Water is possibly the single most important resource you can give your birds in winter. And the best way to do that is by keeping a heated bird bath.
Why have an all seasons heated bird bath?
Like all living creatures, bird need water for survival – to clean and care for the feathers that keep them warm and of course, to drink. Most of the time they can get it from natural sources like lakes, streams and even puddles.
But when the temperature drops below freezing birds may find themselves high and dry with nothing but ice and snow in sight.
Birds can and do eat and bathe in snow, but it costs them precious metabolic energy that could otherwise keep them warm.
Are electric heated bird baths safe for birds?
There’s a bit of controversy about this because some credible people report having seen birds bathe in freezing weather only to have their wings ice up so badly that they couldn’t fly.
Tami Vogel, Director of Communications at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, has personal experience with this phenomenon.
In an interview in the Minnesota Star Tribune she said, “I always thought freezing birds [after bathing in a birdbath] was a myth, until one evening I picked up six cardinals, all unable to fly because their feathers had frozen and they literally could not extend their wings.”
Dr. David Swanson, professor of biology at the University of South Dakota, says that he has seen ice on birds’ feathers in very cold temperatures.
Vogel now says she covers most of her bird bath in winter, leaving only the edges open so that birds can drink.
Vogel’s approach may well be a best practice for heated bird baths. At the very least, it would be a wise precaution during very cold spells.
NOTE: it should go without saying, but never add salt or any type antifreeze to a bird bath – toxic!
Two ways to heat a bird bath
You can buy a bird bath with a heating element built right in. You can also get just a heating element to put in the bird bath you already have.
How do bird bath heaters work?
Bird baths with integrated heaters and stand-alone bird bath heater elements are controlled by an internal thermostat.
When it’s cold enough to freeze water in the bird bath – at about 35º F or 2º C – the heater switches on and warms the water just enough to keep it liquid. When the outside temperature goes up again, the heater switches off.
Will a bird bath heater keep all the water liquid?
Not necessarily. If the weather is very cold and the bird bath is large and/or made of concrete or another heat-absorbing material, the bird bath heater may not be able to keep all the water from freezing
However there will usually be a small drinking spot just over the heating element where the water is still liquid.
This opening may be only a few inches across, but birds will be able to get drinkable water.
How much does heating a bird bath cost?
Most heated bird baths and bird bath heaters use about 50 to 80 watts of electricity. Because they only operate when needed, they cost only a few cents a day to run.
If you can place the bird bath so it gets direct sunlight, it may help the heater use less power.
Should a bird bath heater be connected to a timer?
Bird bath de-icers and heated bird baths are controlled by an internal thermostat that automatically turns the unit on and off at particular temperatures.
Since they don’t run all the time, there’s no need to use a timer. In fact, using a timer may put excessive strain on the heater and cause it to burn out sooner than it should.
How much does a bird bath de-icer cost?
A quality bird bath heater (also called a bird bath de-icer) will cost around $50 (USD). If you already have a bird bath (or if your budget is limited) this might be a good choice.
How much does a heated bird bath cost?
A good quality heated bird bath will cost between $90 and $140 (USD) and can be used all year – just disconnect the power once winter’s over.
It is certainly possible to buy a heated bird bath for less than $90 but quality (and size) go down accordingly.
How long will it last?
Most owners of both immersion heaters and heated bird baths report that the good ones last 2 to 3 years before needing replacement.
Some get longer periods of service, even up to a decade or more.
But all of them are so delighted by their huge increase in birdy visitors that they don’t mind getting a replacement when their units finally give out.
How to get the longest life from your heated bird bath
- Plug it into an outdoor GFCI outlet.
- Use an extension cord rated for outdoor use.
- Take steps to protect the connection from water and snow.
- Keep it plugged in only when the temperature may go below freezing.
- Make sure the water level never gets low enough to expose the center of the bird bath (over the heating element) to air.
My bird bath de-icer isn’t working – what should I do?
First, unplug the de-icer and put it in your freezer for 30 to 60 minutes.
Then plug it directly into a wall socket – no extension cord. Does it get warm? If yes, the problem is in your extension cord.
If the de-icer fails to warm up, it’s dead. Contact the manufacturer for a replacement if the warranty hasn’t expired.
