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Just Add Water: Protecting Wildlife in Winter

In cold weather, a heated bird bath can be a bird's best friend

The Humane Society of the United States

  • bird bath

    Provide water all winter long by adding a heating element to your existing bird bath. Janet Snyder/HSUS

  • This pedestal-style bird bath has a built-in heating element. Janet Snyder/HSUS

  • bird bath

    Some animals prefer to drink and bathe at gound level. Janet Snyder/HSUS

  • When the snow flies, a heated bird bath can provided an oasis in the storm for birds and other animals. Janet Snyder/HSUS

Winter can be a particularly trying time for wildlife. Food becomes more scarce, and normally reliable water sources freeze over.

Check out the ways you can make the season a little more bearable for your wild neighbors.

H2O vanishing act

When water suddenly disappears, animals expend valuable energy and risk dangerous exposure searching for other sources—which might mean the difference between life and death in the coldest season.

For birds, water is essential for drinking and for bathing—a year-round necessity to keep feathers in top flying and insulating shape. While animals will eat ice and snow, they benefit from a reliable source of water.

Hot tubs for birds

The easiest, most reliable way to keep water ice-free is to use a heat source. You can find birdbaths with built-in heating elements (generally set  to 40–50 degrees Fahrenheit) at online retailers and home and garden specialty stores. You can also purchase water-heating units designed to float on the surface of ponds or to rest on the bottom of birdbaths. These heaters usually cost little to run and safely shut off automatically when pulled out of the water.

Important Safety Tip:  Be sure your outdoor outlets are protected by a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to cut off the electricity in case of a short.

If you don't get many days of freezing weather, try regularly replenishing your birdbaths with hot (not boiling!) water to melt any ice; this should keep them nearly ice-free for a few hours.

Aerators and other options

If you already have a pond aerator, keep it running to prevent freezing. In warmer areas, you may be able to run a dripper—a device that releases droplets slowly into water—all winter. The sight and sound of dripping water is very attractive to wildlife.

Support from the sun

Use solar energy to your advantage: Put water sources on the south or southwestern side of your property, preferably sheltered from the wind. To capture even more heat, apply black latex paint or secure black rubber pond liners to the interiors of water containers. Never add anti-freeze chemicals to the water—they can poison wildlife.

Keep it clean

However you provide water, remember that sanitation is important year-round. Locating water sources close to your house makes cleaning and maintenance much easier—and you won't have to carry buckets of water far. Be sure the containers are regularly cleaned and replenished with fresh water—more often as more animals use them—to prevent the spread of disease.

Rinse a birdbath daily before refilling it, and clean it once a week using a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water and a scrub brush to loosen debris. Rinse again thoroughly before refilling with fresh water.

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