Blackbird female, bathing in garden bird bath, Co. Durham

Birds and water

Many people put food out for birds, but fewer provide a regular supply of clean water.

Drinking water

Birds need water for drinking and bathing. Water is particularly important during the winter when natural supplies may be frozen and in dry, hot weather during the summer when water can be hard to find.

Birds have no sweat glands, so they need less water than mammals. However, they do lose water through respiration and in their droppings. Most small birds need to drink at least twice a day to replace the lost water.

Birds get the liquid they need from their food and by drinking. Many insectivorous birds get most of their water from food. Seed-eating birds have a dry diet and they do need to drink more. 

Water is freely available to small birds at the shallow edges of ponds and streams. They may also drink water droplets that form on leaves, especially if they live in woodland. Aerial species such as swallows and swifts swoop down onto a water body and scoop up a beakful of water while still in flight. Very impressive!

Most birds drink by dipping their bill in water and throwing their head back to swallow. Pigeons and doves are able to immerse their beaks and can drink continuously.

Water for bathing

Water to bathe in is just as important for birds, especially in winter. It is essential that they keep their feathers in good condition. Bathing is an important part of feather maintenance. Dampening the feathers loosens the dirt and makes their feathers easier to preen.

When preening, birds carefully rearrange the feathers and spread oil from the preen gland so they remain waterproof and trap an insulating layer of air underneath to keep them warm.

How to keep the water clean

Keeping a bird bath clean helps to prevent birds catching diseases.

You should clean your birdbath regularly and change the water. A layer of algae, dead leaves or bird droppings will soon build up, so give the bath a thorough clean every week or so. Scrub the sides and bottom to remove algae and other dirt.

You can use dilute household disinfectants, but make sure that you rinse the bath out thoroughly to remove any traces of chemicals.

There are two non-toxic products on the market, Enviroclens and Ark-Klens, which can be used to clean bird baths.

How to keep the water ice-free

Birds need to drink regularly, whether the weather's hot or cold. They'll even bathe in the depths of winter. In freezing conditions, bird baths and garden ponds become even more important, since many natural sources of water are frozen over. 

It can be difficult to stop a bird bath from freezing, but try these simple methods:

  • A light ball floating in the water will be moved by even a gentle breeze, and will keep a small amount of water ice-free
  • Pour on hot water to melt the ice
  • Line the bath with a polythene sheet that you can lift out along with the ice
  • Put a metal container on three or four bricks with a night light candle underneath, sheltering the flame from the wind with extra bricks
  • Use an immersion heater controlled by a thermostat, or a lightbulb inside a tiling pipe on which the dish is resting. They must be fitted with suitable external wiring
  • The ultimate is the Solar Sipper, a bird bath that uses solar energy to prevent the water from freezing.

Avoid chemicals 

Never add any chemicals (such as glycerine, anti-freeze or salt) to the water. It could stop the birds' feathers from being waterproof, or poison the birds themselves.

Ceramic bird bath hanging by chains from a tree in a garden setting