When should I use a heated bird bath or heater?
You’ll want to have your upgraded bird bath in place by fall so the birds have time to get used to it before the really cold weather sets in.
Plug it in at the first fall frost and keep it running until there’s no more danger of frost in spring.
Does the water get really hot?
No. Even though you may see some “steam” rising from the bird bath, as in the top photo, the water gets only as warm as it needs to be to stay liquid.
Why do I have to refill it so often?
Air is dry in winter so and bird baths with heater built in tend to be quite shallow. The water will evaporate quickly, you’ll probably need to top it up at least once a day.
If the bird bath goes completely dry, immersion heaters may stop working.
If a bird baths with built in heater goes dry, the basin may crack and/or warp and the heating element may burn itself out.
Why are the power cords so @#$% short?
Almost all heated bird baths and bird bath heaters are made with very short power cords – from 6 to 24 inches. And they are all labeled “Do not use with extension cord.”
How are you supposed to use the product if you can’t use an extension cord?
The quick answer: It really means, “Do not use with an indoor extension cord.”
K&H Pet Products explains why the cords on these units are so ridiculously short:
“Unfortunately, the length of the cord is regulated by UL (Underwriters’ Laboratory) electrical standards. In order for this product to be MET Safety listed by UL standards, the cord can be no longer than 18 inches. UL requires this in order to keep the connection off the ground for safety purposes.”
Regarding the use of an extension cord usage, K&H says:
“MET requires that all manufacturers put the extension cord statement “Do not use with extension cord” on every item that is MET listed by UL 499 standards. This is because they cannot test every extension cord on the market in conjunction with our products for safety.
“Also, MET suggests that an extension cord is not recommended as a permanent fixture and should only be a temporary solution when using any electrical product.
“Temporary use of a UL listed cord is fine, but consult your electrician for the proper cord for your application.”
Use the right extension cord
It is safe to plug the bird bath or heater into a proper outdoor extension cord with polarized plug prongs (one wide, one narrow) that goes to an outdoor GFCI outlet.
Prevent electrical shorts with a safety seal
To prevent shorting, you should protect the connection between the two cords against water. Do this by wrapping it in plastic that’s tied shut at both ends, or by using a special watertight cover or a gasket to keep water out.
How to care for a heated bird bath
A heated bird bath will get lots of “traffic” and get dirty quickly. You’ll need be rinse it out at least a couple of times a week.
To prevent the spread of bird diseases, give the birdbath a good cleaning about once every 10 days, then rinse it well with diluted bleach (10 parts water to 1 part bleach) and dry it thoroughly before adding fresh water. Or you can use germ-killing, non-toxic Grapefruit Seed Extract get rid of disease-causing germs.
How to care for a bird bath heater
Bird bath heaters are meant to be used under water, so take care not to let the water in your bird bath get low enough to expose the heater. You may get lucky once or twice but eventually this will cause the heater to fail.
Bird bath heater elements may collect mineral deposits even in areas with soft water, leading to “hot spots” and corrosion and eventually the heating element will stop working.
An enzyme cleaner like Bird Bath Protector will prevent those mineral deposits and make the bird bath easier to clean too. It’s non-toxic for birds, animals (and people) and will make your life a lot easier.
You can also deal with mineral deposits by soaking the heating element in vinegar and scrubbing it with a non-metal brush and baking soda.
Factors to consider before adding a heated bird bath (or heater)
- How will you provide power? Do you have an outdoor GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) outlet to plug it into? (If the answer is no, DON’T get a heated bird bath. You could electrocute yourself, birds and maybe pets or children.)
- Do you have water handy for cleaning and frequent bird bath refills? If not, will it be safe for you to carry water in and out of the house in snowy weather?
- Do you want your heated bird bath to sit low to the ground, stand on a pedestal or be mounted on your deck railing?
- Is appearance important to you? Many heated bird baths and bird bath heaters are less than beautiful. Some look downright industrial. Unfortunately some of the nicer-looking ones aren’t very well designed.
I hope this article has answered all your heated bird bath questions. If you have a question I didn’t cover, please ask it in the comment section and I’ll follow up as quickly as possible!