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SoCal Gardening

When Placing a Birdbath, Think Location, Location, Location

November 12, 1998|In the Garden ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

You wouldn't think that where you put a birdbath would make all that much difference. When ours was in front, it was tucked under a climbing rose next to a small eucalyptus. It seemed like a good spot and, in fact, looked very good there.

A nearly tame scrub jay frequently bathed in it, so vigorously, in fact, that we had to refill it every day, but most of the time the bath just sat there, not attracting birds like it was supposed to.

It's been said that a birdbath will attract more birds, and more variety of birds, than even a feeder.

When I moved the bath to the backyard and positioned it like birdbaths are supposed to be (according to wildlife experts), it was soon as crowded as Venice Beach on a hot summer day. Not all the time, of course, but often enough.

It was also visible now from the patio, so I could watch the visitors.

Mockingbirds first discovered the new locale, but this was no surprise since they are as cocky and commonplace as scrub jays and are equally fervent bathers.

Then a flock of sparrows spotted it. There were five fat sparrows splashing up a storm, with a few more in the bushes waiting their turn.

They sat on the edge while one mockingbird bathed. When the mockingbird shook himself and splashed water on the sparrows, they all ducked and flinched like children getting splashed at a public pool.

When they hopped back in, glistening droplets flew everywhere, and they got the ground so wet that I decided I had better plant things that enjoy moisture at the base of the birdbath.

In the front yard, it had never seen such activity.

Next came a lone warbler of some kind with a touch of yellow on its rump, one of those birds that are always moving.

"Active flittings" is how Roger Tory Peterson describes this warbler behavior in his field guide. This little bird was a new visitor to the garden, and he stayed for weeks.

A flock of yellowish bushtits, each about as big as a golf ball and nearly as round, arrived next, though I only saw them drinking from the bath water. But they stayed for awhile, darting through the bushes eating all sorts of bugs.

That was unforeseen. When it was in the front yard, the bath was surrounded by tough, drought-tolerant plants that have few pests.

In back it was near several pest-plagued shrub roses, under a lemon tree that also had its share of aphids, scale and whiteflies.

Once the birds showed up to bathe, they stuck around and ate whatever bugs they could find, cleaning up the lemon and the roses. Birds can be valuable allies in the gardener's battle against bugs and weeds. That alone is reason to get them to stop at your garden.

Those with the more needle-like bills eat insects, and those with the shorter, stockier bills eat weed seeds. They sometimes eat good bugs along with the bad but for the most part eat those stationary sucking insects that infest plants.

Birds will also eat the seed you sow, along with the weed seeds, so you should protect new sowing with netting if it is exposed.

But to lure birds into the garden with a birdbath, it must be in the right place. Experts on wild birds have come up with some recommendations on where to position a birdbath, suggestions that I followed when I moved it:

* The bath should be easily seen from the sky, so birds flying overhead can spot it.

* Mount it about 3 feet high, which is usually the case if your birdbath comes with a pedestal. If you must keep a birdbath on the ground, it should be at least 6 feet away from places where cats could lurk.

* Put it in a sunny spot. Think of how popular a shady Venice Beach would be.

* Place it near some trees or big shrubs where birds can perch while drying off, or where they can flee to. Don't put it too close--plants should be 3 to 6 feet away. If these plants are prickly or thorny like my roses and lemon happened to be, cats are less likely to climb them.

* Plants around the base of the bath should be low so cats can't hide like little lions waiting to pounce. In our birdbath's new location, birds can see in all directions, and refuge is a quick, upward flight.

* The water in the bath shouldn't be deeper than an inch, though ours is somewhat deeper in the middle and the birds don't seem to mind. In fact, that's where the bigger birds bathe.

* Edges should be wide and curved for the bird's feet, not narrow or sharply angled; the bottom should not be too sloped or slippery, and keep algae that forms in old baths scrubbed off.

Ours is a very old bath, a concrete charmer that belonged to my grandfather. My mother had it next, and after it fell over in the Loma Prieta quake up north, she carefully patched it back together, which added to its patina.

Then we brought it south and had to patch it again when it fell over in the Northridge quake. By now, it looks a couple hundred years old, though it only dates from the 1940s. I suspect that the birds like that it's old and weathered.

I did make one mistake when setting it up. I put in on newly tilled and planted soil, and when I next noticed it, it was leaning like the fabled tower of Pisa. I reset it on a layer of stomped-down gravel and sand, so it's now quite stable.

The jay still uses (and empties) the bath. But in its new location, many other birds do too, now that they have a clear, bird's-eye view of the garden and any cats that it might contain.

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