Many backyard birdwatchers spend a lot of time and money attracting birds to their backyard. People buy feeders, hundreds of pounds of sunflower seed, and a variety of shipment to foil squirrels. They plant trees, shrubs, and annuals to attract birds. But, for some reason many people neglect to provide a very important ingredient--water.
There are two reasons for providing water for birds. Birds, like all other creatures, need water to survive. Water is a key element, and without it birds could not live. Second, in addition to providing a requisite for sustaining life, water provides a wonderful and inexpensive way to attract birds. This is especially true in arid climates where water is scarce. However, even in places where it is plentiful, providing a source of water for drinking and bathing will attract a wide variety of species. If you do provide water, birds will not have to search elsewhere, and they can spend more time in your yard where you can enjoy them.
Given that water is important, how do you go about providing it? The traditional birdbath is certainly a good start. It really doesn't matter whether you use a plastic garbage can lid, buy a cement birdbath at your local lawn ornament shop, or build a small pond. It is best to provide shallow water. Small birds generally do not like to drink from water more than a few inches in depth. Also, shallow water permits them to bathe easily. It is important to keep the water clean. Stagnant water that becomes contaminated or filled with algae can transmit disease. Change the water every other day. Also, scrub your birdbath to prevent algae buildup on the bottom.
The type of birdbath you provide depends on your personal taste. After all, the birds don't care whether they drink out of a homemade container or a thousand dollar marble pedestal by Gucci. There are many styles available, and I would recommend a ground-level model like the one sold by Audubon Workshop. It seems to attract more species than some of the pedestal models. If you are into landscaping, building a small pond or fountain is an excellent idea. By creating a natural setting around water, the birds feel more comfortable and will readily use the water you provide.
Finally, one tip that I believe will assist you in attracting birds: the sound of running or dripping water acts like a magnet for birds-they can hardly resist staying away from your yard. If you provide such a source for your birdbath, you are sure to increase its usage. You can do this in several ways. One simple way is to put a small hole in a plastic pail, fill it with water, and suspend it over the bath. You can also purchase a small "drip hose" that when hooked up to an outside faucet slowly releases water into the bath. If you plan to build a fountain or pool, I would recommend designing a small waterfall that uses a recirculating water pump to keep the water flowing. That sound of running water is sure to attract lots of birds.
Water will not only attract the species that you may be feeding, but it also brings birds that wouldn't normally come to feeders such as warblers, thrushes, flycatchers and others. By providing water, you might see birds in your yard that you've never noticed before. In addition, you will be supplying an important part of a bird's life requisite and may help create more suitable habitat. As always, the birds will repay you with their presence and also the enjoyment of watching them.