Bird Watcher's General Store

Where Do Birds Get Water? - 06/03/11

Dear Bird Folks,

I’d like to know where birds get their water. There aren’t any ponds near my apartment community, but we do have a ceramic water holder thing on a pedestal. Where do birds find water if humans don’t provide any for them or when it doesn’t rain for a while?

– Leslie, Dennis, MA

Take it easy, Leslie,

This column is written for novice bird lovers. We like to keep things simple and try to avoid using scientific nomenclature. The term “ceramic water holder thing on a pedestal” might be understood by hydrographers and other brilliant people like you and me, but for the sake of the other readers, let’s just call it a “birdbath.” That will keep everyone else from running to the nearest technical journal in an effort to understand what we are talking about. There’s also one other point I’d like to clarify. When you asked where do birds get their water “when it doesn’t rain for a while?” you aren’t talking about this year, right? I think the longest we’ve gone this year without rain or fog has been about twenty minutes. Even the ducks in my neighborhood are starting to complain.

For years I’ve told people that they can attract more birds with water than they can with a birdfeeder, and that statement continues to be true. Only a few dozen species are actually interested in our feeders, no matter what the birdseed manufacturers tell us. But every bird needs water. They need it to drink, but they also need it to bathe in. If birds don’t keep their feathers clean they run the risk of losing their friends. (Nobody wants to be seen with a dirty bird.) But more importantly, if their feathers aren’t kept clean they will not be able to thermoregulate (i.e. keep themselves warm or cool) and that can be fatal. (Did you notice how I explained the meaning of “thermoregulate”? Again, it’s important not to be too technical.)

When it comes to having natural water supplies the birds that live in Dennis, or in any of the surrounding Cape towns, are in good shape. There’s a lot more fresh water around here than most folks realize. If you were to see your town from above, as the birds do, you’d realize that Cape Cod is littered with hundreds of small ponds and other pockets of freshwater. And while accessing these ponds might be problematic for us, they are just a quick flight away for birds.

Another thing Cape Cod has going for it is morning dew, lots and lots of morning dew. The same dew that we have to wipe off our lawn furniture each morning is valued by the birds. Hummingbirds especially love to drink droplets of water off leaves. Birds also find water in our rain gutters, even if it hasn’t been raining. Many a morning I’ve been woken up by the sounds of birds landing on my gutters, sipping up pools of moisture that were formed by the aforementioned dew running off my roof during the night. (Being woken up by sounds of birds in the gutter should not be confused with “waking up in the gutter.” That’s another story all together.)

Let’s not forget about puddles. They are one of the birds’ favorite places to drink and bathe. Even the briefest rain shower will produce a few puddles and the birds readily take advantage of them. However, puddles have a dangerous downside. Humans seem to be obsessed with toxic chemicals and these chemicals can runoff into puddles, and the birds pay the price. I’m not talking about industrial runoff. That’s another problem. I’m talking about homeowners’ run off. Every time we spray for ants, aphids, moths and dandelions, or wash our cars with some miracle super-shine detergent, we are probably using harmful products. And rain carries these products into puddles. (If you don’t think ant sprays or car cleaners are harmful, take a drink of one of them sometime and get back to me about it.) People regularly call and ask why the birds that were nesting in their yard have suddenly “abandon their nest.” Birds abandoned nests for an assortment of reasons, or they could have fallen victim to toxic runoff, runoff produced by some paranoid myrmecophobe. (Myrmecophobe means…ah, never mind. Everyone knows what that means.)

When it comes to needing water, seedeaters typically need to drink more often than carnivores do. Predators typically obtain most of the moisture they need from the juicy meat they consume. That’s why we see lots of sparrows and very few hawks at our birdbaths (aka, ceramic water holder thing). But that doesn’t mean raptors never drink. One fall I was watching the sunset over Herring Pond in Eastham (MA), when I spotted a Great Horned Owl on the opposite shore. The owl, too, was enjoying the sunset, but it was also drinking water. It took several long sips from the pond. Witnessing an owl drinking is rare and it made me question what I was seeing, but as the bird flew away I noticed it was carrying a large bag of salted pretzels, and that explained everything.

As is the case with us, Leslie, birds are lucky to live around here. There rarely is a shortage of natural fresh water. Still, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put out a birdbath. It’s fun to watch birds come to drink and bathe. And if you put out a bag of pretzels, you might even see an owl. Just be careful. Pretzels could also attract that fat guy who sits at the end of the bar at the local pub. I don’t think you ever want to see him bathing in your ceramic water holder thing.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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