Bird Watcher's General Store

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Birds Prefer Plain, Shallow Birdbaths

Dear Bird Folks,

My mother and I are having a debate. Our rather plain, cement birdbath was very popular with the birds, until it broke. We replaced it with a shiny blue-colored birdbath, but the new one doesn’t seem to attract as many birds. My mother says the birds simply don’t like the new birdbath, but I’m thinking it’s just a less busy time of year. Am I right or is my mother correct, as usual?

– John, Brewster, MA


Mothers are always right, John,

Yes, mothers are always right, except in those rare cases when they aren’t. Unfortunately, for you and your argument, this isn’t one of those rare cases. Mom may be on to something. No matter what the time of year, birds never stop needing water. They need water to drink, to keep their feathers clean and to keep their lips moist so they can whistle. If birds aren’t coming to your new bath, the problem is likely the bath, just as your mother said. Unless, of course, you bought the bath from me, then your mother is way off base.

Birdbaths are simple. Unlike bird feeders, you don’t have to worry about squirrel-proofing them, or keeping the big birds out of them (as some people want to do) or protecting expensive birdseed from the elements. A bath is basically a bowl that holds water and that’s the end of that. Or is it? It appears that birds and people have different ideas about what features are needed to make a good birdbath. People tend to like deep baths because they don’t have to be filled as often. But most birds have short little legs, and thus tend to avoid deep birdbaths (ducks excluded). To make birdbaths easier to clean manufacturers often coat them with a smooth glaze. The glaze makes it much easier for us to wipe away stains and algae, but the birds hate glazing. It’s too slippery. Birds can’t get a grip and that makes them uncomfortable when they are trying to take a bath, or when they are having a towel snapping fight.

If deep glazed birdbaths don’t appeal to birds, why would they make them? Consumers tend to choose good looks over functionality (which explains why I’m still in business). Here’s a story that reinforces this premise. A Massachusetts company once made hanging birdbaths that were lined with beautiful blue glazing. People loved them. In fact, we sold more of these birdbaths than all of our other baths combined. The trouble was, customers complained that the birds didn’t use these pretty baths. Things became so bad I finally went to the manufacturer with the complaints. I also shared my ideas about making a better birdbath. I told the company that they should construct a bath that was shallower and replace the blue glaze with a natural rough texture. Much to my amazement, they not only listened to me, they actually made the exact bath I described. And they didn’t make just one bath (to shut me up); they produced thousands of them. My bird-friendly birdbaths were soon seen in catalogs, at garden centers and in the few birding stores that existed back then. The birds loved the new baths and my theory was 100% correct. But there was one problem. Birds don’t go shopping. It’s humans who do all the shopping, and they hated these baths. The bird-friendly baths were plain looking, hard to clean and totally tanked. My birdbath design was one of the biggest product flops ever, right up there with Ford’s Edsel, New Coke and those potato chips that gave people diarrhea. The company quickly discontinued the plain baths, reloaded on the pretty blue ones and never took my calls again. Really.

Will the birds ever use your new birdbath? Sure, they might eventually get used to it. Adding something with a rough surface could help speed things up. Some people with deep baths place a rock in the middle, which acts as a secure island for the birds to land on. I recommend using a large tapered rock, kind of shaped like the Rock of Gibraltar. (But don’t use the real Rock of Gibraltar. That would be way too big, plus it would upset the Brits.) Which material makes the best birdbaths is subject to debate. Clay and cement baths are the most popular, but both can break in cold weather and their porous surfaces stain easily. The best birdbaths are made of granite. Granite baths look great, are easy to clean and rarely break, but they are super pricey. Granite baths make a great gift…for someone else to give to you. An excellent material for a birdbath is crappy old plastic. Plastic baths tend to be shallow, usually have a nonskid texture, aren’t hard to maintain and won’t break when frozen. In addition, plastic baths are affordable, i.e., cheap, and that’s why some folks don’t like them. They think a plastic birdbath is tacky, but there’s a solution for that. Put a pink flamingo in front of it and no one will notice the tackiness.

Sorry I couldn’t take your side this time, John, but your Mom may be on the right track here. Some birdbaths really do a better job of attracting birds than others do. Perhaps adding a rock or two to your new bath will help make your birds feel more comfortable. However, you might want to be cautious when following my advice. The last time I made suggestions about improving a birdbath I almost put an entire company out of business.