Out My Backdoor: Moving Water Acts Like a Bird Magnet

By Terry W. Johnson

If you are trying to attract birds to your backyard, you undoubtedly already know that one of the easiest ways is with a dependable source of water. Shallow birdbaths are often used for this purpose. They are inexpensive, easy to maintain and birds flock to them.

What you may not realize, however, is that believe it or not you can actually increase the number and variety of birds visiting your birdbath by using devices that move water. For reasons that aren't fully understood, the combination of the sound and sight of moving water acts as a bird magnet.

You can create this effect by simply punching a small hole in the bottom of a bucket or 2-liter bottle, filling the container with water and hanging it above a birdbath. The size of the hole regulates how fast the water leaks out of the container. As the water drips from the bottle or bucket into the birdbath, it creates ripples and a methodical dripping sound. The same effect can be achieved by placing a shallow pan beneath a slowly dripping faucet or a hose hung over a limb. Running a small recirculating pump into the birdbath also works well.

My favorite water-mover, however, is the mister. Misters release a fine spray of water into the air. They seem to work best in spots where the mist bathes nearby foliage. The water that collects on the leaves and drips into a birdbath is particularly irresistible to migrating warblers.

Another bird that is particularly fond of misters is the ruby-throated hummingbird. This tiny summer resident doesn't often bathe or drink from birdbaths. However, once a mister is up and running, these miniature aerialists make a habit of flying through the fine spray.

The key to attracting birds with a mister is finding one that emits an extremely fine mist. Most misters designed for home irrigation systems aren't fine enough. While birds may occasionally use them, they use far too much water. The best misters are designed specifically for bird use. You can usually find these at stores specializing in birding supplies.

The neatest device designed to attract birds to the sight and sound of running water is the Water Wiggler. This innovative gizmo sits in the middle of a birdbath on four plastic legs. Powered by batteries, the Wiggler creates ripples on the surface of the bath by rapidly vibrating. Some models even come equipped with a recording of the sound of moving water. A switch allows you to control the volume of the recording. I must admit that I haven't tried on of these gadgets. If you do, let me know how it worked for you.

Water-moving devices seem to work best during the spring and fall songbird migrations. Since the fall migration has already begun, if you decide to try a water mover but you don't hop to it, you will miss the opportunity to attract a host of migrants as they head toward their wintering grounds outside the United States.

Once you have installed a mister or other water-moving device, I suggest that you keep a field guide and pair of binoculars near a window overlooking the birdbath. The reason for this is simple: These things will help attract birds you may have never seen before in your backyard. Migrants such as thrushes, vireos and warblers that once flew over your yard might very well drop in for a bath and drink before resuming their epic journey. Also, don't be surprised if Carolina chickadees, cardinals, northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, chipping sparrows and other permanent residents begin visiting your birdbath more often.

Regardless of which device you use, don't forget to keep your birdbath clean. Dirty water can be every bit as dangerous to birds as dirty bird feeders. Keeping a birdbath clean is a paltry price to pay for the pleasure you receive watching the parade of fascinating birds visiting the backyard oasis you have created just outside your backdoor.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section.