Mickey Rathbun: Helping wild birds stay clean and hydrated

  • American Robin perched in the sunlight on an old rustic bird bath outdoors during Springtime PATRICK DAVIS

Published: 8/4/2016 4:34:08 PM

I’ll never forget one magical evening last summer when I discovered how much wild birds need water during dry spells. My husband and I were sitting out on the patio with friends. There had been not a drop of rain for over a week and I noticed that our birdbath was dry.

I took a moment to fill it, and within minutes a bevy of bluebirds descended on it. They took turns sitting on the edge while others splashed and flapped in the water. We watched with delight and amazement. I have been vigilant about keeping the birdbath filled ever since.

We unwittingly do so much to impede Mother Nature — mowing, weeding and clearing away fallen logs and thickets that provide shelter for birds and other beneficial pollinators. Setting up a birdbath is something we can easily do to help our feathered friends in hot, dry weather.

Personal hygiene is very important for birds. They need to keep their feathers in good condition so they can fly. Dampening their feathers loosens the dirt, making the feathers easier to preen. When preening, birds rearrange their feathers and spread oil from their preen gland to waterproof themselves and trap a layer of insulating air to keep them warm in winter. Birds also pick out parasites when they’re bathing.

Birds aren’t the only flying things that need water. Bees and butterflies do too. Bees will drink from a birdbath or fish pond, but you can also set out a shallow pan filled with sand and water for them. Butterflies enjoy drinking from mud puddles because they get salts and nutrients in addition to hydration.

To make your birdbath more accessible to bees and butterflies, add a few flattish stones in your birdbath to serve as islands for the insects. They can perch on these as they drink and don’t risk drowning.

The simplest way to get a birdbath is to buy one. But if you’re a DIY type, there are hundreds of suggestions on the Internet for creating interesting and artistic birdbaths from simple elements such as old enameled basins, marble sinks and stone plinths. Make sure the bottom surface is rough enough to prevent birds from slipping. You can add a layer of sand for this purpose.

There are several factors to consider in placing your birdbath. Birds will not use a birdbath if they don’t feel safe from predators. Put your birdbath near trees and shrubs, where birds can go for cover. They can’t fly very effectively when their wings are wet, so proximity is important. Put the bath in a shady place to keep the water cool and slow evaporation. Birds also like to perch on branches after their baths to dry themselves.

Clean your birdbath every few days, scrubbing out any green algae that accumulates. Standing water also attracts mosquitoes, and frequent cleaning discourages mosquito propagation.

Distinctive birdbaths make arresting focal points in gardens. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing thirsty, dusty birds drink and clean themselves in a birdbath you’ve created for them. Make sure you place your birdbath where you can see it!

It’s hard to believe we’ll ever have freezing cold weather again, but remember that birdbaths are even more critical in cold weather, when other sources of water are likely to be frozen solid. More on this subject when the garden is put to bed for the winter.

Family Fridays at Berkshire Botanical Garden

Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge is hosting three kid-friendly programs in August. The first, on Aug. 12, from 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., will feature birds of prey, presented by wildlife rehabilitator Tom Ricardi. In this program designed for all ages, Ricardi will share the natural history of these magnificent raptors, demonstrate some of their unique behaviors, and urge children to appreciate, respect and conserve these important members of our wild kingdom.

Ricardi is a licensed rehabilitator and wildlife biologist. He runs Massachusetts Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center in Conway and is now retired after 40 years of service as a Massachusetts Environmental Conservation police officer.

On Aug. 17, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. the Caterpillar Lab, a nationally acclaimed natural science organization based in Keene, New Jersey, will visit the Berkshire Botanical Garden to introduce some lesser-known native creatures that are often just outside of our own back doors.

The program will include an array of caterpillars, voraciously munching on the plants that provide them with the sustenance essential to their growth and development. An educator from The Caterpillar Lab will talk about caterpillar biology and the incredible but true stories about the strange and surprising adaptations of these curious baby Lepidoptera.

From the camouflaged coverings that make them look like twigs or snakes and stinging spines that protect and hide them from predators to other species with strong mandibles and urticating hairs or bristles that help ensure their survival, caterpillars will be seen in a whole new light.

On Aug. 26, from 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., the program will feature frogs and turtles of Berkshire County.

This presentation is designed for all ages and highlights some of the least known and most fascinating animals of our backyards. The illustrated talk will include methods of identifying frogs and turtles, details about their distinctive biology, and interesting facts about their behaviors.

All programs are free for members and children under 12. Non-members get in with BBG admission.

The programs will take place at the Education Center. For more information, go to: berkshirebotanical.org

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