Providing Water for Wildlife: How Not to Screw It up


There’s little that irritates me more than going to the garden center and seeing an array of gorgeous, well-made bird baths that are all completely and utterly useless.

It seems that the manufacturers of such things have never really researched or even given the most cursory amount of thought to what qualities a bird might actually like to see in a birdbath. It’s the same with ponds. Most commercially-available ponds have steep, slick sides which make the water tough to access and limit the pond’s value to wildlife.

Since providing water is one of the easiest ways that you can not only benefit wildlife but attract them into your garden, it seems a no-brainer to take the time to get it right.

After all, water isn’t just for drinking. Butterflies get valuable minerals and salts from puddling about in shallow, slightly muddy sections of water. Salamanders and newts, frogs and toads, and even dragonflies use water as shelter and breeding grounds during different parts of their life cycles.

Here’s what you need to know to provide the best benefits to wildlife with your water sources.

Gradual edges

Pretty, but useless

The steep, slick sides of this fountain are pretty, but useless to wildlife.

Imagine for just a moment being as small as a bird or a frog, and consider how you would get in and out of your pond. Most commercial ponds have straight, slick sides that often have a lip over the top. This makes entry and exit a challenge, and completely eliminates the chance to step into a shallow and splash about while bathing.

If you have a pond like this already, consider building up one side so there’s a little beach for birds and others to stand on and take a shallow dip. You could use large rocks and gravel to build up one side so that everyone can tiptoe in. A gently sloped entry starting at a very shallow depth (a quarter to a half inch) and slowly getting deeper is ideal. I mean, you can’t imagine a bird taking a bath in three foot deep water, can you?

It’s the same for visitors such as butterflies and dragonflies. Both prefer a shallow area with a few small rocks sticking up above the surface to land on. If you scatter a little bit of sand or mud between the cracks of your rocks, butterflies will not only be able to drink but also will be able to get the nutrient benefits from the minerals in the soil.

Roughly textured

photo courtesy Genevieve Schmidt (2)

While this fountain wasn’t designed with wildlife in mind, the texture of the bowl is rough enough that birds regularly land and dip their beaks in for a drink.

This isn’t an intuitive tip, but birds and insects have such small feet that the texture of most slippery birdbaths and fountains can make the difference between a space being usable for wildlife, or a spot they’ll have no choice but to ignore. Birds and pollinators such as bees simply can’t grip onto glass and other smooth surfaces. A roughened texture provides a place for them to grip while they drink and bathe.

If you’ve already purchased a fountain or birdbath with an overly smooth texture, try adding rough stones and pebbles to the dish so birds and bees have a place to land and stand. You can even make this decorative by painting a couple of the stones to personalize them. Fern Richardson’s book Small-Space Container Gardens has a great tutorial on how to do just that.

Splashing or trickling

Raul Zumba (84) The dual lure of Fuchsias and trickling water attract hummingbirds to this garden by designer Raul Zumba.

If you love hummingbirds (and who doesn’t?), consider a trickling fountain or a gentle waterfall leading to your pond. Hummingbirds love to drink from small falling streams of water. Even the smallest urban or balcony garden can attract hummingbirds with a dual-tiered fountain, and a few plants for the hummingbirds to perch upon to scope out the scene.

Just make sure the water is more of a trickle than a rushing deluge.Again, imagine yourself the size of a hummingbird and think about the type of natural faucet you’d like to drink from. You don’t want them to feel in danger of being dashed to the rocks!

Hiding places

Gentle trickles

Ample shelter makes it easy for birds, frogs and others to safely enjoy this pond. By designer Raul Zumba.

Though we may think of our garden as a peaceful and benign place, wildlife has to be constantly aware of what predators might be nearby. Ponds should be at least three feet deep in some areas to provide the best chances for frogs and other wildlife to hide and escape predators. Inside your pond, provide some shelves or ledges to nestle under, and at least a few plants to provide cover.

Around the edges of the pond, it’s a great idea to put a variety of plants that will gently drape over the side and provide places for wildlife to sun themselves while still being able to leap into the pond at a moment’s notice. I often see frogs eating small garden insects in the vicinity of the pond, and thank goodness. Much as those little bitty flies are an important part of the ecosystem, I’d rather the frogs eat them than have them end up in my cocktail!

