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Blane Klemek: Water in the wintertime is for the birds

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Considering the winter we’re having, I thought this story would be worth retelling. Given the fact that our wintertime temperatures have been fairly cold since December (at least colder than what we have been accustomed to over the past several winters), I thought it timely that I relate a story from several years ago when I enjoyed a discussion with a Bemidji resident about blue jays visiting her February birdbath.

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The caller reported numerous blue jays at her heated birdbath. Now, what’s so strange about that? Well, these birds were uninterested in a February drink; rather, they each enjoyed a chilly February plunge. Indeed, the caller’s blue jays flew to her backyard for a bath.

She observed quite the show as one particular bold and curious blue jay landed on the edge of the bath. At first, she believed the bird was only there for a quick drink, but, as she explained, the bird seemed to eye the water as if contemplating whether or not to jump in. And soon afterward the blue jay did just that — it began a vigorous bath and was joined, one by one, by the other nearby blue jays, each taking their own turns.

The two of us also had a conversation about the relationship between wintertime birds and water. As you must know, two primary requirements that all wildlife needs in order to survive are food and water. Nevertheless, the question becomes, do birds need water in the winter? The answer of course is yes. All critters require water for survival, even in the winter. And if the only water that’s available to birds is frozen solid, then birds will consume snow to satisfy their needs.

Our conversation reminded me of an experience I once had with some friends. These folks insisted that providing birds with water during the winter, especially water contained inside a birdbath, would pose a potential hazard to birds. Why?

Because, as my friends reasoned, birds that bathe during the cold of winter will perish from their feathers freezing together and, thus, exposure to the elements. My immediate thought was, “Are non-waterfowl birds really that dense? Don’t they have the innate ability to recognize hazards and avoid the risks that could harm them or otherwise compromise their survival? Would birds such as chickadees, goldfinches, and blue jays actually plunge into an inch or two of water only to freeze to death a short time later?” I could hardly believe they would risk such a fate.

To put my questions to the test, I soon began a short study on the subject. The first thing I needed to do was to find an appropriate container and fill it with some water. But since water gets “stiff” in the wintertime, I consulted a birding friend of mine and asked her if she “waters” her birds in the winter.

She in fact did, and every winter at that. To do so she employs the use of a water heater that she places inside her birdbath. It’s a submersible implement that plugs into an extension cord and heats the water just enough so it can’t freeze. She also stated that the element has to be at least 150 watts or better.

The next order of business was to research the available products on the market. I quickly learned and found all kinds of items, including locating similar heaters like my friend’s birdbath heater, as well as several styles of heated birdbaths. I decided that the heated birdbath would be the best choice since I could simply unplug it three seasons out of four and use the birdbath year around.

Soon after I ordered it, the birdbath arrived in a large box, had to be assembled, and was ready to use in a matter of minutes. The heating element was contained inside the bottom of the round reservoir, which was placed inside a three-legged metal stand. A short electrical cord dangled from the bottom of the reservoir that I taped to one of the legs.

Next, I positioned the birdbath on level ground next to the bird feeders, plugged it into an extension cord, filled the reservoir with warmish water, and waited for the birds to line up for a drink. It wasn’t long at all before individual finches and chickadees, probably more curious than anything, began landing on the edge of the birdbath. A short while later, I watched a few birds taking drinks from the birdbath and fly off quickly for another sunflower or thistle seed.

Not surprisingly, during the coldest days of winter, I did not observe one bird dive into the heated water for a dunk. Nope. Not one bird. It wasn’t until during a day it reached somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 degrees did I notice a few birds, goldfinches if I recall, actually use the water for bathing.

Still, despite reporting my positive findings, some of my friends maintained their positions about bird baths in the winter. I heard everything from “It’s a waste of electricity” to “Native birds don’t need water” to “Birds will freeze and die!” And to this day I’ve often wondered if they’ve ever changed their minds.

The fact is that birds need water the whole year around. They won’t use a birdbath for bathing everyday in the winter, but they will eagerly drink from any water source you provide them throughout Minnesota’s long and cold winter months.

Whether you purchase a birdbath heater or de-icer for your birdbath, or you buy a fancy heated birdbath you can use the entire year, your birds will appreciate a drink and an occasional bath throughout all four seasons of the year — including winter — as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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