For the Birds Radio Program: Barbara's Questions about Bird Feeding

Original Air Date: Sept. 3, 2001 Rerun Dates: March 10, 2003

Today Laura answers a listener’s questions about winter bird feeding and winter bird baths.

Duration: 4′30″


Every now and then, I get letters from radio listeners or people who read my column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune who have questions about birds. Barbara Westman recently emailed me with some questions about practical bird-feeding issues.

First she asked about keeping up a birdbath in the winter—how often should she change the water, and what should she clean her birdbath with. Birds relish drinking water in the winter. You can use any birdbath strong enough to withstand alternate freezing and thawing, and you can also buy a small electrical heater specifically designed for birdbaths to keep the water thawed. When it’s 20 below zero, water just above freezing is just about 52 degrees warmer than the air, which is awfully inviting to a cold bird that is flitting about, naked as a jaybird. The problem is that the moment the bird emerges, the water on its feathers freezes solid. There are many cases of starlings dying from this, so I advise people to keep their heated birdbaths turned off when the temperature is below zero. Alternatively, you can give the birds drinking water while keeping them from bathing by putting plastic-coated hardware cloth over the birdbath so they can get their beaks in for drinks but can’t dunk themselves.

Keeping a birdbath clean in winter is a lot harder than the rest of the year when you can just hose it down and use a wire brush. Fortunately, microorganisms don’t grow well in winter, so the problem of keeping it clean isn’t as critical. Late in fall make sure you’ve done a good job of cleaning it for the coming winter. Dish soap is okay, but to disinfect it well, bleach is useful. Just make sure you rinse it really well and then give it plenty of time to air out before filling. With luck, just changing the water will be enough cleaning during the winter.

I personally don’t bother with a birdbath in winter. I set a plastic bowl of water out on a tray feeder many mornings, and when the water freezes, that’s it for the day. Birds may love to drink in winter, but their bodies are extraordinarily well designed for conserving water, so if they go many days without, they’ll still thrive. But they do like it enough that a great many of them watch for me in the morning, and zip in the moment I appear. The nice thing about a bowl is that each morning I can switch it and put the one from the previous day in the dishwasher.

Barbara also asked if she should keep all her feeders filled right through winter. The answer is yes, but it’s not all that simple. Virtually no birds trust in a single source of food, but even birds that spend most of their feeding time during bad weather at your feeding station usually disappear on nice days exploring the terrain just in case your feeder were ever to go unfilled.

If you have a feeding station with a wide variety of feeders, there may be many birds using it as their primary source of food, but most of them already do have worked out backup plans just in case. If you have a single feeder, most or even all of your birds probably have other sources of food they depend on more than your feeder. So closing down this kind of feeder wouldn’t matter in the least. Closing down even a major feeding station in the middle of winter won’t kill your birds. They really do have other choices available, especially if you live in a town or a city.

The one bird you do need to look out for in winter is the Mourning Dove. If a Mourning Dove loses its primary feeding station, it must spend a lot of time searching, and less time roosting, keeping its feet warm. Mourning Doves have fleshy feet, very susceptible to frostbite, so if you do have doves and are planning a winter vacation, ask someone in your neighborhood to keep your feeder filled for them—just one little thing for a vulnerable bird that brings so much loveliness to our eyes and ears.