I spent part of my day off this past week doing some bird watching at Granite Basin Recreation area. Each year in November, I begin preparing for the upcoming Prescott Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. This year’s count is on Dec. 18.
My assigned area is Granite Basin, and I like to scout out the area in advance of the bird count to get a feel for what species are present, and where. My goal, prior to the actual count day, is to discover as many different bird species as I can in my assigned area. Then, on the day of the count, I hope to find all of these different species I have observed during my scouting leading up to that day.
As I hiked around the basin, I encountered pockets of bird activity – consisting mostly of mixed flocks with bushtits, nuthatches, chickadees, kinglets and warblers. Other than these pockets of bird activity, there would be long stretches with no birds at all.
However, in the basin there is an area where there is a natural spring with a constant source of open water. Around the spring, I was able to observe not only a large number of birds, but also a big variety of bird species. While we had an amazing monsoon season earlier this year, it has been almost two full months since we have had any measurable precipitation. Two months with no rain has created a situation where it has become increasingly more difficult for birds to find natural sources of water.
Freezing temperatures are also a factor affecting the availability of water. During much of the year, birds get their water through the food that they consume. Birds eating a diet high in insects get most of their water through this food source. Now that we are experiencing hard frost on a nightly basis, there aren’t very many insects available for wild birds.
The concentration of birds at the spring reinforced in my mind the need to provide open sources of water for birds in winter. Not only is water for drinking necessary for survival, but open sources of water where birds can bathe also helps them survive the bitter cold winter nights. As crazy as it may seem, even when temperatures are in the teens and twenties, birds will readily bathe in birdbaths. Instinctively, birds know the importance of bathing – clean feathers have a greater insulating capacity than feathers that are dirty and matted.
Interestingly, some birds seem to be more dependent on water than others. Western bluebirds, American robins, northern flickers and lesser goldfinches use birdbaths with greater frequency than other species. When customers come into our store asking how to attract robins and bluebirds to their yard, our first recommendation is to provide water. There are also many bird species that are not very dependent on water – rarely will you see quail, bushtits or nuthatches at a birdbath. These are examples of birds that get their water through the food they eat.
Providing open sources of water in central Arizona can be challenging in the winter time, but it is just as important as providing seed or suet. Breaking the ice each morning or a kettle of hot water to pour into your birdbath are possible solutions. However, the simplest and safest way to provide open water in winter is to use either a heated bird bath or to put a bird bath heater (de-icer) into an existing bird bath.
Until next week, Happy Birding!