Winter Water for Birds

How do birds get water when it's freezing outside? My birdbath is a miniature ice skating rink. I just don't see how the birds survive. — Minnie P., Minox ND

Birds need water every day, even when all the water is frozen. They can get it from snow or food such as insects and wild fruits. 

But they appreciate open, available water. Especially when ponds and streams are frozen. They will seek it out if it's available. And that's an opportunity for backyard bird watchers. Kozy Spa BathMy favorites are birdbaths with heating elements built into the bowl, like the Kozy Spa bath at right. I have found that this kind of heating system is the easiest to keep clean, full, and unfrozen. 

In extremely cold weather, some ice may form around the edges, but there always seem to be some open water at least in the middle. And the birds go right for it. This one is nice because the cord is concealed in the pedestal. 

If there is not much danger from cats, you can use a ground level birdbath.

Some birds prefer a low birdbath. The Four-Season Bath is pretty nice after a snowstorm, when it's completely concealed by snow except for the open water. The heater is built in to the underside of the bath. Click the picture (taken in my back yard) to see what the birdbath looks like when it's not covered in snow. The advantages of built-in heater include the fact that the heater cannot fall out of the bath and let the water freeze.

If you already have a birdbath that you like, but it doesn't keep the water from freezing in winter, you can add a de-icer, a heating element that sits down in the basin. It's not quite as convenient as a bath with a built-in heater, but it is an economical way to tranform your present bath into something that will function in winter. 

The best ones are thermostatically controlled, so the heat is on only when necessary to keep the water from freezing.

The simplest way to start attracting birds is simply to put black-oil sunflower seeds on the ground.

You'll attract our native winter sparrows, such as American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, and the Dark-eyed Junco in the picture. Other birds who like to feed on the ground are cardinals, doves, and jays.

I don't recommend bags of mixed birdseed that you can buy at the supermarket. It's full of red millet, which most of the birds won't eat. In my opinion, it's a waste of money.

Location, location, location

Some birds prefer to dine higher. To make woodpeckers feel easy, you can offer sunflower seeds in feeders suspended from a tree branch, from a shepherd’s-hook pole, or perhaps from the eaves of your house. If you have cats roaming your back yard, suspending the birdseed in the air also makes safer dining for the birds.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Woodpeckers also love suet, solid animal fat. The least messy way to deal with suet is to buy packaged suet cakes, usually sold with some seeds mixed in. Offer suet in a special suet feeder that allows access only from the underside. Red-bellied Woodpeckers like the one in the photo and other woodpeckers find it easy to access the suet from below.

Chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice also have no problem hanging on from below. However, this type of suet feder denies access to many nuisance birds. The non-native European Starlings just can’t get a grip. That is good, because otherwise a gang of starlings can gobble up all the suet and scare away the other birds. An upside-down feeder can reserve the suet for more desirable, native species.

Finch food

Red Seed Ball

Other specialty feeders can attracte varied clientele. I offer nyjer seed, which is tiny and rather expensive, in special hanging feeders. Goldfinches are all over that feeder all the time, and sometimes it also attracts pine siskins and common redpolls. Bigger birds leave it alone.

Just as much fun, for goldfinches, is a mesh feeder like the red ball at right. I fill it with hulled sunflower seeds, and the chickadees go mad for it. Woodpeckers come to it as well, especially the tiny Downy Woodpecker.

I also put peanuts in a hanging wire mesh feeder for my favorite, the Tufted Titmouse. Sometimes a Carolina Wren bops in for a peanut too.

How to rate five stars

If you want to be a 5-star bird hotel, you can also provide open water. Birds need water all year around, and liquid water is pretty hard to come by if the world seems to turn into one big icicle. A birdbath with a built-in heater does not keep the water warm, but it keeps it from freezing.

Nothing warms my heart like looking out on the frost-rimmed birdbath, with a little steam rising, and a bunch of birds enjoying a drink.


When you first start feeding wild birds, you may have to wait a little while before the birds start visiting. Especially if you're beginning in winter, the birds are stressed by cold, and they may be going to the food sources they already know.

Keep putting out the food where birds can find it. Like with a new restaurant, word-of-beak will bring in the visitors. Don't worry if it takes a few days or a few weeks. They'll come.

It's easy.

Just set the table.

They will come.