Ways to Add Water for Wildlife to Your Yard
I didn’t always have over a dozen water sources in my intown (Morningside) Atlanta yard. Back in 2019 when I went through the process to get my yard certified as a Wildlife Sanctuary by the Georgia Audubon Society and learned that in addition to food and shelter, water is one of the main components of a bird habitat, I added two ceramic bird feeders. At the time I had already made my small, urban yard a haven for wildlife and once certified was chosen for the Audubon Sanctury Tour. I’ve since upped the game and completely rewilded my yard and added the additional water options for the birds and other wildlife visitors.
Water was just as vital to wildlife when we had the deep freeze back in December as it is now when we’re having a heat wave. Residential water sources are even more important than bird feeders which are supplemental. Backyard water sources are scarce.
Some basic points to consider when adding water to your yard
Unless you already have a stream on or next to your property, adding at least one water source will help wildlife.
Make a commitment to keep any water source (except a pond) clean and refreshed or reconsider adding one. A dirty bird bath can do more harm than not having any water because it can spread disease and parasites.
Cleaning the baths is fairly quick and easy - just spray with diluted vinegar (1 part vinegar to 9 parts water), wipe, then spray with a hose or rinse with additional water before adding the clean water for wildlife. If the baths are routinely cleaned at least once or twice a week, there is no need for scrubbing or anything stronger than the vinegar solution.
In general, water sources need to be placed in a shady yet open area for protection from predators, but close enough to shrubs and trees for birds to have places for perching, preening, and escaping, and for other more grounded wildlife to feel safe getting a drink of water.
Mosquitoes will not be a problem since water needs to be refreshed every two to four days, and every day when it’s hot or cold. If you think you need to add BTI mosquito dunks or bits to your bird bath, you are not changing out the water often enough.
Offering water on the ground level is helpful for many birds and some critters such as squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and rabbits. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology birds prefer their baths on or near the ground because the baths mimic the fresh water puddles wild birds might use to bath in or drink from.
For bird and small animals the water needs to be shallow - three inches or less deep. My water sources average one to two inches deep (except one).
It’s hard to safely keeps cats away without also harming wildlife (e.g. physical deterrents such as spiky fabric will also impact wildlife), but there are multiple small ways to create a an unfriendly yard for cats. Some of the pinecones, twigs, and small branches I let stay where they drop (except in pathways and the driveway) I put around water or food sources to make them particularly rough hiding and resting spots for cats. Birds and other critters don't mind this natural matter.
Hopefully, sharing the following information about the multiple kinds of water sources in my yard will generate ideas for your space:
Offering water can be as simple as a pot saucer. I have a large one in a slight opening surrounded by trees and shrubs and a slightly smaller one next to a low bird bath under a nearby maple tree.
Two low, smallish ceramic bird baths seem to be the perfect size for wildlife. The one that gets the most action is in a slightly shady spot with nearby trees, shrubs, and ground cover all around. It's also in a slight opening next to a narrow path and the closest birdbath to the driveway and where my neighbor on the other side of the driveway has a row of non-native but dense, tall shrubs for cover. The other bath is near a maple tree, shrubs and native plants.
I’ve put small metal pet food dishes filled with water next to two of my bird baths. I'm not sure what critters other than birds use these because they are not in my sight line from the house, but both are frequently emptied.
The most surprising water sources are the wells of my hummingbird feeders. I refresh them daily for the little birds such as goldfinches, brown-headed nuthatches, tufted titmouses, and Carolina chickadees who routinely visit for a sip. Even after I stop leaving nectar in two of the three feeders when the hummingbirds migrate away in the fall, I continue to refresh the water all year for the small winter birds who need them.
