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Winter Bird Baths: Everything You Need To Know

In the brisk embrace of winter, providing resources for our feathered friends becomes even more important. Bird baths, even in colder temperatures, play a vital role in providing hydration during the chillier months. In this guide, we will delve into the nuances of winter bird baths, including tips and simple measures to ensure your backyard birds have access to the drinking water they require. We’ll make sure you have all the information you need to create a welcoming and functional winter habitat for the birds in your yard.

Why Should You Have A Winter Bird Bath?

You aren’t outside much enjoying the yard, some of the birds have migrated south, and it seems to cold for the birds to want to take a bath. So why bother with a winter bird bath?

While it’s true that once it gets below freezing many birds will abstain from bathing, they still need to drink! Small puddles, streams, and ponds that they used for water in the warm weather are now frozen. Unless the ground is blanketed with thick snow, birds are still able to forage for food. However once their watering holes freeze up, finding open sources becomes a real challenge. Therefore offering them a guaranteed place to get hydration can often be even more important than putting out bird seed. 

Winterizing Your Bird Bath

In the section we’ll look at which bird bath materials are best for cold weather, and options for how to heat a bird bath. If you don’t think you need a heater but still want some tips for keeping a bath out in the winter, we’ll cover that in the next section so stay tuned.

Which baths are best for staying out in the cold?

Let’s say you already have a bird bath, and you want to take it from summer into winter. You can always add a de-icer (more on that below) to a bath you already have, but there is something you want to consider first. What is your bird bath made of?

If your bath is concrete, ceramic, glass, or has decorative mosaic tiles – you may want to put it away for the winter. Those types of materials are prone to cracking and splitting in very cold weather, especially going through cycles of freezing and thawing. Plastic, resin or metal are better materials for handling the winter elements. You can also look for a “frost-free” label that some bird baths have. 

frozen bird bath
Bath with water and a fountain frozen in place

If you aren’t going to use your bird bath over the winter, it would be best to clean it off and put it in a shed, garage or basement for storage. If you have to leave it outside, make sure there is no standing water in it. Flip the basin over so it cannot collect water from a rain or snow storm. If you leave the basin upright, eventually it will freeze into a big ice cube, then thaw, and freeze again several times over the winter — increasing the chances of cracking your bath. 

Built-In Heaters

I’ve found that baths that come with the heater built-in tend to keep more of the water from freezing than the portable heaters. And they are a great solution if you are afraid the bath you already have could crack during the winter months. To extend the life of these baths, I would recommend packing them away in the spring and switching back to a non-heated bath. That will ensure the electronics continue to work for you in the cold weather for as many years as possible. 

Here are two of our favorites:

1. GESAIL Heated Bird Bath 3-Way Mount

GESAIL Heated Bird Bath for Outdoors for Winter, 3 Easy Ways to Mount Detachable Bird Bath Bowl, 75W Heated Bird Baths with Thermostatically Controlled for Garden Yard Patio Lawn, Terracotta

This GESAIL model gets good reviews, has been in the game for a while, and gives you options for how to set it up. The deck-clamp is a popular choice for winter bird baths. Having the bath on your deck will make it easily accessible for refilling. But there is also a mount for a pole or a base to set it on the ground. It has a thermostatic control, meaning it only turns on when the water approaches freezing temperature. That way it doesn’t waste energy (and run up your electricity bill) running when it’s a mild day. The basin lifts out of the mount fairly easily for cleaning. 

View on Amazon

2. Hugenroy Leaf-shaped Metal Heated Bath

Birds enjoying a heated birdbath in my yard

At the time of writing this article, I’m testing this bath out at my house. I’ve had it a few weeks, with several nights below freezing, and so far so good. This is a metal bath with five screw-on feet. It has thermostatic controls, so it only turns on when it needs to. I like the depth of this bath, 1.8 inches, which is deep enough for bathing or drinking, plus it shouldn’t evaporate too quickly. Because it only sits a few inches off the ground, you may want to sit it on top of a stump, box, or other raised platform if you are expecting several inches of snow.

The picture above is from my yard, with a female cardinal and song sparrow enjoying a drink while the male cardinal watches and waits. 

View on Amazon

Portable Heaters / De-icers

If you already have a bird bath you believe is winter-hardy, you may not want to bother buying a whole new bath. That’s where these portable heaters can be really handy. They are small units that sit, submerged, in the deepest part of your basin. In extreme cold, these may not work as well as a built-in heater at keeping the majority of the water from freezing. However, they will still keep a small drinking hole open in the ice, and that is all the birds need. Rather than the flimsy foil disks you sometimes see, I would recommend a nice solid unit with a hard coating. 

