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Bird Bath Basics

For you and me, personal hygiene may be a matter of preference, but for our feathered friends, personal hygiene is a matter of life and death. Dirty feathers don't function well in flight or in protecting the body from the elements.

The typical bathing action is more of a shower than a soaking. Most birds will wade into water a few inches deep, bend to immerse the belly, and then vigorously flick the beak from side to side. At the same time the wings are beaten to spray water all over the body.

After bathing, the bird flies to a safe perch to preen. Most birds have an oil gland at the base of the tail, which produces an oil that is spread all over the feathers by the bird. This oil helps to give the feathers durability and water resistance. As the bird preens, he smoothes and rearranges the barbs and barbules as he distributes the oil and removes dirt and parasites.

Nature's bird bath is a puddle, so the best artificial baths imitate puddles. The bath should be round with a flat bottom and gently sloping sides, and should be no deeper than three inches. The bottom surface of the bath should not be so smooth that the birds cannot get a secure footing. If necessary, add gravel to the bottom of the bath to make better footing. Flat rocks can be added to the water to provide a shallow area of footing. The water in the bath should be changed frequently, and the bath scrubbed every few days in warm weather.

Locate your bath in the shade of a tree, near some kind of cover. Adequate cover helps to make the bird feel more secure, especially when wet and less able to fly. If the bath is located in an open area, a dead tree branch can be placed in the ground next to the bath. Avoid positioning directly under a perch or feeder, as droppings in the water are unwelcome.

Water movement and the sound of dripping water definitely attract birds, so an artificial bath with a fresh water sprinkler will advertise its presence. These systems also decrease the presence of infectious bacteria, which are common in standard bird baths.

When properly located and consistently maintained, bird baths can be a healthy and entertaining addition to your backyard bird sanctuary.