Birdwatching may be just a birdbath away. Master gardener Paul James and farmer Fred Hoffman discuss how the addition of a small birdbath can add a splash of activity in your garden.
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While the price of a store-bought birdbath may seem out of this world, you can make your own for very little cost. For instance, "Farmer Fred" Hoffman digs up an old, metal trash-can lid, which, he says, is perfect for a bird bath (figure B). "It's just the right size, about two to three feet in diameter and shallow. Birds don't like water any deeper than three inches, and the lid is only about one inch deep. Believe it or not, birds can drown in a bird bath so this old dented lid will accommodate both big and little birds easily." Birds could care less what the bath looks like as long as they can get wet. And the great thing about metal is that it won't crack in the freezing cold weather.
Even if you have a small yard with just a lawn, you can have a bird bath. In fact, Hoffman suggests it's a great place for birds to take a bath because it's a zone of protection. Birds like to know that there aren't predators around for at least 15 feet so they can feel safe from cats and dogs.
Birds won't feel safe on the smooth surface of this ceramic saucer, however, because it's too difficult for a bird to grip with its claws. You can either add a rock for perching (figure D) or scratch up the finish with sandpaper for slip-free bathing.
"Isn't this a great-looking birdbath," Hoffman asks. "It's just the right height — about 3 feet (figure E)." While it may look expensive, you can make it for about $50 — from a $10 tray and two plastic pots at $20 each. And putting it together is a snap.
Want to get more birds at your birdbath? Add a water feature. Hoffman suggests that while birds want to take a shower and enjoy the sound of water, the water feature can be as simple as a micro-sprinkler hooked up to a drip irrigation system. And when the weather gets really cold, the moving water from the sprinkler helps keep the water in the birdbath from freezing. The moving water is also a great deterrent from mosquitoes that prefer to lay their eggs in still water.
Sometimes a shrub is a good holder for a birdbath (as long as no cats are around). A Grecian laurel (Laurus nobilis) had grown so big that it blocked the view of the Hoffmans' perennial garden from the kitchen window, so he pruned it back severely. "We cut it back to three feet tall and found that these stumps are perfect for this bargain birdbath that we found at a local store," he says. "It rests there perfectly (figure J) and when the birds get in there and play, they splash water over the sides, and that helps water the bush."
It's important to keep the water clean, because birds drink as well as dunk in the water. Give birds fresh water every day or two, and to avoid algae buildup, scrub the basin out at least once a week. Occasionally do a heavier cleaning, using a tablespoon or so of chlorine bleach with a little water. Fill the bottom of the birdbath with the solution and immediately cover the birdbath with mesh wire for about an hour (figure K). Afterward, rinse it thoroughly and add more water.
It may take a few weeks for the birds to discover the new bath, but once they do, you're in store for some very sweet rewards. To keep all that chirping and chattering going in colder locales, check out nurseries and garden centers for special heaters you can add to the birdbath for the winter.
"I haven't had a tomato hornworm on my tomato plants in the last two years, and I think it's because of the increased bird population here," says Hoffman. "I've given them plenty of trees and shrubs to live in and I've given them a birdbath to swim in and take drinks from."