BIRD

A chipping sparrow vainly looks for water on a frigid winter morning. (Photo/Terry Johnson)

There are countless birdbaths throughout Monroe County.  I would venture to say most birdbaths are bought and placed in yards during the spring and summer. It is also safe to say homeowners maintain them during these two seasons more than at any other time of the year. Have you ever wondered why this is the case? I know that I have.

It seems to me this is due, in large part, to two popular myths. Some folks harbor the mistaken belief that birds do not have as great a need for water in the winter as they do during the warmer months of the year. When you stop and think about it, if the reason for providing birds with an easily accessible source of water is that water is either scarce or nonexistent in a neighborhood, the changing of the seasons doesn’t alter the need for water. 

Another myth goes so far as to say that birds should be prevented from bathing in cold weather.  In fact, some bird fanciers that do maintain birdbaths in the winter actually cut a hole in a piece of plywood and place it atop the birdbath. The hole is cut large enough to allow birds to drink but not bathe.

Well-meaning individuals believe that if birds are allowed to bathe when it is extremely cold, ice will form on a bird’s feathers, and when this happens, a bird is unable to fly. The truth of the matter is when the temperature dips well before below freezing birds refrain from bathing. Why should we try to prevent them from bathing when nobody is preventing birds from bathing away from our birdbaths? The truth of the matter is birds need every bit as much water in the winter as they do at other time of the year. Birds require water for both drinking and grooming. Without it, they quickly become dehydrated. This hinders the movement of blood throughout a bird’s body as well as the normal functioning of tissues and organs.

Bathing also allows birds to properly clean and groom their feathers. By so doing, the feathers are better able to insulate the birds from the cold.

Often the only water available to birds in many neighborhoods is provided by birdbaths. One biologist took the time to determine how far the birds living in his Long Island, N.Y. backyard would have to travel to drink and bathe if he did not provide them with water in a birdbath. He discovered the nearest water was some two miles away.

When birdbaths are lacking, the number and variety of birds using a backyard drops. In fact, the numbers of birds using a yard is often dictated more by the availability of water than food.

Another important point to keep in mind is when birds are forced to travel some distance to obtain water, they are more apt to be preyed upon by predators or killed while crossing a road.

I hope you will consider keeping a birdbath full of fresh, clean water this winter. The only inconvenience this should cause you is, on those increasingly rare days the temperature drops below freezing, you might have to break a thin skim of ice that formed overnight atop the cold water. Alternatively, if water in the birdbath completely freezes, you will have to brave the icy temperatures and pour warm water on top of the ice. 

When you look out your frosty kitchen window on a cold winter day and see chickadees, waxwings, sparrows, cardinals and others flying in to drink and bathe in your birdbath, I am sure you will feel the efforts you put into providing these winter residents with a dependable source of water have been handsomely rewarded.

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.