From the windows looking out to our front yard, where we have several types of feeders and a bath, I count at least a dozen bird species in a few minutes on this late-November day. There are the usual house finches and sparrows at the tube feeder, doves and juncos pecking around below it, a robin or two at the bath, a couple of flickers hanging out in the upper branches of an Arizona cypress, a downy woodpecker working on the neighbor’s apricot tree, a white-breasted nuthatch at the suet cage, a mountain chickadee, and, much to my delight, three evening grosbeaks. I hadn’t seen the latter, an irruptive species, in several years.
Anecdotal evidence, including posts on the social-media site Nextdoor, suggests there are more birds than usual congregating baths and feeders this fall. It’s impossible to determine all the factors that lead to such increases, but our long drought is likely contributing. Birds need water every day to survive. They also need to bathe to keep their feathers clean and fluffed, providing better insulation in cold weather. Though people often think of feeding birds during winter, water sources are equally helpful and attractive to them.
Consider placement carefully. Having a bath visible from one or more windows means you can watch that towhee have a gleeful shake unseen. But make sure it isn’t too close to stakeouts where predators may lurk. Ideally, there would be an evergreen tree or shrub nearby for quick cover when necessary. Loosely stacked brush piles provide good cover for ground-dwelling birds.
Shallow baths with a pebbly texture are safest for birds (bees also love these types of baths). If you have a smooth-surfaced, deeper bath, a piece of flagstone in the center can make it more accessible to smaller birds, or a couple of rocks can work as perches. We have baths of different heights and sizes scattered around. Many birds seem to prefer the ones at or near ground-level — they also provide much-needed hydration to small mammals and dissuade those creatures from knocking over taller ones.
Once nighttime temperatures dip consistently below freezing, a heated bird bath is an excellent, relatively inexpensive addition to a bird-friendly yard. All you need for set-up is an outdoor outlet and an extension cord. Alternately, you can pour warm water over frozen baths to break up the ice, but be aware that rapid thawing can cause some types of baths to crack. Also, as Anne Schmauss of Wild Birds Unlimited points out, after a long, cold night, it’s important for birds to have water available at dawn, before many of us are up and about.
As with feeders, baths need to be cleaned and refilled regularly to prevent the spread of disease. I keep scrub brushes near our baths for easy access when I’m changing the water, which should be done daily. In addition to frequent refreshing of the baths, it’s recommended to sterilize them with a bleach solution every month or so.
If you also offer food, know your customers. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, black-oil sunflower seed is the best overall feed, with a high meat-to-shell ratio and a thin shell that smaller birds can handle. The thicker striped sunflower seeds are better for larger birds like jays. Ground-feeding birds such as juncos, sparrows, and doves like white millet. Nyjer (or thistle) seed is preferred by small finches, including lesser goldfinches and pine siskins; it requires a particular type of feeder. In winter, a high-quality suet, easily made at home, is great for woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds.
Of course, the best bird food is the kind that grows readily in the ground around us. Native trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and grasses provide invaluable sources of habitat and nutrition. Even some non-natives are relished by birds. I’ve enjoyed seeing goldfinches clinging to the uncut branches of Russian sage to nibble on its seeds. If possible, don’t prune back plants until late winter or early spring.
If you find yourself absorbed by all the action at baths and feeders, consider participating in Project FeederWatch (feederwatch.org), a collaboration of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies of Canada. The project engages citizens in providing scientific data for critical study of bird populations. Your commitment can be as small or as large as you like. Another popular citizen-scientist tradition is the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Visit www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count for more information.
Sarah Baldwin is a freelance editor and writer. She has been a Master Gardener since 2017 and is a member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP).