A shallow pool of water in which birds can drink, bathe and cool themselves – functional yet decorative, the bird bath as we know it today doubles up as a garden ornament or outdoor sculpture. Now, the ultimate man-made avian spa is enjoying a renaissance, as the nation seeks to create more wildlife-friendly gardens.
Last year, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reported that sales of bird baths were up 440 per cent on the previous year, from March 2020 to August 2020. Their popularity is here to stay.
According to a new study by Atlas Ceramics, which analysed Instagram posts, TikTok views and Google search volume to reveal what we’re all doing with our outdoor space, bird baths are “the second most popular” garden trend of 2021 (second only to pergolas).
To add to the evidence, the study also reports that bird baths have been Googled more than 1,250,000 times over the past year. Meanwhile, the hashtag #birdbath has racked up 218,000 posts on Instagram.
Of course, birds have bathed in natural pools of water in the ground, in rocks and in the hollows of trees for millennia. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the middle classes conceived of the bird bath as a rather more ostentatious, decorative thing – and it rapidly became a status symbol.
At around that time, James Pulham & Son of Broxbourne became known for the manufacture of terracotta bird baths, which today fetch a pretty penny from antique dealers.
Now, to the benefit of town and country bird life, bird baths are shaking off their twee Victorian image, to be reimagined anew by modern gardeners and wildlife enthusiasts.
Reliable water source
Water to bathe in is just as important for birds in winter as it is in summer. “Bathing is an important part of feather maintenance. Dampening the feathers loosens the dirt and makes their feathers easier to preen,” says RSPB spokeswoman Charlotte Ambrose.
“When preening, birds carefully rearrange their feathers and spread oil from the preen gland to waterproof them, trapping an insulating layer of air underneath to keep them warm.” In the absence of ponds or puddles, a bird bath offers a welcome amenity to the garden birds who increasingly rely on our hospitality.
“Birds have no sweat glands which means they lose less water than mammals, but most still need a drink at least twice a day. Birds will appreciate the extra source of water all year round, but in the summer and winter they [baths] become increasingly important.
“In the summer, puddles and streams can dry up and in the winter they can freeze over, so your bird bath can be one of the few reliable water sources,” adds Ambrose. With this in mind, there’s a bird bath for every budget and every type of garden, including contemporary, stylish and eco-conscious buys, as well as more traditional pieces.
At the acclaimed Veddw House Garden in Monmouthshire, Wales (created by garden writer Anne Wareham and her husband, photographer Charles Hawes), a bird bath is the focal point of the view over the front garden.
Wareham designed her own bird bath after finding a corten steel bowl and some oak sleepers in her local builders’ merchant. The sleepers were fashioned into a plinth with the bowl on top.
It is surrounded by clipped box hedges, perennials and mounds of shrubs, including Osmanthus burkwoodii and Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ .
How birdwatching became cool
Sales of bird feed and bird feeders spiked during lockdown, and the RSPB reports that two thirds of Britons enjoyed watching and listening to birds.
Our renewed interest in bird life is here to stay, as more Brits tap into the wellbeing benefits of connecting with nature and become more aware of the vital need to protect biodiversity
12 of the best modern bird baths
‘Acorn’ bird bath on sandstone plinth, £628-£718; Foras.
Based in Norfolk, John Wootton and his partner Claire Brutnall gave up farming to create natural stone accessories for country gardens and city terraces alike. Their pieces have a distinctive, stylish-yet-timeless look, and this rainbow sandstone bird bath and plinth adds a sense of harmony to a green space.
Rockery bird bath, £49.99, Signature Garden Statues.
This ingenious, frost-proof watering nook can be incorporated into a rock garden or simply placed on a patio to attract wildlife. It’s small, but sufficiently deep to host a wide range of birds and amphibious animals, such as frogs. Made in Yorkshire using a ‘dry cast’ method, it will weather with age like real stone.
Modern and minimal
Modern bird bath, £165, Green and Blue.
Designed and made locally using 75 per cent Cornish china clay waste, this contemporary design provides safe bathing and drinking for birds. The “terraced” sides allow different species to enter and bathe at a suitable depth. You can buy the top dish on its own, and choose as many rings as you like to create the perfect height.
Nature oasis wildlife bath, £23.99, Wildlife World.
This birdbath is also a vital water source for birds, bees, butterflies and small mammals. Pollinators and other insects can safely reach the water using the shallow descending steps. It is made from a sustainable, frost-proof and durable material using recycled plastic and natural bamboo fibres – an environmentally-friendly option.
The Scandi look
Round copper-plated bird bath, £60, Latzio.
