For the Birds Radio Program: Cool Bird Bath

Original Air Date: June 28, 2007 Rerun Dates: May 5, 2009; June 12, 2008

A friend of Laura’s in northern Michigan has a birdbath that draws in warblers, thrushes, and other elusive songbirds. How does he do it?

Duration: 4′13″


Bird baths

This week I got to spend a day in the woods up near Iron River, Michigan, visiting David Tiller. Dave devised THE best bird bath I’ve ever seen. He dug two shallow holes in the ground, one lower on a slope than the other, and lined them with plastic and then concrete. Water drips into the upper pool from a faucet at the bottom of a barrel, and then moves via a pipe to just above the lower pool. The dripping and ripples are very inviting to birds, and I spent a lovely day photographing as many bathing species as I could, including Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, and Parula Warblers, Indigo Bunting, Hermit Thrush, and Red-eyed Vireo. I had a very hard time pulling myself away.

Bird baths have the potential to draw in a far wider array of species than feeders do. Only a small percentage of north country breeding birds eat seeds or suet, but all of them need water. The trick is, most birds don’t visit standard bird baths unless they’re really water stressed. The standard pedestal-and-bowl-type birdbaths just don’t look like a source of natural water to most birds, and many of them are just too deep and slippery for small birds to use. If you use a standard style bird bath, make sure it’s no deeper than 2 inches anywhere and that it doesn’t have a slippery slope. Set one or two rough-textured rocks near the sides to provide a more natural appearance and give birds some opportunities for different styles of bathing. To bring a birdbath to the attention of birds, hang something that will allow water to drip into the bath from above. Some people just use a tin can that has a small puncture in the bottom. The sound of dripping and the sight of water rippling are the best ways to get birds to notice a supply of water.

But even the best standard bird baths pale in comparison to Dave Tiller’s design, which is why I saw at least 17 species at his in a single afternoon. That’s because his so beautifully mimics precisely the features of natural streams and pools which birds search out for drinking and bathing. The texture of the cement is rough enough, and the two basins shallow enough that even the tiniest warblers can stand with barely their bellies submerged. He located his birdbath at the edge of the forest, giving the birds the visual protection of overhead branches while providing himself and his visitors a full view from the porch. This was a perfect place for me to take bazillions of photographs of warblers and other species. And what made it exceptionally satisfying was that it was a clean, healthful, and safe spot for the birds to be getting water for drinking and bathing.

This kind of system isn’t nearly as effective at drawing in birds if you live on a lake or river—the birds have long ago figured out where to get water and so far fewer will visit any bird bath. If your bird bath contains the only water to be found, it will draw in the most species.

Dave sent me directions for how he constructed his birdbath, which I posted on my a gallery. It’s easy to find it from a photograph and link posted at