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Originally published Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Splish, splash: Making a birdbath

How to set up an inviting birdbath for your feathered friends. Plus, tips on keeping the bath clean and free of mosquitoes.

Chicago Tribune

Ever notice how, when you turn on the sprinkler on a hot summer's day, the robins come hoppin'?

Sure looks like a pool party out there, one minus the beach towels.

The thing about birds — all birds, not just the seed eaters or fruit eaters or bug eaters only — is that they are big drinkers. And their cocktail is water.

But that's not all the quaffers will do with a fine shallow puddle of cool, clear H2O, be it one from a hose, or the rain, or one you set out just for the flock.

Those winged fellows who make merry in your backyard, they might take a gulp, but don't be surprised if they leap in for a dunk.

Water, for birds and the rest of us, is no iffy proposition. It's essential — year-round, but most especially in summer.

"Birds don't perspire," says birdscaper Tim Joyce, "they respire. That means they breathe more (or faster) when they're hot, and the more they breathe, the more fluid they lose."

And, says Joyce, they're not just splashing around for the sheer delight of it — although it sure is delightful to watch. Joyce calls it "a beautiful, intricate process," one that is worth sitting down to enjoy.

All that splashing is really about "feather maintenance." Birds emit plenty of oils from glands in their tiny bodies, and the splashing in water helps to spread the water out to the wing feathers. It promotes smooth flight, helps ditch the pests (feather mites) that might want to hitch a ride on those wings, and when temperatures dip, those oiled-up feathers create better insulation.

So it's up to us, the ones who know how to turn on the hose, to keep up the water patrol.

Setup

Your birdbath shouldn't be too deep, no more than 1 to 1 ½ inches of water for songbirds. Bigger birds might like to splash in the deep end, so if you do go deep, make sure you've got a pile of stones, or a fat rock, plopped in your bath so the little ones don't feel unwelcome. You'll want a surface that's not too slippery, and if birds get a vote they'd veto the shiny metal tub because the slip factor is too high.

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Water

Don't let it stand there. The water, we mean. "One of the big issues of providing water to birds is to make sure it's not standing water," says Laura Erickson, former science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and author of "The Bird Watching Answer Book: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Birds in Your Backyard and Beyond," (Storey Publishing).

Standing water invites in the mosquitoes, and boosts the risk of bringing West Nile disease carriers to your yard. (It's a mere matter of days between mosquito eggs being laid in the water and buzzing, darting skeeters aiming straight for your flesh.) When water ripples, it lowers the surface tension, and a mosquito who lands there is likely to sink, explains Joyce.

To stir things up, Erickson, who is a wizard at devising low-cost contraptions that get the job done, says you can simply hang a plastic bottle over your birdbath (a shepherd's hook, a tree branch, even a clothesline make for fine hangers), and poke a small hole in the bottle (a small nail would do the trick). Then, when you fill the bottle, it will slowly drip-drip-drip, making a mosquito-defying ripple as well as a nifty way to beckon the birds. No doubt, the always-thirsty fellows will spy your liquid offering once they notice the light-catching movement of water, or pick up the sound of the barest wisp of the drip. Some specialty stores sell gizmos that produce the effect. Wild Birds Unlimited (wbu.com), for instance, sells a Water Wiggler for $37 that creates ripples in birdbaths.

Cleaning

Be sure to keep that water — and the birdbath — clean as a bird whistle. Squirt it with a hose once a day, if you're a generous soul, but at least every few days. At the first sign of goo (that would be algae, building up on the birdbath surface), grab a scrub brush. Just dump the old water, scrub and rinse with a hose, avoiding the need for even vinegar or bleach.

If you must, an equal water-to-vinegar ratio is another option, especially kept in a squirt bottle. Again, dump the old water, squirt your vinegar wash, then rinse with a hose. Try to avoid bleach, if possible. And never use anything stronger than a mix of three to four drops of bleach per 1 cup of water (or ¾ cup of bleach per gallon of water).

Placement

Don't tuck your birdbath in among the tall grass, or a bountiful bush. Birds are most vulnerable when bathing — they can't fly so well when soaked — and a cat or raccoon hiding in the underbrush might get tempted to leap for an avian lunch. So make sure the bath is anywhere from 5 to 15 feet away from plantings. And try to locate the bath somewhere with perches nearby, so the bathing bird can make a short hop up for quick escape.

You needn't fret too much over your water source. After all, birds do just fine in Mama Nature's birdbaths, the ones that come after the rain.

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