For the Birds Radio Program: Sprinklers

Original Air Date: Aug. 2, 1995

Laura Erickson suggests a way to attract new birds to your yard, and to help them cool off besides. (3:59) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Imagine a Chestnut-sided Warbler, its tropical-gold crown glistening in the sunlight, or a Scarlet Tanager spangled with diamond droplets of water. These and other treetop birds, normally hidden in dense foliage, are down on the ground, right on our own front lawn. What’s the secret? Lawn sprinklers.

In a hot, dry summer, water is critical for birds. Even when rain is plentiful, clean drinking water and a safe place to bathe aren’t always easy to come by. The most well-tended bird bath eventually gets dirty, what with grackles bombarding it with fecal sacs. (To avoid predators, songbirds dump their nestlings’ droppings in ponds and streams, but grackles prefer swimming pools and bird baths.) Once a bird bath is fouled, no sensible bird will bathe in it, much less drink. Sprinkler water is clean and safe, and squirts enticingly, attracting birds from a wide area.

The first bird to appear is usually a robin. Warblers, vireos, tanagers, and catbirds soon appear. Swallows and hummingbirds swoop and dive at the crest of the arc, snatching thirsty insects and washing them down with gulps of water. In August, urban backyards that normally have little more than sparrows and starlings may suddenly attract myriad forest birds, migrants stopping for a brief shower in an area where they could never take up residence.

Clean drinking water is at a premium in much of the U.S., and many municipalities regulate sprinkling. TO maximize the number of birds attracted while minimizing the amount of water used, run the sprinkler briefly but at the same time each day. Late afternoon or early evening sprinkling attracts the most birds, providing a refreshing eye-opener after the afternoon siesta. Once the soil becomes saturated, already-bathed robins reappear to feast on surfacing worms. Where water is at a premium, this is the time to shut off the faucet.

Sometimes the avian attraction to water is a fatal one. In Yellowstone National Park, pools and geysers of what appears to be cool, thirst-quenching water may really be boiling hot. Bird carcasses sometimes litter thermal areas, and some birds with second or third degree burns fly off to suffer and die alone. Fortunately, the Northland is a safe haven for birds seeking clean, cool water. But even here, sprinklers may lure birds to their deaths if cats are about, or if the lawn was recently sprayed with pesticides.

Wet feathers are heavy and compacted, making flying difficult. Bathing birds prefer that we keep our distance, but during a dry spell, they take what they can get. Warblers and vireos sometimes bathe in our sprinkler while my three kids and their friends frolic in the same water. Identifying birds at sprinklers isn’t as easy as figuring out those at feeders. Wet feathers are darker than dry ones. And when a bird opens its outer “contour” feathers to wet its down feathers and skin, it gets mighty bedraggled. Whoever coined the expression “bathing beauties” was definitely not talking about birds. But pay attention to where birds go after showering and you’ll see gray, sodden messes transformed back into lovely birds. They shake their feathers and nibble on them with their beaks, and as the plumage slowly smooths and dries, you can clinch your identifications. Sprinkler watching is an excellent way to sort out those tricky fall warblers, and get a green lawn to boot.