Winter Water Solution: Heated Birdbaths

House Finch_LaVeta-CO_LAH_2316_filteredI’m gazing out my frosted window at the birds in our backyard. In the four hours since sunrise, the thermometer has only climbed from 13 to 15 degrees. Tiny snowflakes waft down onto the deck and bird feeders. The predawn fog has frozen onto every twig and blade of grass, turning the landscape into a fairyland of hoar frost.

The birds—House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, a few pigeon—are devouring my black-oil sunflower seeds as fast as their little beaks can crack the shells. A flicker has staked out the suet feeder. (I miss the nuthatches and chickadees from our old house, surrounded by pines.) But as popular as the feeders are, the birds are also flocking to my heated birdbath.

I have several drinking options for the birds. A plastic saucer sits on the bricks surrounding my raised beds. A water-holding basin has been carved out of a two-foot wide rock on our stone retaining wall, last year’s birthday present from my astute husband. At this temperature, the water in both of these is frozen solid. (I got tired of refilling them with hot water every few hours.) What are thirsty birds to do?

american-robin-8x10Of course they could eat snow—it’s what they would normally do. But it takes calories to melt those frozen flakes into drinking water, calories that could be put to better use keeping the birds warm. And in very cold weather, or if energy-providing food is not readily available, having those calories available for warmth might make the difference between death and survival.

Then, consider the times when the weather is frigid—and snowless. That’s quite common in Colorado’s arid climate. What are the birds to do then? Even the toughest beak would have a hard time chipping ice out of a frozen birdbath or puddle.

That’s why providing liquid water in winter attracts so many visitors. Even birds that turn up their beaks at bird seed or suet will come to a water feature. (So will other animals, something to consider.)

house-finch-in-snow-blackforest-2008mar05-lah-003r

As with any birdbath, make sure it’s constructed for birds. It should have enough traction that the birds won’t slip. Ideally, it should have a gentle slope to allow for a gradual increase in water depth. Like many of us humans, birds like to gingerly inch their way into the water. (Mine has straight sides, but the overall bath is shallow and the birds don’t seem to mind.)

No matter what the brand, a heated birdbath keeps the water at 40° F—not exactly a hot tub, but warm enough to keep ice away. If all the water evaporates, the heater automatically shuts off to prevent problems. I’ve had mine for over a decade and see no need to replace it.

Here’s a photo from our previous house. As you can see, we bolted the supporting metal frame to a balcony railing, then plugged in the heater with an exterior extension cord that ran under the deck boards.

house-finch-on-heated-birdbathblackforest-2008mar05-lah-013

At our new house, our railing is made of a wood-substitute, and we didn’t want to put permanent holes into it. Our solution—we simply placed the bath, without the metal support, directly on the deck. Another option is to choose one that comes with a taller stand, similar to those for unheated birdbaths.

Heated birdbaths aren’t cheap, but they aren’t out of reach either. I found several very nice products for under $50, and many more for under $75. If that’s too much for your budget, you can get a thermostatically controlled deicer for under $20, although it won’t look as nice. (If you buy online, be warned—some shipping costs are absurdly high).

Adding a heated birdbath to your yard is an easy way to attract more birds, plus provide an essential resource. After the initial expense, the electricity and water cost mere pennies. That’s a small price to pay for the enjoyment you’ll receive!
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Find the answer to last week’s bird quiz below:

Brown-capped Rosy-finch.

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