I add water instead of bird food to a cute little glass bowl I thought the more petite birds might use instead of the hummingbird well, yet I noticed different small birds use it such as chipping and song sparrows, and common finches! Go figure. It’s in a shady spot on a three-foot metal pole, next to a tall native Chickasaw plum tree (Prunus angustifolia), surrounded by low growing blueberry and St. John’s wort shrubs, wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) ground cover, and taller native plants. Even though the feeder is not in the open – it’s still somewhat protected because there are opening a few feet away on all sides.
The water source that delights me every time I see it is a small, shallow saucer my daughter who is an artist made for me with a mourning dove design on it. I can see it from my front porch but birds have cover nearby when they use it. It makes me particularly happy when foraging mourning doves stop by to use it!
The most nostalgic and used bird bath I have is from my first home decades ago. It’s a small, metal one that once had a little fountain pump that came up through the center. The fountain part is long gone and the small size doesn't matter to birds of all sizes who like this bath. I think it may also be one of the more ideally placed baths – it’s next to an open path with a long row of hedges and native plants nearby.
I created the branches in a tomato cage structure to replace tall Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) stems next to my small metal bath for birds to perch on before and after bathing and drinking. A couple years ago I wanted to take better photos of the bath from my backdoor kitchen window and broke the stems off without thinking. The second I did it I realized what I did and regretted it! Every time I think about removing the cage, I see a bird on or around the branches – so my little “sculpture” remains!
Water sources that are low-to-the-ground seem to be the most accessible for wildlife. A large metal one I added is a favorite of squirrels, flocks of winter birds, and nighttime critters (maybe passing possums?). It’s one of the baths I have that is not in a clearing, but in a more sheltered area near a fence, low shrubs and trees. My yard is small, so it’s also close to my back deck and near more open areas.
A large, round, hanging bird feeder was too heavy for a pole or any of the small trees I have so I'm using it as a ground level bath in the very back of my yard. One night a large animal (maybe a fox, coyote, or raccoon?) was passing through and broke a large branch of a small box elder that continued to grow. Near the bent branch I put the large saucer. where it's in a protected open area with plenty of trees, shrubs and native plants nearby for cover. I don’t really get to see what goes on in this bath, yet there’s evidence that it gets used all the time.
A small water container filled with sand, pebbles or rocks gives butterflies a place to puddle and prevents other thirsty insects like bumblebees from drowning. A friend gifted me a beautiful butterfly puddler I have next to native flowers but in an opening in a partially shady area. In Atlanta’s hot weather it seems to dry out quickly, but I’m still game for dribbling a bit of water in it each morning. Not sure about function, but I enjoy its beauty. At some point I may make a larger one to add to my yard and see how it is used.
Even in a small yard, larger water sources are possible. I’m exploring the idea of the best way to have a wildlife container pond where we had our firepit. It’s still new and in process. A friend is giving me floating native plants to add and I need to find native plants to anchor on the bottom. For now, I have two large pots of native plants that I’m testing out in the pond to see what thrives. This winter if my sweet husband is game, I'm thinking I might see if he'll dig out underneath where the container is now to make the pond ground level. Wildlife container ponds are different from less wildlife friendly water features such as fountains. The idea is to have a water source that is naturally sustainable and attracts wildlife like frogs, not a place to put non-native plants and fish then put up netting to harm native birds and wildlife who might eat them – something that has little to do with restoring nature where we live.
I've noticed lots of bird and wildlife activity in the grey water puddling from my neighbor’s HVAC system on the side of their house next to our driveway. I have a rain garden of native plants where our AC water comes out of a pipe, so we don’t have puddling, but for someone looking for a no maintenance wildlife water source, this seems like a possibility. (The water may need to be diverted a little bit more away from the house than my neighbor’s though.)
I know dogs are not wildlife - but the well-received water station I maintain for dogs being walked in my neighborhood also attracts a variety of wildlife. I’ve seen birds and squirrels sipping from it and sometimes I’ll find it empty in the morning and wonder what large, thirsty, night wandering urban critter stopped by!
Any water source you add is beneficial to wildlife and hope this helps make it easier to just add one where you live.
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