Portable De-icers may have a shorter life span than baths with built-in heaters, but they also tend to cost less money.

GESAIL Bird Bath Heater

GESAIL Bird Bath Heater for Outdoors in Winter, Birdbaths Deicer with Thermostatically Controlled, Made of Heavy Duty Premium Cast Aluminum, Perfect for Patio Yard and Lawn Cream

This de-icer from GESAIL is a good example of a sturdy portable heater. Made from cast aluminum with a thermostat to only kick-on when needed. This should be safe even for plastic baths, as they aren’t meant to get hot enough to melt the basin. It also has a smooth enamel finish on the outside, making it easy to wipe off and keep clean.

View on Amazon

Tips for A Successful Winter Bird Bath

Keep an eye on the water level – Cold air can be very dry, evaporating a shallow bath quickly. You may have to top it off daily or every few days.

Buy an extension cord – Heaters or heated baths have pretty short electrical cords. In most cases you’ll need a good, outdoor extension cord to reach your outlet. 

Use a cord cover – I highly recommend picking up a cord cover. This is a waterproof box that goes around the connection point where the heater plugs into the extension cord. This shell protects your plug connection from rusting, tripping a GFI outlet from getting wet or getting ruined by rain, snow and ice. Thankfully, they are inexpensive.

Clear Snow Off The Edges – After it snows, there will probably be a snowy/crusty rim built up around the edge of your bath. If you can push that off and expose as much of the rim as possible, the birds will thank you! They may be hesitant to land when they can’t see the rim. 

Add Rocks To Deep Baths – When it is really cold, the birds don’t want to get wet. By adding a rock or two that sticks out above the surface of the water, you can give the birds another safe landing spot to grab a drink without getting wet.

Don’t Forget To Clean – While you may not be harboring mosquitoes or growing algae as quickly as the middle of the summer, the water still gets dirty. Wipe the basin if you see build-up, otherwise a routine rinse and re-fill with fresh water every few days will be fine.

robin bird bath winter
American Robin drinking from a heated bird bath on a cold day | image by 611catbirds, too via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

How To Get Your Bath Winter-Ready Without a Heater

Winter isn’t bitterly cold for all of us! There are many warm or temperate regions in the U.S. that just don’t get very cold. If the daytime temperatures stay above freezing for most of the winter where you live, spending money on a heater probably isn’t necessary. Here are some tips for keeping baths from icing over in milder climates that only tease freezing temps.

Use The Sun – move your bath to a spot in your yard that gets the most hours of direct sunlight.

Use Dark Colors – dark colors will absorb more warmth from direct sunlight. If your basin is light colored, try adding some dark river rocks to the bottom or even a black plastic liner.   

Keep The Water Moving – still water will freeze faster than moving water. Add a small electric pump, fountain or water wiggler. This will also help attract birds

Float A Ping Pong Ball – this sounds a little strange, but is a tip I’ve seen in several places so some people must use it! Floating a ping-pong ball in your bath will actually help avoid freezing if the temperature is right on the line. The movement of the ball will help keep the surface from becoming still enough to ice up.

Go Deeper – opt for a slightly deeper basin. The deeper the water, the longer it will take to freeze. Even if it does freeze overnight, you may just have a thin sheet of ice on the top deal with in the morning.

Portable Basin – if it only just barely freezes overnight and then is above freezing during the day, you may want to consider bringing your basin inside overnight, then putting it back out in the morning. A large plastic plant saucer would be lightweight and easy to move and store.

Warm Shower – in the morning fill a pitcher with warm water (not boiling) and pour over the bath. This should be enough to break up a thin coating of ice. 

cardinal on bath
Male Northern Cardinal perched on bird bath | image by Kim Taylor Hull via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

What To Do If Your Bird Bath Ices Over

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the bird bath turns into a brick of ice. I wanted to put a reminder here to be careful when thawing the bath out. You may be annoyed and want to rush out there with a kettle of boiling water – but don’t! In order to avoid damaging the bird bath, you need to be gentle in the thawing process. Don’t pour boiling water over your bath or beat the ice with a rock trying to get it to break up. Both methods have a high likelihood of cracking and damaging your bath. 

What you want to do is get some water that is hot, but not so hot that you couldn’t put your hand in it. Pour some hot water over the surface, let it sit for a minute, then dump. Repeat this until the ice begins to crack and shrink, and easily slides out of the basin.

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