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How Do Birds Find Water? 

If you enjoy watching birds, you may have wondered how do birds find water? Birds need water for drinking, bathing, or even as a place to hunt insects or fish. In this article, we will examine the methods birds use to find water. Here are a few points, which we’ll take a look at further on. 

Key Takeaways

  • Birds use their sharp vision to look for reflections and ripples in moving bodies of water. 
  • Most songbirds will be more likely to visit shallow birdbaths with water-moving features like bubblers and fountains. 
  • It’s helpful to provide water for birds year-round, even in winter. Make sure your bird bath is winterized and won’t crack in freezing temperatures. 

How Do Birds Find Water? 

Most birds use their sense of sight to find water. Unlike other animals, which usually lead with their sense of smell, birds’ brains are evolved around the use of their eyes. They detect water by looking for the shine and ripple of moving water. This is how they find streams, lakes, and rivers in the wild. 

Do birds need to drink water?

While all birds need water to survive, drinking isn’t the only way to obtain it. Many birds get a lot, or sometimes all, of their daily water requirement from the foods that they eat. Insects, worms, juicy fruits and berries all contain water. 

goldfinch drinking
American Goldfinch drinking | image by ksblack99 via Flickr

Do Birds Really Like Bird Baths? 

Yes, songbirds love bird baths. However, they are most likely to visit bird baths that closely mimic conditions of an organic, naturally-occurring water source. 

A dirty bird bath which stands exposed in a sunny yard will pose a greater risk to birds than one nestled in a partially-shaded nook of a garden. 

Birds love bird baths when they feel safe visiting it. If you are having trouble attracting birds to your birdbath, consider the following: 

  • threats to the birds 
  • sunlight level
  • water movement 

Removing pets from the yard with the birdbath is the first and easiest way to remove threats. Bathing birds are more vulnerable to threats when the bath is exposed in the open. If a predator attacks, there’s no cover for the bird to flee to. 

Bright sunlight may heat up the water to a point where it’s too hot for visiting birds. It also fosters the growth of algae and harmful bacteria. 

Lastly, water movement is a major attractor of birds to bird baths. Moving water mimics natural streams and repels mosquito larvae that contaminate the water. If you don’t have a water bubbler, make sure to change the water as often as you can, even every day. 

birds drinking from bath
American Robin and Mourning Dove sharing a drink | image by Under The Same Moon via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

How do Birds Find Bird Baths? 

Birds look for bird baths that mimic natural water sources. Keep it in an area with at least partial shade. Make sure it’s clean and shallow enough for them to stand in. 

Try placing some rocks in the bottom to give some visual variety and provide stepping stones for different sizes of birds. The texture of the rocks will give them traction and help them feel like they’re bathing in a real pond or stream. 

In your backyard, they can be attracted to birdbaths by using a bubbler or waterfall feature. Bubblers ripple the water gently to mimic a small stream or spring. Fountains take more work to install, but they can be easily incorporated into an existing landscape setup. 

Try placing your bird bath adjacent to feeders birds already visit. If they feel secure in the area around the feeder, they’ll be more likely to venture out to use the new bird bath. Just make sure it’s far enough away that seed shells or droppings don’t get into the water. 

How Do Birds Use Birdbaths? 

Birds drink from, bathe in, and get rid of parasites at birdbaths. What a certain bird does in the bath depends on the specific species and environmental conditions. 

During drought or hot summer months, more birds will drink water straight from the bath. In wet seasons they may bathe and preen more often. This helps keep their feathers clean. 

Birds that live in large flocks often suffer from parasite infestations. Mites live within the structures of their feathers, and birds don’t have the ability to groom them out. To remove mites, birds bathe more frequently. 

Bathing submerges the parasites below water. They either drown or release their hold on the bird’s feather. The simple act of bathing is a clever way for the bird to reduce its nuisance parasites. 

Bushtits | image by Mike’s Birds via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Do Birds Drink Water in the Winter? 

It’s a common myth that birds don’t need water during the winter. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Birds need water year-round. In different seasons it is easier or harder to find fresh water. 

Many songbirds shift their diets in the winter to adapt to what food sources are available. They eat more winter berries, and seeds which are left over from the warmer months. 

If you live in an area where water freezes in the winter, you can still offer birds water.

Set out a shallow bowl of warm water in the same place each day. Bring it in once it begins to freeze. 

A good investment is a heated birdbath. You can buy a bath that plugs in, or you can buy just a heating element to place inside your bird bath. In many places this won’t be hot enough to keep the entire bath from freezing, but will create a small opening in the ice the birds can drink from.

Birds in very cold areas have frozen their feathers after taking off from heated birdbaths. So if you live in an area where the winter is extremely cold, consider only leaving out enough water for birds to drink from, but not bathe in.  


Most birds use their eyes and ears to spot water sources. Movement, colorful reflections, and the sound of running water are especially strong attractors. 

Birds in dry areas get much of the water they need from a diet in moisture-rich insects, plant matter, or prey. It doesn’t hurt to provide water for these birds too. 

Other birds need water year-round. In North America, water is usually supplied naturally by the environment. Supplement songbirds’ hydration by installing a water feature or birdbath in your backyard.