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Steps to take to keep baths and fountains safe for birds

An American Redstart and Canada and Tennessee Warblers enjoy Ryan Brady’s fountain. Photo by Ryan Brady.
An American Redstart and Canada and Tennessee Warblers enjoy Ryan Brady’s fountain. Photo by Ryan Brady.

Ryan Brady is a research scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a member of the state’s eBird team, and a friend of mine. He lives on a tract of restored natural habitat and has a water fountain styled to look like a rocky cascade. Pictured above, it has several pools shallow enough for warblers, chickadees, and other tiny birds. Thanks to a recirculating pump, a quiet gurgling attracts them from a distance.

Ryan has seen 64 species in that birdbath. He sent me information about a smaller model, the Cascading Stone Fountain made by Pure Garden, and in late summer I set it up in the backyard. Chickadees discovered it within 15 minutes, and soon I had a steady stream of birds, most regularly first thing in the morning and in late afternoon. By the time of the first frost, when I brought the birdbath in for the winter, about 30 species had visited.

Quite a few birds use baths to bathe, but most come to drink, so it’s important to maintain all bird-attracting water features so the water remains safe to drink. Online stores often suggest purchasing an algaecide, but most brands use copper — effective, but not necessarily safe for drinking water. Copper toxicity, which causes physical and psychiatric symptoms, is a possibility from too much exposure to metallic copper, including pennies, and tests haven’t been done to determine safe exposure levels for backyard birds. I don’t think the risk is worth it.

To keep the water clean, I empty my birdbath every two to three days. If the bottom looks the least bit slimy, I scrape it with a heavy-duty brush and rinse a few times. That seems to keep the bath plenty clean. My little fountain is a bit more complicated, since it has inaccessible spaces where algae or microorganisms can hide. I empty it out entirely every couple weeks and use a stiff brush to clean. I use only water, and so far, that seems to keep it reasonably clean.

Placement of a birdbath or fountain is critical to attract warblers, thrushes, and other migrating birds that don’t visit feeders. They’re not too skittish while drinking, but, sensibly, they consider bathing only in places that seem very safe. I set mine near my large spruce trees. A dense stand of raspberries grows beneath them, giving the birds lots of places to duck for cover if a hawk flies over. My yard is safe from cats — it’s fenced in; we have a dog, as do two of our neighbors; and our city has a cat leash ordinance.

Duluth is on a major migration pathway, so I routinely get to enjoy more birds than most people see in their backyards, although I’ll never spot as many as Ryan does. But a nice water feature can at least maximize the birds I do see, and make their lives a little easier, too.


This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

Five more columns by Laura Erickson

Dealing with the smart and spirited Blue Jay.

How planting a tree can ensure a brighter future.

Why I’m drawn to Cedar Waxwings.

The pleasures of finding life birds for a new puppy.

Simple chickadees observe a complex social hierarchy.

Julie Craves explains whether pennies deter algae in birdbaths.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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