Friday, July 17, 2009

The Freshwater Pub

I like to think of my backyard birdbath as a freshwater pub for all my flying visitors, somewhere for all of them to enjoy a cool, refreshing drink. Naturally enough, birds galore visit, but sometimes bees and butterflies also stop by for a sip, and so everyone and everything is welcome here. I can't help but think sometimes that a garden without a functioning birdbath is incomplete, and as a contribution to the local wildlife a birdbath really does turn a garden into a sanctuary for them.

This is our nice, old, original stone birdbath we bought 18 years ago, soon after we moved here. It looks a lot older than that, which is a bonus, and it's very popular with the smaller birds. But it does have one minor drawback: its rough texture is ideal for slime and algae to form on, and so it needs frequent cleaning, which is what it gets.

About 10 years ago, we bought this glazed ceramic birdbath, initially thinking of it as a replacement for the old 'slimy' stone one. But 'Old Slimy' remained so popular with the birds that we realised we had actually just installed a second, upmarket birdbath that's consistently more popular with the larger birds. It's up on a plinth about 60cm (two feet) high. It's much, much easier to clean than the old stone bath, and stays cleaner for longer, but the glazed ceramic surface is too slippery for the birds. So, we always have natural stone sitting in the middle, for the birds to land on securely.

Over the years we've acquired two other water bowls which are not birdbaths, but no-one told the birds that, and each water bowl gets its share of visitors enjoying a drink, especially in summer. In the bottom of the larger bowl at the back we've added some glass beads and pieces of colourful Paua shell brought home from a New Zealand holiday.

This avant garde thing was another holiday souvenir. The stainless steel bowl we already had, but the shiny stainless steel globe came from the Art Gallery of Queensland in Brisbane. A Japanese artist had done an installation there of thousands and thousands of these steel balls floating on a large canal-cum-lake thing inside the gallery. Kids were welcome to play and clunk the balls together and make them move round, a nice tactile installation with plenty of clunky, bubbly sound effects. The balls were for sale at the Gallery Shop and so we bought one, and it hasn't deteriorated one bit in the five or so years we've had it here. Small birds like to grip the thin edge of the bowl, look at the other 'bird' in the shiny sphere, and have a drink. It's a remarkably popular part of our Freshwater Pub!

I had mentioned that I always have a stone to place in the glazed birdbath. Both of my stones slope down gently into the water, and this is really handy for little visitors such as bees (pictured here) and butterflies. I need two stones for this bath, as each becomes a bit slimy after a couple of days in the water. So I remove the slimy stone, replace it with the dry one, and it all seems to work pretty well as a little system.

Check the wear on the birdbath brush! It matches the shape of the old stone bowl perfectly. I never ever use any kind of chemical to clean each bath. Just elbow grease, fresh water and the brush. I figure that's safest for all the creatures who use it.

And speaking of the creatures who visit, the other important thing I practise is no discrimination of any sort. It doesn't matter to me whether an innocent creature is a native or an introduced species. I'm an introduced species of sorts. My family originally came here (of their own free will!) from Belfast in 1840, but I was born here and this is my home. I belong to this land. I'm sure this bulbul, which is not a native species, feels exactly the same way as me. Red Whiskered Bulbuls were introduced here in the 1880s from China and India as caged birds – brought here as prisoners, an old Australian story – and they have since thrived mostly in Sydney, where the climate and the availability of backyard fruit trees seems to suit them. Whatever, he and his family is welcome in my backyard. Of course it does get hard to tolerate the starlings and the mynahs and other aggressive exotic species, but they have never taken over in my backyard, or even established all that much of a presence here. They just visit every bit as occasionally as the others.

Of course native birds such as this beautiful magpie, one of the best singers in the Universe, are particularly welcome. I don't do anything special to attract native birds over non-native birds, apart from growing some native plants and cleaning the birdbath regularly. There's no shortage of magpies in my area, and we see lots of native wattlebirds, Blue wrens, New Holland honeyeaters, and Willy wagtails here, plus a surprisingly large variety of occasional native visitors, such as kookaburras, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, even a couple of beautiful little Spotted Pardalotes. One morning I even came across a very seriously lost Heron! I also participate in surveys for a great local research outfit called Birds in Backyards, and if you're in Australia reading this blog, check them out at

Taking on a birdbath is extra work. It needs to become another part of your regular 'garden maintenance' rounds if it's to work properly. As I work from home this is easy for me. Commuters rushing out to catch the train in the morning and then coming home in darkness each evening might find it just not practical.

However, if there is someone at home a lot who has five minutes to spare every second day, then swishing out the birdbath with a brush that you don't use for any other purpose is the main job, apart from refilling the water and maybe changing over a wet, slimy stone for a dry one. The rest is just sitting back and watching.

A few years ago I bought Pammy a nice little pocket-size pair of Nikon binoculars, and they sit on her studio windowsill. The moment old eagle-eyes spots something, she's onto them with the binoculars. If the bird isn't recognised we move onto Phase Two: "get out The Book". I guess we've become an old pair of backyard 'twitchers' (birdwatchers) and a very interesting little hobby that has turned out to be, too!


Autumn Belle said...

Yes, a bird bath. Why didn't I think of it before? Thank you for this interesting and informative post. I'm going to make a bird bath in my garden.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your blog and have took on board some of the birdbath tips. I live in uk and I am seriously jealous about the array of birds that visit your garden!!

Paula said...

Hi, Jamie! Nice to meet you, I'm from Brazil and love gardens...and everything related to them. Really nice your idea for the birds, I think I need at least twenty of them, 'cause I have too many flying visitors!! I leave fruit and seeds around my house every morning, and that is a great pleasure in my life.
I'll come back to see more, and learn more!
Wish you a blessed week!

re said...

you have inspired me to put a birdbath on my balcony. Im always collecting water, so now I have an alternative use for it. Thanks, Robyn

Dharajyot Stone Art said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dharajyot Stone Art said...

You have mentioned some great tips and ideas for Stone Bird Baths to make water safe for birds. Thanks for the post!

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