Garden Variety: Birds need help with water during dry, cold weather

photo by: Shutterstock Photo

Birds depend on water for survival, and Kansas’ typically dry winters can make it hard for them to find what they need. You can help year-round resident birds by setting up a winter-safe birdbath, heated dish or other water source to provide the water they need throughout the winter. In return, you will get the enjoyment of watching the birds, attracting more birds to your yard (they eat insects!) and benefitting the environment.

The easiest and most aesthetically pleasing functional option for providing water to birds in winter is a sturdy winter-safe birdbath that is heated or in which a submersible heater can be placed. They are available in a range of sizes and prices. Some are mounted on pedestals and others are made to mount to a deck or patio railing.

If you have a birdbath in which you are thinking about placing a heater but are unsure of its winter capabilities, think of the potential for damage from freezing and thawing. Even with the submersible heater, parts of the pool may freeze and cause damage to concrete or similar materials. Fountains and pumps are also prone to damage from freezing and thawing and are probably best drained and stored for winter.

The next easiest option is to use a heated pet bowl or heated chicken waterer. They may be less aesthetically pleasing than a traditional bird bath but are often more cost effective. If using a pet bowl, opt for a large diameter model to ensure plenty of space for the birds that come to visit.

There are many do-it-yourself options, including everything from simply pouring heated water in a container outdoors each day, to rigging up a lightbulb under or next to a container that will put off enough heat to keep water thawed. For a container, just about anything that will hold water will work. Think trash can lids, old pans, shallow buckets, flowerpot saucers, etc.

Whatever you choose, if heating the bath, remember personal safety. Use safe outlets, follow manufacturers recommendations, and check local codes.


Once you have a container, select a location. For winter use a sunny spot. Place it close enough to shrubs or trees that birds can escape from predators if needed. The container can be placed on the ground or mounted to a deck rail or on a pedestal as desired. If cats are an issue, the safest location may be mounted. But otherwise the container can simply be placed on the ground.

If you want to be able to watch the birds from a window, consider placing the bath so you will be able to do so. Also, remember that the more you can see the birdbath, the more likely you are to fill it and clean it as needed through the winter. Keep it in a place that is easily viewable and accessible when possible.

If the bath or bowl is deep, place stones or sticks in the pool to give birds a place to perch and drink without submersing themselves in frigid temperatures. Think of re-creating a puddle or of how birds might bathe and drink on the edge of a natural body of water.

Clean the bath regularly throughout the winter by rinsing it and adding fresh water.

An old wives’ tale about keeping birdbaths thawed suggests adding glycerin to the water. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this practice is not recommended because glycerin elevates birds’ blood sugar levels and mats feathers which can be detrimental. Also, you need high concentrations of glycerin for it to effectively lower the freezing point of water.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.