Water in the Winter Wildlife Garden

Mourning Dove and Brown Thrasher at our heated bird bath

Wildlife needs are pretty basic: food, cover, and water.

FOOD needs can be met by planting (or preserving) native nectar plants and native berry-producing and seed-producing plants.

COVER is crucial so that birds and other wildlife can avoid becoming a predator’s next meal.  Cover also provides safe places to nest, roost through the night, or get out of bad weather.  Native evergreens like Red Cedar, American Holly, and Waxmyrtle offer excellent cover for wildlife.  If your yard is wide open and without adequate cover, gather fallen branches and make a winter brush pile.  You’ll be amazed by all the action it attracts as birds dash for the safety it offers when a hungry hawk flies through the yard.  Or collect discarded Christmas trees and place them near bird feeding stations and bird baths, so that birds are not too vulnerable when they come to feed or drink or bathe.  And next spring seriously consider planting a Red Cedar (or American Holly or Waxmyrtle) or two or three!

Providing WATER is just as important as providing food and cover

Songbirds lose water through respiration and in their droppings. To replace lost water, most songbirds need to drink at least twice a day. In order to stay fit and healthy birds also need to bathe to keep their feathers in good condition. Bathing loosens dirt and makes their feathers easier to preen. Preening is a daily ritual where birds carefully clean, rearrange, and oil their feathers (one-by-one) with their bill — spreading oil along each feather from the preen gland. This daily preening successfully waterproofs their feathers and traps an insulating layer of air underneath to keep them warm. Keeping their feathers in perfect condition through daily preening is a matter of life and death. Well maintained feathers enable birds to fly at a moment’s notice and regulate their body temperature.

E. Bluebirds were drawn to our heated bird bath on January 5, 2016, when the temperature was 11 degrees F.

Birds face difficult times when water is scarce or nonexistent during deep freezes like we experience some  winters or during drought periods.

Heated Bird Bath

Providing water in the wildlife garden is something many accomplish easily spring through fall, yet fail to do once freezing winter temperatures settle in. There are solutions even in the dead of winter.  A heated bird bath coupled with an outdoor socket is the key. We use an outdoor power cable to connect the two.

We’ve had our Pole Mounted ERVA Heated Birdbath (photo above) for over 20 years.  The pole with its additional leg for support, when driven into the ground, makes this birdbath very sturdy so it remains standing no matter what!  In the summer months I use the same stand to hold a large plastic dish/tray (like you’d put under a large flower pot) full of gooey fruit for butterflies.  So even though expensive, this heated birdbath has served me (and wildlife) very, very well.  Beware that most of today’s standing heated bird bath designs are tipsy by comparison (bird baths balanced on inadequate tripod legs), looking like they’d topple over every time a frisky squirrel leaps up.

Presently the Pole Mounted ERVA Heated Birdbath is available at Wild Bird Habitat Store and Freeport Wild Bird Supply.  A few other sites carry it but were either temporarily out of stock or sold out (so keep checking back with them:  Nature House, Best Nest, Walmart).

Some heated bird baths rest on the ground and come with additional hardware so they can be attached to a railing like this one (photo above).  If far from cover, place some cut evergreen branches nearby, as we have.

Wildlife gardening friend Jean Riling uses a Bird Bath De-icer unit to keep her bird bath water from freezing (photo below).  Ecosystem Gardener Carole Brown uses a heated dog bowl.

Shy away from “artistic” bird baths that may look pretty but are not as serviceable to birds: too deep, too fragile and likely to break if they topple over, or (most important of all) are too hard to keep clean. The heated bird baths we’ve used are made of a hard black plastic material that is very easy to clean with a  good scrub brush and a little muscle.

If You Have a Wildlife Pond

If you have a wildlife pond and are thinking of putting a de-icer into it to make that your winter water source for birds, this could lead to some serious problems.  If indeed large flocks of birds descend on your pond to drink, their droppings will accumulate in your pond and you could face an algae problem during the warm month fueled by all these bird droppings.

Remember, birds need cover to avoid hungry predators. Place your heated bird bath near a safe retreat like an evergreen tree or shrub or near a brush pile or, as we have, place some cut evergreen branches around it.

Stay away from chemicals!

Some folks, who don’t know better, add chemicals to keep their bird bath water from freezing (like glycerine, anti-freeze, or salt). This is a death sentence for the birds. These chemicals can destroy the waterproofing capability of birds’ feathers, or poison the birds.

Hermit Thrush at our heated bird bath

During lengthy periods of frozen conditions water is in such demand that heated bird baths become heavily soiled. To avoid the spread of disease, maintain your heated bird bath with care by scrubbing it out with a soft bristle brush, rinse it with fresh water to wash out any residual bird droppings, and refill it with fresh water at least once (and often twice) a day. With heavy use heated bird baths may be emptied by flocks of birds twice a day or more. We keep a jug of water handy by the backdoor to easily facilitate this task.

Gray Catbird at our heated bird bath

Beyond helping birds survive brutal winter weather, our heated bird baths give us great pleasure. We’ve had excellent looks (and photo opportunities) at some real skulkers like Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and other secretive birds not normally seen in our yard in winter.

Winter can be a stressful time for birds. Lengthy stretches of sub-zero weather can freeze solid every last bit of available water. Natural foods can be buried by snow. Heavy snow or freezing rain can creep into the deepest cover where birds are roosting.

