Jul 24, 2019 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2016

Water Features 101

Birdbaths—especially ones with moving water—are a great way to attract birds.

Throughout North America, August usually brings the driest weather of the year. Natural water sources for drinking and bathing can be few and far between, so by providing a birdbath or other water feature, you'll help the birds get through the dog days, and you will likely be rewarded by attracting species that don't visit your feeding station.

Water features can range from free and simple (an old pie pan) to elaborate and expensive (an artificial creek with a waterfall or interconnected recirculating ponds with a fountain). Small birds need shallow water for bathing; even a pie pan or birdbath full of water can be too deep. An irregular, sloping rock placed in the bowl can provide a range of depths for a variety of bird species. A layer of pebbles at the bottom of the pool can add traction for birds that are accustomed to perching on twigs, not walking on smooth ground.

A birdbath that appears to be part of the natural landscape will draw the attention of birds faster than something that looks foreign to them, another reason to add rocks or gravel to your birdbath or fountain. Thanks to its liquid nature and gravity, water tends to occur naturally in low spots, so birdbaths close to the ground are likely to be more popular than those on a pedestal. On the ground, they might attract other wildlife, too, including rabbits, raccoons, toads, and turtles.

Safety is always an issue for bathing birds, so your water feature will be more attractive if it offers the cover of a shrub or tree nearby. In general, a shady spot is best for a water feature to keep the temperature comfortably cool during the hottest part of the day.

Moving Water

Birds love moving water, and moving water deters mosquitoes. A mister attached to a garden hose can attract hummingbirds and warblers for a cool shower on a hot day. Drippers make a splash, and some can be set to drip at one gallon per hour or less, so if used only during the hottest hours of the day, you may not notice it on your water bill. Ideally, a mister or dripper would be installed above a recirculating fountain or pond, so no water would be wasted. Recirculating waterfalls (designed for outdoor use) and pond fountains can be attractive to humans and birds, but unless solar powered, entail an electric outlet nearby or an extension cord suitable for outdoor use.

The Water Wiggler is a gadget intended for use in a birdbath to make the water surface ripple, which is sufficient to attract birds. It can be powered by conventional batteries for use in the shade or sun, or by solar power for use in direct sunlight.

Solar-powered fountains are designed for use in a birdbath, but require direct sunlight, which can result in warm water, especially in the late afternoon. In the morning, birds flock to my birdbath and its solar-powered fountain, but not so much on a hot afternoon. So, I also provide a cracked old ceramic pie pan, lined with gravel, in a shady spot beneath a dogwood tree.


Whether your water feature is a simple dish of water or an elaborate recirculating pond, water naturally gets dirty. Algae will grow on all surfaces. Instructions for maintaining an artificial creek or pond are too complicated and specific to include here, but for small, relatively simple water features, replace the water every day or two in hot weather, and scrub the surfaces with a brush, rag, or sponge. If you use bleach, be sure to rinse thoroughly afterward. By using the food, water, nest boxes, and landscaping we provide for them, birds show their appreciation. We benefit by getting a closer look at them and watching their antics, but also by knowing we are making their lives easier.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • I live in Southeastern Massachusetts. Four "orphaned" very young poults (males) showed up in my yard about a year ago. They have been around all year. I do feed them cracked corn, and they come when I call for them. I don't want to over- domesticate them, but they do recognize me as the lady that brings food. They roost in the big oak trees at night. I have a 1 acre lot, with many acres of protected forest out back and a pond on the property.Lately, during mating season, I have had hens in the yard too. We've counted as many as 7 Toms and hens, but today, had just the one stalwart (a very robust Tom) that comes everyday. One of the Toms that has recently made an appearance is wounded, limping with an obvious predator wound. The local wildlife experts say he should make a full recovery, and that he's best left to recover with his flock.I find them to be interesting and beautiful birds.
    by Heather Cole, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • You have to put food in it.
    by Truckee Man, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • Love listeningto both songs and calls from birds in our woody neighborhood. The two types of birds I immediately recognize are the cardinals and the chickadees. Yesterday afternoon too, I heard a woodpecker. Then it’s time to check the birdfeeders and the birdbath. Then In no time at all the cardinals and chickadees arrive, as if they had been watching me. As it gets busier around the feeders, I also hear thé screeching of the blue jays. I even saw a couple of robins checking out our lawn....spring has arrived as the last pat gesofisticeerde snow and ice melt away.
    by louisabt, Sun, 08 Mar 2020
  • I am wondering about existing nests for Phoebes. I have two outdoor aisle entries to my barn and there are old Phoebe nests up. They ignore them each year and build new nests adjacent to the old, but space is running out. Should I knock down the old nests so they can rebuild?
    by [email protected], Sun, 02 Feb 2020
  • Just wondering, should we put anything in the bottom of the box...twigs, clippings, leaves....anything at all?
    by Hebb, Tue, 28 Jan 2020