Question from Monique in Hudson, QC

I wanted to buy a heated bird bath but have had so much conflicting information. Is there a real problem with birds getting wet during winter?  Also, what bird bath is best for me to buy?

Watching birds enjoying a bird bath in summer brings me a great deal of pleasure. Being able to also provide a safe and reliable source of clean water means the birds in my own area can depend on this resource. But once the freezing weather begins we often stop offering water, hoping the birds find a source elsewhere. The lake, streams, puddles and eventually snow provide that essential water resource. However, having a heated water bath provides a real winter time treat for the resident birds. Unfortunately, this can bring some hassles.

Cleanliness is very important. It is so easy in summer to use the hose and scrub brush weekly to keep the bird bath in top shape, with rinsing and topping up in between. But on the freezing days during winter, we have to be ready to commit to the time and effort required to go out with buckets of water to achieve the same. That is not a fun prospect in -20 degrees weather.  Bleach is a very safe cleaning agent to use around birds, so it is a good idea to do a weekly cleaning. Use a bucket of warm water and bleach to help keep bugs such as coliformes under control. After sluicing the bird bath with the bleach solution, you can then rinse it well with fresh water. I find my watering can a great tool for this job.

We have often had reports of birds becoming soaked after bathing in the bird bath. This is a real risk and can be minimized by adding some large rocks to the water. This will help in two ways.  The first is that adding rocks that allow the birds to perch on them and hopefully poop on them and not in the water. This should help keep the water from being contaminated between water changes and cleaning routines. The second is that the birds cannot actually bath in the water. This will avoid the possibility of creating ‘birdscicles’ in very cold weather. One mechanism that may create this problem is that with evaporation, the mineral content of the water will rise such that these minerals can lodge in the feather structures and destroy the water repellency of the feathers.

With West Nile Virus now a part of our local scene, we also need to ensure bird baths are kept mosquito larvae free in summer. This means rinsing the water baths at least every three days. Minimising standing water sites around our homes is the best way to keep these critters under control. Mind you, in this area it really is a loosing battle since we are surrounded by various water bodies, some of which are mosquito heavens.

Finally, what type of bird bath is best? There are so many great bird baths out there that all you really need to decide on is where you want to install it and go from there. The main consideration is the safety of the birds using the bath. It should have trees or shrubs nearby to provide cover from cats and aerial predators, but in an open area to provide a view of these potential hazards. It should also be easy for you to maintain. If it is too difficult to access and manage, you will put off the regular jobs of keeping it filled and clean.