Let’s do what we can to help birds survive a tough winter. Add a heated bird bath or two to your wildlife habitat in winter.

2018 Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens

2018 Tours of Pat Sutton’s Private Wildlife Garden (41 Years in the Making)

Our wildlife garden has evolved over the last 41 years from a lawn and very few plantings (a Lilac bush and Day Lilies) to probably 100+ native plants and many different components (perennial garden, pocket meadow, shade trees and gardens, wildlife ponds, native woodland, living fences, etc.)  that all lure in and benefit wildlife.  Read this brief history to learn more.

This year I am excited to share that I will be leading tours of my own wildlife garden for CU Maurice River, a non-profit organization (registration will be required through CU Maurice River, not through me).  Sign up for the session that best fits your schedule:

  • August 25, 2018 (Saturday) — 2 tours: 9:30 a.m. to Noon (Morning Session), 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. (Afternoon Session) — LIMIT/tour: 20.   COST/tour: $20 (CU member), $30 (nonmember).   Contact Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its Tributaries at the office (856) 300-5331 to register and pay for this garden tour or reserve your spot online by clicking here .  Sunday, August 26 is the Rain Date.  For program write-up on CU Maurice River’s website click HERE.

Join Pat Sutton for a tour of her 41-year-old wildlife garden in Goshen (Cape May Co.), NJ, and opportunity to study and identify pollinators with Pat.  This garden showcases many different ways a habitat can offer the basics: food, cover, and water.  This ½ acre property includes two wildlife ponds, a pocket meadow, extensive shade gardens, wildlife corridors, shrub islands, a woodland of native plants (saved from a jungle of Multiflora Rose in 2009), an extensive pollinator garden (full of hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees), native nectar plants galore, an extensive array of native host plants, feeding stations, many and different water features, as well as many fun garden features and design ideas.  This totally educational experience will benefit and dazzle long-time gardeners and new-to-wildlife-gardening participants alike.

2018 Tours of Chris and Arnold Clemenson’s Private Wildlife Gardens

Clemenson Farms Native Nursery is a wholesale nursery, but they do host special “Retail Sale Days” each year for the general public.

During their Saturday, June 16, 2018,  Retail Sale Day (10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) I will be leading 3 tours of Chris & Arnold Clemenson’s beautiful private wildlife gardens in Estell Manor (Atlantic County), NJ.  These gardens showcase many, many lovely and beneficial native plants.

Three Tour Times: 10:00 a.m., 11:15 a.m., or 12:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12.00/person.

Interact directly with Clemenson Farms Native Nursery (not with me) for tour tickets, which are available by reservation or on day of sale. Places are limited and these tours are popular, so reservations are recommended. To reserve your place on a tour, email Christine Clemenson at cac.clem3@gmail.com with your top two time slots. Payment due on day of sale.

Tour ticket includes a Clemenson Farm garden map and plant list. Bring a camera, binoculars, and walking shoes. You’ll go home with plant pictures and  practical ideas for transforming your garden into a pollinator paradise!

NOTE: Gardens will be closed to the general public during tour times, but open after the tours are completed.

Clemenson Farms Native Nursery’s 2018 Retail Sale Days: May 12, June 16, and September 15.  Don’t miss these great opportunities to purchase locally grown natives.  Print their list of available plants and bring it along so you don’t forget anything!

For twenty-three years (1991-2014), I led “Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens” in Cape May County.  

Pat and Clay Sutton’s garden during the July Tour 2014

For twenty-three years (1991-2014), I led “Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens” in Cape May County.  I saw these tours as one of the best ways  to “grow” more wildlife gardeners.  You can see the excitement in the photo above as tour participants find, study, and share with each other butterflies, spiders, caterpillars, native bees, frogs, turtles, hummingbirds, and the beautiful nectar plants, host plants, wildlife ponds, water features, and habitats that have attracted them.

Initially I led these tours for NJ Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, where I worked as the Program Director.  Between 2007-2014 I led the tours for NJ Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May.

Many of the owners of these beautiful, private, wildlife gardens had taken workshops with me and / or attended these tours.

Many garden owners shared with me that a personal goal was to have their own garden included on these tours.  The number of wildlife gardens grew and grew.  Eventually there were so many educational gems to share that I broke Cape May County into three regions and led back-to-back tours, covering different parts of the county each day.  I led these tours in July, August, and September so attendees could see first hand the different “Chocolate Cakes” in bloom month-by-month and the variety of wildlife attracted.

On the final tour, garden-owner Gail Fisher presented me with my very own Chocolate Cake made by her Mom (it was delicious).

And to further spoil us on that final September 2014 garden tour Gail Fisher served homemade Chocolate Cupcakes.

TAKE A VIRTUAL TOUR OF PRIVATE WILDLIFE GARDENS

Many of the gardens that were included on the Cape May County tours can be seen in the photo galleries below.  These photos (taken over the years) truly record the evolution of these private wildlife gardens and may give you some great ideas for your own garden.

  • South Tour (Cape Island: Cape May, Cape May Point, West Cape May, and Lower Township)
  • Mid-County Tour (North Cape May, Villas, and Erma)
  • North Tour (Cape May Court House, Goshen  . . . including my own garden, Dennisville, Eldora, South Seaville, and Ocean View)