This stylish bird bath by Born in Sweden, which offers Swedish-inspired design for the home and garden, can also be used as a feeder. It’s ideal for smaller spaces, such as on the balcony in a pot. Made with stainless steel and rubber, it is available with a steel, copper-plated or gold-plated finish.
Glazed bird bath, £35,99, Etsy.
Online marketplace Etsy abounds with creative bird-bath styling inspiration. Chris Kirby of CK Metalcraft, based in Pontefract, makes simple but beautiful glazed bird baths in a variety of colours with handcrafted, wrought iron holding rings, which can be easily fixed to garden fences and mounted to walls.
Two in one
Eva Solo bird feeding tray with built-in bath, £99.95, Made in Design.
The hollow in the top of this transparent stand-up glass feeder (which can be staked in the ground and is easy to move) serves as a bath and watering hole for birds. It’s perhaps the sleekest way imaginable to pamper and provide for garden birds. It’s practical, too – all parts are dishwasher-safe.
Flight of fancy
Set of three copper chalice bird baths, £99.85, London Garden Trading.
London Garden Trading was created in 2007 by garden designer Simon Thomas and his wife, Sarah. Their shiny, handmade copper chalices are both bird baths and contemporary garden sculptures. The copper weathers naturally into a verdigris, and is fixed to a 1m black iron stem. Numerous other designs are available.
Salt glaze bird bath with detachable top, £199.99, Gardenesque.
The glaze on this best-selling bird bath is heat-distressed to create a beautiful antique finish, inspired by volcanic rock formations. Made using durable clay that is both sturdy and frostproof, it will last for years to come. The bowl also has a generous depth and sloping sides for easy grip.
Graham & Green concrete bird bath, £24.95.
Create a wildlife haven with this round bird bath made of concrete and featuring a stepped bowl, allowing the birds to land safely. It’s also beautifully decorated with a dainty pair of birds on the edge. It will make a great and budget-friendly addition to any outdoor space.
Dragonfly bird bath, price on application, Willie Wildlife Scupltures.
Made in Ocean Grove, Australia, Willie Wildlife Sculptures are famed worldwide for their bird baths, and attend the RHS Chelsea Flower Show every year to display their designs, featuring blue tits, frogs, swallows, spectacular dragonflies and Australian birds such as kookaburras.
Elegant in iron
Cast iron bird bath, £56, Cast in Style.
A dainty bird bath in a more traditional design but with a cast-iron rustic finish, it features four small birds drinking from the bath’s edge, which lends a lovely finishing touch. The bath sits on a narrow column, which is supported by a circular base, and will last for many seasons to come.
What birds to spot bath-side
“Blackbirds, starlings, robins and sparrows love a quick dip, while wood pigeons may just sit in the water to cool off. Starlings can turn up in a flock of dozens (particularly if you put out mealworms!).
The wonderful thing about encouraging wildlife to your garden is that you never know what will turn up for a bath and a drink – turtle doves, nightjars, and even migrant birds blown off course have been known to turn up in British gardens,” says Ambrose.
“If you’d like to attract more and more birds to your garden, it helps to provide food and shelter as well as water. You can plant shrubs and trees with delicious berries and seeds, grow flowering plants to attract tasty pollinators, and supply different layers of plant growth to provide lots of vantage points for safety.”
How to make your own bird bath
What you will need:
- A ready-made bird bath or a shallow, watertight bowl with sloping sides, such as an upturned dustbin lid or large circular plant tray.
- It should have a maximum depth of only 10cm or so and be as wide as possible, ideally more than 30cm across.
- Stones or gravel
- Bricks on which to raise the bowl if it doesn’t have a plinth
- Rainwater or tap water
Lay out four bricks on a piece of open lawn or border, where the birds will have a good all-round view but can dart into the cover of bushes or trees nearby if they need to. If cats visit your garden, make sure there is nowhere they can hide within pouncing distance.
Put the bath, bowl or galvanised dustbin lid on top of the bricks. Make sure it is stable.
Feel if the inside of the bird bath is too smooth or slippy. If it is, birds might slip into the water. Put some pebbles or rocks in the water to give them easier access.
Fill with water. You’ll need to keep the bird bath well topped-up in summer and ice-free in winter. In frosty weather, never use salt or de-icer. Pour in warm (not hot) water, or gently knock the ice out and replace with fresh water from the tap.
“It’s important to keep your bird bath clean. Having lots of different birds gathering in the same space can increase the risk of disease transmission, and droppings can quickly dirty a small bird bath, so give it a scrub every week to remove algae and other dirt,” suggests Ambrose. “We recommend safe, non-toxic disinfectants such as Ark-Klens.”
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