Over the years I have been adding more native plants to provide better food sources for birds and I have gotten rid of most of my lawn and replaced it with ornamental perennials, trees and shrubs. If I am spending time outdoors, I’d rather be grooming perennials than cutting grass. I have the usual challenges with bird seed: too much goes to the squirrels, for example, so I feed mainly in the winter. The thing that I find that provides the most birds for the buck, though, is a birdbath. They seem old-fashioned, but they really attract birds to the garden, and except for an occasional cleaning, they are easy to maintain.
In my mostly shade garden, I have a pretty solid understory of ferns, hostas, hellebores and so on. I leave the leaves that fall in winter on the beds (oak, hickory, tulip poplar) and let them decay over the season, providing a place for ground feeding birds to hunt. I have shrubs and short trees (Fothergilla, hydrangeas, winterberry, spicebush) for nesting sites and for places for the birds to sit as they wait their turn at the birdbath, and of course, the tall trees, again for nesting and to provide a place for the birds to hunt for insect food. The birdbath is the corner tavern as it were, a place where all sorts of birds come to bathe and drink. All from the same water, but that’s birds for you. The best thing is, unlike with birdseed, the squirrels leave the birdbath alone.
I’m in Bethesda but near Rock Creek, so although we have a limited selection of birds, it’s not just English Sparrows and Starlings. We routinely have robins, goldfinches, house finches, grackles and mourning doves at the bath, especially in dry weather.
Birdbaths need some maintenance. The water should be changed at least once a week to prevent mosquitoes from going from egg to adult. You don’t want to be growing more mosquitoes. The birdbath also grows algae, especially in the sun (warm water in sun with a smattering or splattering of bird poop is the perfect recipe for algae). Dump it out with the old water. My bird baths are granite and bluestone, and I scrub them out every couple of weeks with an SOS pad. This gets rid of most of the algae, cleans the bath of whatever, and gets rid of mosquito eggs. I think that a stone or glazed surface of the bowl will make cleaning and algae control easier than a rough surface.
If you want, you can run the birdbath all winter with a birdbath heater, providing a little spa for your birds. They do have a hard time finding water in winter. I don’t do this myself. I suppose the real birders have a little bird sauna although I admit I haven’t actually seen one. Maybe in Norway.
So: buy a birdbath; change the water; scrub it out once in awhile; enjoy plenty of birds all season long.
by Larry Hurley
Photo credits. chickadee, robin.