Providing Water for Backyard Wildlife

When choosing a water feature to attract wildlife to your backyard, you can often feel like you are drowning in options – and not all the choices are equally suited to benefit wildlife. There are three main ways to provide free water (i.e., water that is not contained in plants) for wildlife in your yard: birdbaths, ponds, and dripping water features.

Birdbaths are one of the most popular methods of providing water to wildlife. To provide birds with a resource that is helpful rather than harmful, it is important to clean birdbaths frequently. If birdbaths are not cleaned regularly, especially during the summer, they can accumulate bird droppings, grow algae, and create an ideal spot for mosquitoes to lay their eggs in the stagnant water. Dirty birdbaths can become a source of disease transfer, which can be detrimental to the health of the birds that visit your yard. In winter, birds need less water than in the summer, but it is a good idea to continue to fill your bird bath every day, to guarantee you have feathered visitors all year long.

The best birdbaths mimic nature. Store-bought birdbaths often are too deep for small birds or have a glazed surface that is slippery and hard for birds to grip. A good birdbath imitates a shallow pool of water with gradually sloping edges and plenty of texture on the bottom. Aim to have no more than 2 inches of water in the middle of the birdbath and between 0.5 - 1 inch at the edges. Place stones or branches in and around your birdbath so small birds can also access the water. The location of your birdbath is also an important factor. Birdbaths in the shade are cooler, stay fresh longer, and will create the ideal space for birds (and maybe other animals) looking to relax. Close proximity to trees and shrubs will create shade and tree branches provide excellent spots for birds to rest and preen.

This birdbath is not too slippery or deep and has a stone in the middle on which birds can comfortably stand. Photo by Gene Wilburn.

Ground level birdbaths that mimic natural water sources will also attract many unique birds and most likely a few other animals. A mixture of these two types of birdbaths throughout your backyard will likely attract the most diverse animal species. If you love hummingbirds, incorporating splashing and trickling water features, such as waterfalls, will make your backyard especially attractive.
Another way to provide water for wildlife in your backyard is by creating a pond. Although ponds are a bigger investment than birdbaths, they will attract many more animals to your backyard, including birds, amphibians, reptiles, and beneficial insects like dragonflies. If you are interested in creating a backyard pond, you should follow many of the same basic rules as for installing a birdbath. Most importantly, create an area that mimics nature with gradual edges and fresh, flowing water. One benefit of ponds is that they can be created much deeper than birdbaths to provide habitat for amphibians, turtles, and fish. Rocks and branches placed around the pond will create excellent hiding places for reptiles and smaller mammals that come to get a drink, as well as perches for birds. Adding a waterfall will keep the water from becoming stagnant and also attract more wildlife. For more information on how to build a backyard pond or water garden, read our AgriLife Extension publication, Ornamental Ponds & Water Gardens in Texas.
Creating a water dripper can be as simple as poking a hole 
in an old milk carton and hanging it above your birdbath.
Moving water created by waterfalls or water drippers is a key feature that will elevate the quality of any water source and make it even more enticing to wildlife. Not only will dripping water attract birds’ attention and tempt them to spend more time at your birdbath, it also makes birdbaths easier to keep clean. Drippers prevent the water from becoming stagnant and allowing for the unwanted growth of algae and mosquitoes. A couple of negative aspects of water drippers are the price and time needed. Buying commercially produced drippers can be expensive. Alternatively, to save money, you can create your own dripper with any kind of recycled plastic container - but this involves a higher time commitment. If you are serious about inviting birds into your backyard, water drippers are one of the best ways to make sure they know where the water is located.
Traditional pedestal birdbaths are often not the best choice for birds, but they are just the right height for deer and other uninvited visitors.
Photo courtesy of Larry Beckman.

Keep in mind that providing supplemental water for wildlife comes with the responsibility to manage that resource. Water will attract many types of animals to your yard, which may include nuisance species such as squirrels. Carefully choosing your backyard water sources can often determine which wildlife species will most likely appear, but nature can be unpredictable. If you decide to incorporate water for wildlife in your backyard, be prepared to see something new every day!


Literature Cited

  1. Attract Birds with Birdbaths. 2009. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds. Web.
  2. Backyard Habitat for our Native Songbirds. Featherhaven. Web.
  3. Feeding Wildlife. 2017. Iowa State University Wildlife Extension and Outreach. Web.
  4. Russo, Monica. How to Make a Birdbath. 2015. National Audubon Society. Web.
  5. Top 25 Feeder Birds 2016-17 Texas. 2017. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Project FeederWatch. Web.
  6. Water for Wildlife: Bird Baths and Backyard Ponds. 2017. Penn State Extension. Web.


Edited by Maureen Frank, Extension Wildlife Specialist

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