Landscaping for Wildlife: Water
If you want to attract wildlife to your yard, just add water. Birds, insects, mammals, and amphibians are all attracted to water sources. Even those creatures that ignore your feeders completely can be lured by the promise of fresh water. And by providing this essential element in specific ways, you can attract the kinds of wildlife that you are most interested in.
Water for the Birds
Water is especially important for birds. In fact, birds will only live within flying distance of a water source. Your water will allow the birds to do two important things:1. Drinking
There are two different kinds of drinkers when it comes to birds: the "gulpers" and the "slurpers." Most backyard songbirds are "gulpers," which means that they drink in the usual way we think of birds drinking: they dip their beak into the water, then tip their heads back so the water drips down their throats. Pigeons and mourning doves, however, fit into the second kind, the "slurpers." They stick their beaks in the water and suck it up through a pumping motion in their throats.2. Bathing
It is a joy to watch birds taking a bath. But all of that fun has a purpose. Bathing helps regulate birds' body temperatures in hot weather, but there's even more to it than that. Dirty feathers hinder safe flying, so birds must keep their feathers clean and tidy. After bathing, birds will usually perch nearby and oil and preen their feathers with their beaks to get all of the feathers smooth and the small "barbs" at the ends of the feathers aligned. Oddly enough, this process also makes the birds waterproof.
When you think of providing water for birds, the first thing that comes to mind is the traditional, pedestal-type birdbath. If you add one of these, you will be rewarded. But by making sure the bath is appropriate for birds, and adding a few bells and whistles, you can attract even more birds.
For a birdbath that birds will use happily, three things should be kept in mind. First of all, it should be shallow-no deeper than three inches, and ideally should only be filled two inches deep. Secondly, it should have a rough, non-slip bottom. No one likes taking a bath and slipping around all the time. Finally, if you are using a pedestal birdbath, be sure that the bath fits securely on the pedestal, and won't tip if a heavier bird enters the bath.
Now for the bells and whistles. There are two things you can add that, depending on the birds you want to attract, will increase the number of birds that visit your yard. The first is a dripper. This is what it sounds like, something that drips water into your bath. The sound of water is irresistible to birds, and a simple dripper will attract all kinds of birds. You can make an inexpensive dripper by suspending a milk jug, can, or other vessel over the bath on a shepherd hook. Fill the jug with water, punch a small hole about 1/2 inch from the bottom of the container, and let it drip. You can also buy dripper systems made of plastic tubing that you attach to your outdoor spigot. Either method works well. The second thing you can add is a mister. For a mister, you will need either an electrical outlet nearby or you will need to find a solar-powered model. This emits a very light spray that many birds just love.
There is one other thing to consider when deciding on your birdbath. You can have a bath that is elevated, such as a pedestal or one that sits on a porch or deck rail, or you can have a ground level bath. Again, this decision will be based on the kinds of birds you want to attract. A ground level bath is easy to make. You can either use the bath part of a pedestal type bath, just set on the ground. Or you can use an unglazed flower pot saucer, or you can even excavate a little bit of soil, overturn a garbage can lid, and set it in the ground.
Birdbaths should be placed where the birds will be able to see if there are any predators sneaking up on them, but also near enough to cover so they can fly there quickly to escape predators and to preen after their baths. Don't put a bath in with very thick plantings, as a cat may be able to hide in the plants and get the birds. Put it at the outer edge of a flowerbed, or out in open space where there is a tree, shrub, or fence nearby for the birds to fly to.
|Bird||Type of Bath||Special Features|
|Blue Jays||Pedestal Bath||None|
|Cardinals||Pedestal or Ground Level Bath||Mister|
|Cedar Waxwings||Ground Level Bath||Dripper or Mister|
|Finches||Ground Level Bath||Dripper|
|Nuthatches||Pedestal Bath||Rocks on bottom, very shallow|
|Red Wing Blackbirds||Pedestal Bath||Dripper|
|Sparrows||Ground Level Bath||Dripper|
Care of Bird Baths
Birdbaths should be emptied out every two to three days, scrubbed to remove any feathers, feces, or algae, and refilled with fresh water. This does two things. Most importantly, it keeps the water clean for the birds. It also will prevent any mosquito larvae in the water from developing into adults. Larvae need to be in water that is undisturbed for three days or more to complete their metamorphosis into adult mosquitoes. So if you empty the birdbath every couple of days, you won't let any larvae mature.
