Birds enjoy occasional polar plunges
I received a telephone call recently from Helene Olson from the Bemidji area with an interesting story to tell me. Mrs. Olson reported numerous blue jays at her heated birdbath. Now, what's so strange about that? These birds, you see, were uninterested in a February drink, like you might think; rather, they each enjoyed a chilly February plunge. Mrs. Olson's blue jays came over for a good old fashion backyard birdbath.
She observed quite the show as one particular boisterous blue jay landed on the edge of her birdbath. At first, Mrs. Olson believed the bird was only there for a quick drink, but, as she explained, the blue jay seemed to eye the water as if contemplating whether or not to jump in. And soon afterward the bird 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.
Mrs. Olson and I also had a conversation about the relationship between wintertime birds and water. As you must know, two primary requirements for all wildlife 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 of mine. 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 in water during the winter will perish from exposure.
My immediate thought was, are non-waterfowl birds really that dense? Don't they have the innate ability to recognize hazards and avoid risks that could seriously 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 take such risks.
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 things, 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 unassembled. After assembly, it was ready to use. The heating element was contained inside the bottom of the round reservoir, which then sat 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 until curious finches and chickadees began landing on the edge of the birdbath. A short while later I watched a few birds taking drinks from the birdbath and flying 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 bath. Nope. Not one bird. It wasn't until a day that it reached somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 40-degrees did I notice a few birds, goldfinches I think, actually use the water for bathing.
Still, despite reporting my positive findings, some of my friends maintained their positions about birdbaths 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. To this day I wonder if they've ever changed their minds.
The fact is that birds need water the whole year around. They won't use the 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 to use in your summertime birdbath during the winter, or you buy a fancy heated birdbath you can use the entire year, your birds, as Mrs. Olson will tell you, appreciate a reliable source of drinking water and the occasional bath.
Until next week . . . be sure to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.