Even if you’re just providing a birdbath or fountain, it’s a good idea to make sure there are some trees or shrubs nearby that have an open view to the water source. If birds can land in a safe location and discern whether your cat is lying in wait, they’ll feel much more comfortable having a drink and a splash. This goes for balcony gardens, too. A small Japanese maple in a pot would make the perfect perch from which to scope out the joint.

winter water sourceDon’t forget winter

My last tip is a brief one: in climates where water freezes, don’t forget that birds and other wildlife still need to drink. If you can provide a heated birdbath or other water source through the winter, you’ll be doing a marvelous service for your local wildlife.

For advice on overwintering wildlife ponds during long frozen periods, see this UK resource.

(Photo credit of a heated water source: Carole Brown.)

The wonderful thing about providing water for wildlife is that even if you’ve already got an existing pond, birdbath or fountain that has some flaws, it’s pretty easy to fix these things so that you can enjoy all of the life and beauty that wildlife bring to your garden.

And it’s well worth it. If you’re bothering to read about gardening online, I’m guessing you don’t go in for the “sterile fields of mulch and rock” that many people try to pass off as landscaping. Inviting wildlife to share your space is one of the most satisfying elements in any garden.

14 responses to “Providing Water for Wildlife: How Not to Screw It up”

  1. Since I don’t have a budget to add a pond to my garden I have two water baths, one a ceramic bowl made by my daughter in third grade and the other, shaped like a dish, rescued from a house. They are small, but I added some stones in the middle and so far I have seen birds drink or take baths in it and many bees drinking water. They are placed near shrubs so birds feel safe using them.

    I agree with you, a garden shouldn’t be called a garden unless there is plenty of wild life coming through.

    • I love that Laura! I see a lot of birdbaths and puddling dishes made from repurposed materials (someone even had one made out of a wok last week!), and I agree – add some stones and you’re off and running! Good design, and inviting to wildlife, need not be expensive. You can do a lot with what you have handy!

      • How do you prevent mosquitos from laying eggs in still water like this? we have a big mosquito problem here. If we add the mosquito bits to the water, will that work and not hurt other organisms?

  2. Great article and photos that accurately describe what you are talking about. I can vouch for the trickle and hummingbird attraction. Our water feature is ‘just a trickle’ and we frequently see hummingbirds, bees, Oriole’s and local finches. The Hummingbirds actually rest and drink. Pretty cool to watch.

  3. You have some really good tips. I’ll have to try the stones.

    I like water features as I have an abundance of birds that visit. The ones I get are too small for the pond in the adjacent park. I use fountains with solar powered pumps to keep the water circulating so it’s not all full of algae and also so I can place them in secluded places where electricity is usually not available.

    I don’t want this to come off like spam or something but you can see what I mean at I’m also going to be adding a product called a “solar sipper” closer to winter designed to provide birds with drinking water through the winter…it even services small animals if placed at ground level.

    Hey, if you want to cut the last paragraph, I understand. Just that a lot of people don’t know there are products out there to make supplying water to wildlife a lot easier.

  4. I totally agree with this post! We bought a house with a garden pond already installed. The edges are way too steep and surrounded by slippery rocks (up too high). This year alone I’ve found three dead lizards and rescued two from drowning. It’s makes it all a bit depressing! I wish we had a traditional in the ground pond rather than the one build here.

    • Oh no! I wonder if there’s some way you could add some rough-textured rocks and some gravel to build up certain areas and provide a “path” to the edge so that animals would at least have a chance at swimming to safety? That is VERY depressing and I am so sorry you have had to deal with that.

      • Hi, this information is correct about having accessible water to wildlife. I would like to note that there is madness behind the reason for why ponds are designed with the obsticles mentioned. Those of us with money put into fish and plants don’t want our raccoon buddies destroying things. when pond people say raccoons keep damaging their pond, inevitably the pond is constructed with easy access mentioned in the article. Therefore, have a pond for fish and plants, and have one or more small water features for other creatures. Many ponds do have waterfalls where creatures bathe and sip. Here here to all of us water loving creatures.

  5. […] The birdbath you chose should be pretty shallow, with most of it an inch or shallower for smaller birds. If you birdbath doesn’t have gently sloping sides which make an easy “beach” for birds to land and gently get in, adding some smooth rocks or pebbles can help make a landing perch. Make sure you wash the bath out once a week and refresh the water daily. Place it away from cover so cats can’t lurk, but near enough to trees for birds to have a safe place to scope out the joint before moving in. (More about providing water for wildlife here.) […]