Water in Winter
Providing water in winter is a wonderful thing to do if you are able to do so. There are a few special considerations, though. The most obvious is how to keep the water from freezing in frigid temps. You can go high or low tech here. There are submersible heaters for birdbaths that keep the water above freezing. You can also buy birdbaths with an integrated bath heater. Of course, you will need an outlet available for a heater. Heaters aren't very expensive, though, and if you can get one you will make providing water in winter easier on yourself. There are two low-tech methods you can use to keep water from freezing. The first is to fill the bath with hot water. If it is very cold, you may have to do this a couple of times per day, but the birds will thank you. The second is to float something like a small plastic ball or wood block in the water to help prevent an ice sheet from forming. Both of theses methods will work better if you place the bath in full sun.
High tech or low tech, just make sure you place the bath where it will be easy for you to get to to refill it and clean it. If you have to trudge through a foot of snow with a bucket of water to fill the bath with, providing our feathered friends with water will get old real quick. You're doing a good thing. Make it easy on yourself!
Water for Butterflies
The best way to provide water for butterflies? Make a mud puddle! Butterflies will land in a muddy spot and suck up and drink the muddy water, which is called "puddling." The butterflies do this not only for the water, but also because the muddy water is full of nutrients.
If you want to make a specific area for your butterflies to "puddle," get a shallow pan (such as a pie plate) with a mix of sand and soil, fill it with water so that the soil is saturated and there is a bit of water sitting on top, and set the whole thing in a sunny spot. You could also do this in a pedestal birdbath, which would be better for viewing the butterflies.
Water for Amphibians
You might be surprised to find that you can attract frogs, toads, or salamanders to your yard, but there are several species that will inhabit your yard, depending on your location. For frogs and salamanders, you need to be fairly close to a body of water (pond, creek, stream, wetlands) but you don't necessarily have to be near water to attract toads to your yard. For example, here in Michigan, the American Toad is found commonly in yards that are nowhere near water. That is because the American Toad roams fairly far off after laying their eggs in a body of water.
Buy, why would you want amphibians in your yard? A single toad can eat up to 3,200 earwigs in a season. Amphibians are eating machines, and their favorite foods are many of the insect pests that drive us crazy in the garden anyway: mosquitoes, earwigs, slugs, snails, flies.amphibians eat them all.
All amphibians need water, and providing some for them will draw them to your yard.eventually. They use it for drinking, obviously, but many amphibians also absorb water into their skin by sitting in it. And if you're really lucky, they'll lay eggs in it and you'll have the next generation of amphibs in your yard.
Installing your own backyard pond will definitely draw them out. (More on that in an upcoming ITGO article.) However, if you don't have the time, money, or energy right now for installing a backyard pond, you can still attract amphibians.
A saucer from a flower pot (unglazed) dug into the ground so that the lip of the saucer is at ground level makes a great amphibian water feature. If you plant some plants around it, such as hostas or ferns, amphibians will like it even more. Just use a saucer that is at least 10 inches across. You can also do the same thing with an overturned trash can lid. These are good because you can get a decent sized water feature out of them, and they're cheap! If your saucer or trash lid is more than two inches deep or so, place a small log or some stones in the water at the edges so that the amphibians will be able to crawl out of the water easily.
So, there you have it. We all need fresh water, and if you provide for one (or all!) of the animals in this article, your little corner of the world will be happier place for wildlife. Check back soon for the next article in ITGO's Landscaping for Wildlife series: Shelter. ITGO