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The Dry Garden: Water-wise birdbaths can create a backyard spa for wildlife


It has been my casual observation during the last decade in Los Angeles that dry years produce the best backyard birding and wet years the most marginal.

This being the height of migration season for Western songbirds, and conditions around Los Angeles being bone-dry or fire-scarred, here's a proposal for even the driest of dry gardeners: Get out your hoses.

There is no better time to set up a birdbath.

It doesn’t take much water, just well-managed water, to convert your garden to a wildlife refuge. Anything from a series of cannily placed dishes with stones to three-tiered fountains or even faux streams can attract a surprising array of birds. Or, in the words of Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: “If you put out bird feeders, you get seed-eating birds. If you put out water, you can get anything from a Cooper's hawk coming in to doves and small warblers, finches and sparrows.”

Fountain2 The birds use water to drink and bathe. So the object is to keep it fresh and set it up with pebbles and perching points. (Birds such as sparrows can drown if offered big tubs with bad access.)

Freestanding dishes with pebbles require a commitment to change the water every day or so. For larger fountains, the most efficient method is to reduce the water capacity using stones or some kind of fill, so the volume of water being circulated and replenished is reduced. You can refresh it by hand with a hose, or plumb it into most drip systems.

But avoid wasteful systems. In the greater scheme of things, these hurt birds: The water coming from your urban hose will be drawn from some taxed habitat in the wild.

The first thing that Garrett or almost any birder will tell you about setting up a birdbath is that moving water is preferable. This helps prevent stagnation.

Garry George, conservation chairman of Los Angeles Audubon, also thinks that the sound draws birds in. “I think they can hear it if you have running water," he said. "So if they’re coming into a tree near your house and hear that sound, they might come and check it out.”

George, whose backyard is home to a mix of goldfinches, has a streamlike setup from Avian Aquatics. Aesthetes who visit the website shouldn’t panic. Although these rigs have all the elegance of science fair volcano molds, they can be incorporated into gardens to look so naturalistic that you could swear it was a babbling brook, not a motorized system recycling L.A.’s finest tap water.

That said, birds are not design snobs, so express yourselves. While you’re at it, check out the range of solar-powered birdbaths and fountains on the market. Target has what looks like a good buy for a solar pump at $69.99. 

More important than the appearance of the birdbath or fountain is the position. David Fross of Native Sons in Arroyo Grande, Calif., has his fountain tucked up against shrubs, which in turn form banks against a tree canopy. Every fall, migrating Townsend’s warblers get shelter as they hop into and out of the fountain to shrubbery and trees.

The one place you don’t want to put a birdbath is in the proximity of a cat. So if you have an outdoor cat, it’s best to let the birds find safer gardens. Even if you don’t have a cat, be mindful of strays: Consider putting a fountain in the backyard rather than the more accessible frontyard. A backyard patrolled by a dog wouldn't hurt (assuming the dog doesn't have a taste for birds).

To learn more:

"The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America"

Audubon California

Friends of Ballona Wetlands

Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles

Shipley Nature Center in Hungtington Beach

Madrona Marsh Preserve in Torrance

Buena Vista Audubon in San Diego

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

— Emily Green

Green's column on water-wise gardening appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com.

Photo credits: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times

Comments () | Archives (6)

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Anyone interested in the Target pump should read the reviews on the Target site before buying. There's a reason it's cheap, and sometimes cheap isn't actually cheap.

Article on backyard birdbaths. Says not good if have backyard cat.

Thank you for this article. Yes, our wildlife needs our help during these drought days. I remember visiting a friend in a valley who thought it was odd that birds were spiraling over her swimming pool, coming close to the water and flying away.

She was appalled when she realized the birds were thirsty but couldn't get any water from the pool. They had no place to perch.

I liked everything you said in this article except the comment about bird bath position. "fountain tucked up against shrubs, which in turn form banks against a tree canopy."

Birdbaths near shrubs in cozy places give predators a place to hide and then pounce. Bird baths need to be in open, clear space so cats and other predators cannot hide and surprise the bathing birds. Near a tree is good.
The birds can sit on the branches and check the ground which also adds to their security.

Water also helps bees.

Great birthday present for me! I didn't know fountains could recycle through solar panels ( ok I dont shop), "but"... I have mosquitoes so bad, I can't stand to go outside.

Will a fountain breed them? This is a serious problem, I'm in the south, I wish I had bats like I did In Pa!!

Thanks so much...Beth

Hi Beth. Good question. Standing water will breed mosquitoes, which are as bad if not worse for birds as they are for us. I have a series of bird baths in my garden that are changed at a minimum of every other day, usually every day. If you're not out in the garden every day, another option is getting a fountain with a motor that perturbs the water. Mosquitoes won't breed in running water. This should be refilled and checked often for algae (I just pick it out, and have developed a strange, grubby enthusiasm for the deglucking part of my garden morning). Then the best solution if there is enough water is to get mosquito fish. Google for your nearest supplier. Hope this helps.

Re: seclusion -- yes, it can be a problem if you have lots of predators. I have noticed that the Townsend Warblers, which have just arrived in my garden, really don't like the open, while other birds, particularly scrub jays, like their water sources right out with clear 360 open space. My solution has been to place them both in sheltered and secluded spots. But I have dogs, which keep the cats to a minimum. Out front, I've noticed that my neighbors cats literally sit in wait by the bird bath, which is seldom used. In fact, I must take it down.

Re: the Target solar fountain. There are many other types of solar fountains. I like the one at the Garden / garden site in Santa Monica done by Susanne Jet. It is a very simple little dish whose flow is solar-powered. It too may be junk, but it was working when I visited there. Anyone who has good recommendations, please chime in!
-Emily Green


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