Habitat Hero

How-to: Provide Water for Birds and Butterflies

Our mission: Make a positive difference for birds, pollinators and other wildlife right at home where we all live. Share the joy from nurturing wildlife in yards and other everyday landscapes. Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a habitat hero.

Water is Critical for Wildlife

The dense zone of plants along a restored urban creek. (Photo: Susan J. Tweit)

Water is what makes life possible in semi-arid climates like our Rocky Mountain region. Spend some time in a riparian area, the ribbon of green that grows along streams, rivers, lakes and ponds, and you'll quickly realize how much life packs into the zone near the water.

Almost all the region's wildlife species (80-90 percent, depending on how you tally them) rely on riparian areas at some point in their lives.

Adding Water to Your Wildscape

Providing fresh water is critical to building useful habitat. How can you add water in your garden? It's not as hard as you might think.

Here are some tips:

Still Water

A simple wildlife drinking basin in a wildscape at a north Denver power plant. (Photo: Susan J. Tweit)

First, forget fancy fountains, cascades or noisy water features: birds, butterflies and other "little guys" prefer still water to running water.

Simple Saucer

A trash can lid wildlife waterer. Photo © Christy Peterson, used with permission

The very simplest way to provide water, as naturalist Christy Peterson explains at Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, is to place an upside down trash can lid (the galvanized steel ones last longer) on the ground, and add water.

A large plant saucer or shallow basin will also work. Make sure to add rocks, sand, and/or branches to give the littlest drinkers a place to perch.

Adding Cover and Height

Can you find the drinking-basin nearly hidden by native and xeriscape plants in this dry land Habitat Hero garden? (Photo: Christie Cutright)

Second, make sure your water source is in a sheltered place, near cover in the form of shrubs or dense clumps of grasses and wildflowers. It shouldn't stand out, and your birds and other small wildlife should have an easy escape if they feel threatened.

If you've got free-ranging cats around, elevate the water source out of reach. A classic pedestal bird-bath usually works, or simply put your trash-can-lid saucer on a tall stump or other place inaccessible to hunting felines.

Cleanliness Counts!

Third, keep your birdbath clean. Change the water when it gets scummy, and scrub out the basin with a stiff brush if algae or bacteria mats form.

Winter Water

When snow covers your wildscape, open water is more important than ever. (Photo: Natrona County Agricultural Resource & Learning Center Wyoscape Garden, a Habitat Hero garden in Casper, WY.)

Fourth, as Stephen Kress points out in "winterizing" your wildscape in Audubon Magazine, birds especially need open water in winter. Keep the water thawed by adding warm or hot water, making a hole in the ice, or using a simple birdbath heater. (Some kinds run off a small solar panel.)

Stock-Tank Pond

A sunken stock tank attracts wildlife, surrounding gardens provide food and shelter. Photo by Sandra Jacobs

If small and simple doesn't appeal, try a stock-tank "pond." Habitat Hero gardener Sandra Jacobs and her husband dug a 950-gallon stock tank into the ground in their wildscape yard outside Pueblo, Colorado. Jacobs writes, "What a delight to see the entire rim of the tank filled with birds in the early mornings!"

(One caution: A sunken stock tank is not a good idea if you have small children or live in a neighborhood where kids could get into your yard unsupervised.)

Just Add Water…. 

A water source is not only critical to providing useful habitat for birds and pollinators, it adds immeasurably to the central joy of a habitat garden: watching wildlife right nearby.

As Habitat Hero gardener Sue McGuire writes from Jackson, Wyoming, where her yard borders a spring-fed irrigation ditch, "I watch songbirds stand on the ice-encrusted shore and drink from the open water, and a muskrat occasionally swims by."

How you can help, right now