Off the Deep End
When you were a kid, did you ever look at the deep end of a swimming pool with a twinge of fear? The idea of being unable to touch the bottom was certainly a deterrent for me, which limited my earliest childhood pool experiences to the shallow end, or to those little plastic kiddie pools.
Many of our favorite backyard birds have similar instincts. It’s one reason why songbirds don’t bathe in the open water of backyard swimming pools—it’s far too deep for them.
Fortunately a host of commercial birdbaths are available, but even many of these are designed with mid-sized or larger birds in mind. With basins several inches deep, most birdbaths are great for birds like robins that will happily hop into a few inches of water to bathe. However, these same pools of water are too deep for bathing by smaller birds like chickadees and warblers. Sure, they might perch along the rim and sip the water, but just like a small child afraid of getting water in the ears, tiny birds won’t jump into pools that are too deep for them.
If you want to offer smaller birds a place to bathe, there are a couple of simple ways to make your existing birdbath accessible to them. Both involve creating places where even the smallest bird can stand and bathe—a shallow end, so to speak.
The first option is to line the bottom of your birdbath with a layer of smooth river gravel. To entice your smallest birds to bathe, fill the basin so that there are areas where the water is no more than an inch or so deep. River gravel can make your birdbath into a beautiful ornament for your backyard; it is aesthetically pleasing to human eyes, although the birds don’t seem to care. The biggest drawback to river gravel-lined birdbaths is the cleanup—when it comes time to clean the birdbath, you’ll need to scrub all of the small stones, too.
Another option for creating a “shallow end” in your birdbath is to add large, flat rocks below the surface of the water. This will give you the benefit of being able to have multiple depths within the same birdbath—small birds can splash in the shallowest water on top of the rocks, and larger birds can dive into the spaces where the water is still several inches deep. Again, when you clean the birdbath you’ll have to scrub these rocks as well. Of course, be careful if you put a lot of weight on one side of the basin that it doesn’t cause your whole birdbath to tip over!
Regardless of your preference, you can find the stones you need in a variety of places. If you’re lucky, you might have everything you need in your own backyard, or in a nonprotected area nearby. Most big cities have at least one “stone specialist”—someone who does patios, walkways, and the like—who could supply you with the stones you need. You can also find a wide selection at most landscaping or garden centers.
With a little extra effort your birdbath can encourage a greater variety of birds to stop there—and perhaps stay around long enough for you to see and enjoy them!