nature-friendly tips in her book “The Pollinator Victory Garden.” “In the summer months, it’s way more important than putting up birdseed.”
There’s also the added delight of attracting birds and watching them splash about.
Having a successful birdbath involves several basic but important steps.
Think concrete: Concrete birdbaths have the benefit of sturdiness and providing textured surfaces that give birds a foothold (glazed ceramic can be too slippery, plastic might leach toxins and metal heats up too easily).
Tiered is good: Having a tiered birdbath can help accommodate smaller birds. They should be no more than two to three inches deep.
Add rocks: Ms. Eierman suggests putting in rocks or larger stones to give smaller birds a place to perch and safely drink. The baths should be located in fairly shaded areas near trees or shrubs, and away from the full sun, which causes the water to spoil more quickly. That also gives birds a place to retreat from predators.
Change water at least daily: Crucially, birdbath water needs to be changed at least once a day. New water will offset a bird’s unfortunate habit of pooping where it bathes and drinks (while birds love moving water, fountains without good filtration run the risk of recirculating dirty water) and prevents mosquitoes from breeding, a frequently cited fear when it comes to birdbaths.
Don’t fear mosquitoes: “The simple act of changing the water once a day will prevent mosquitoes from forming, end of story,” said Ms. Eierman, who doesn’t use pesticides, and instead selects native plants that attract what she calls garden allies: Mountain Mint draws predatory wasps, and Golden Alexanders draw ladybugs, both of which prey on unwanted pests. “It is always amazing how humans are always looking for things to be scared of instead of figuring out how can we coexist with these creatures.”
A strong jet blast from a garden hose can perform the double duty of cleaning out and refilling the bath. The bath should also be regularly scrubbed and rinsed; if there’s algae, it needs a cleaning. Ms. Eierman has a brush she only uses for her birdbaths, and the Audubon Society recommends using one part vinegar to nine parts water — synthetic soaps and cleansers can strip oil from birds’ feathers.
And consider the bugs: Ms. Eierman also encourages her students and clients to put out what she calls “hydration stations” for insects that can suffer during hot weather too. While pollinators like bees, wasps, butterflies and beetles can get a lot of hydration through nectar, during very hot, dry spells, a defensive mechanism in flowers can decrease nectar flow. So Ms. Eierman suggests putting out a ceramic saucer covered in natural stones and topped off with water, and setting it on the ground, separate and away from the birdbath.
“It gives insects a safe place to take a sip without the potential of drowning,” Ms. Eierman said.
Ms. Eierman’s own garden at her home in Westchester County sits on less than a fifth of an acre and has four birdbaths — they are frost-proof, and a few have plug-in heaters for chilly months.
“In winter keeping a heated bird bath is hugely helpful for birds,” said Ms. Eierman, who also maintains an insect hydration station.
Her baths are set at different heights to accommodate not just different sizes and species of birds and insects, but also squirrels and the like. She recalled once watering a client’s parched rhododendrons only to have a chipmunk race up to drink from the puddle that formed a few feet from where she stood.
“That’s how desperate it was,” Ms. Eierman said. “I always think about making it accessible for all those creatures.”
“It’s not just about us,” she added. “We think that nature provides, but in urban or suburban environments, what’s natural anymore? The more we can do to support wildlife through habitat the better.”
Have photos of birds enjoying a dip in your birdbath? Share them along with this story link on Twitter or Facebook. And check out the Times Birding Project, where you can get more involved with the birding community.