Just clean fun: Backyard birdbaths

  • Female Cardinal at the bird bath. Donna Braswell

  • This black-capped chickadee went into a “sun trance” on the railing of Bill Danielson’s deck before hopping down to the birdbath. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • This white-throated sparrow was a surprise visitor at Bill Danielson’s birdbath. They’ve usually moved north by this time of year. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Gazette
Published: 5/30/2019 4:39:06 PM

It was a rare day, indeed. It was a Saturday, I didn’t have any obligations of any kind and, most amazing of all, it wasn’t raining.

I’m sure that someone somewhere will have the data to either support or refute the following claim: It’s been a really wet spring this year. I’m talking about so much rain that the lawn is starting to resemble good habitat for tigers and velociraptors. Good grief.

So, in an almost trance-like state, I went out onto the deck, turned my face up to the sun and gave a quiet sigh of relief. It felt so good to be outside, warm and dry. It was almost hypnotic and I decided that I had to soak up the feeling for as long as possible. I went into the kitchen, got all of my writing gear, and deposited myself at the glass-topped table on the deck where I sit and form relationships with the birds.

It didn’t take long for me to see that I wasn’t the only one who had been overwhelmed by the sun. A black-capped chickadee (one of the birds that I have a very close relationship with) hopped up onto the railing over by the lilac bushes and seemed to pause in stunned amazement. The railing was less than 10 feet from where I was sitting, so this bird was clearly very trusting. Anyway, the bird looked around to make sure the coast was clear and then started tipping over to one side. Had it been a ship I could say it was listing to starboard.

The chickadee fluffed out its feathers, got a “crazy” look on its face (where the eyes are opened wide, but they’re not looking at anything in particular) and seemed to almost pass out with ecstasy. I imagine it was like jumping into a sauna at a day spa, or receiving a deep, soothing foot rub.

The little bird regained its composure for a moment, but then succumbed to the sun once again. This went on for a minute or two until the chickadee finally hopped down to the birdbath to splash a little cold water on its face and pull itself together.

This was extremely amusing to watch, but sunning behavior like this is something that almost all songbirds will do at some point. They get into a “sun trance” and they go catatonic for a moment or two. The thing that really caught my attention, however, was the amount of activity at that birdbath. You might reasonably think that with all of the rain we’ve had that there would be enough water out there for the birds, but it’s difficult to overstate the importance of a regular supply of clean, fresh water. Bird after bird came over for a drink and I was able to snap a few photos from eight feet away.

The position of a birdbath is going to have a fairly substantial impact on what sort of birds use it. Out in the open you will likely get a different set of species including, if you are lucky, bluebirds and tree swallows. I’ve only seen swallows at baths once, but I know it happens. If, however, your birdbath is in a quiet corner somewhere, with bushes and vegetation nearby, you might get species like gray catbirds or towhees.

My birdbath is set up in a corner of my deck where the railing provides a psychological border between the deck and the lilac bushes beyond. However, in the real world, there is nothing to prevent a bird from hopping about four inches from a lilac branch through the slats to the bowl of the bath. As a result, many different species feel very comfortable drinking from the bath and splashing around in the water when it’s hot.

The main things to look for in a birdbath are stability and shape. You want the bowl to be broad and relatively shallow, but heavy enough to withstand a good gust of wind if it’s out in the open. My particular model is a terracotta number that is very heavy. Plastic models are also available and though lighter in weight, they do have an advantage when it comes to cleaning them. The rough surface of the terracotta bath is a great place for algae to grow and it requires extra work to scrub it clean with a brush. Plastic models have a smoother surface and can be easier to clean.

Finally, if you decide to put up a birdbath, it is important that you have a firm understanding of the cat situation in your yard. Outdoor cats kill a lot of birds without any help from humans, but putting a birdbath up in a spot where there is plenty of cover for an ambush is just dirty. If there are cats in your area, keep the birdbath out in the open where cats can’t hide. After all, how would you feel if you got into the bathtub only to discover that there was a tiger there waiting for you? That reminds me, I’ve really got to mow my lawn.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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