Thirsty Birds

The importance of fresh, clean water for wildlife

Sandhill Crane taking a long drink of water in last rays of the day, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico.  December 2020

Tonight it is snowing outside as I write this article.  The snow is welcome.  The more, the merrier!  In New Mexico, we are in another La Niña climate pattern, which means drier than normal conditions.  This is unfortunate as the Southwest US is in a prolonged drought.

Over the past few years, I have observed the birds and bees having a strong preference for clean and fresh water.  Why not?  I do not like drinking stale dirty water!  My small farm neighbors a few rather large ponds. Most of these ponds are deep enough to avoid freezing solid in the winter.  Wildlife around my home could use these ponds as an open water source.  Instead, wildlife, especially birds, have a strong preference for the small heated bird baths that I fill daily with fresh water.  This is especially true in the winter.


Junco drinking from the water spout


Recent visitors to one of my heated water features

Running water is the best

I notice many different bird species drinking from decorative fountains and ponds with a running water feature around downtown Santa Fe.  Even in the city’s highly populated areas, the local bird population had figured out where these freshwater sources were.  Often they would converge on a tiny trickle of moving water.  When I added a small pond pump to one of my birdbath ponds, the birds chose to drink directly from the stream of falling water.

In the wilds, I notice similar behavior.  Wildlife with access to pond or lake water seem to prefer drinking from streams and running water.

Great Horned Owl drinking water from stream

Great Horned Owl drinking from a clear mountain stream. New Mexico

Effects of drought on migratory birds

Water provides safe roosts for many migratory birds.  If the water is deep enough, and there is enough open water (unfrozen), large flocks of migratory waterfowl will roost there overnight.  Predators have difficulty sneaking up on birds at night if they have to wade or swim through water to get to them.  During drought years like this one (2019-2020) well established roosting areas are dry or have limited water refuges for birds.  Ponds that once had enough water to avoid completely freezing over can freeze solid, allowing predators to pursue birds on the ice easily.

Coyote in pond at the Bosque del Apache hunting ducks

Coyote easily hunts snow geese in a drought-stricken pond at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico.

This photo of one of the “entrance ponds” at the Bosque del Apache NWR was taken in the fall of 2019, during a drought year.  This year, 2020, there is no water in the entrance ponds normally used by Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese for night roosting areas.   In the photo, you can see feathers from kills of Snow Geese by predators.

When safe nighttime roosting water bodies are limited, migratory birds will fly long distances to roost the night and then fly back to their normal feeding grounds.  A large flock of Canada Geese forages in the fields of a neighboring farm.  They leave early evenings and fly about 15 miles to open water on the Rio Grande River or a large reservoir. They return the next morning to feed.

Nighttime water roosts are key to the survival of migratory birds.  You can see this at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  During the day, Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes fly up and down the Middle Rio Grande corridor to forage in farm fields.  They return each night for the spectacular “fly-in” to roost in safe waters.  When there is no open water due to drought, or cold weather freezing all the ponds, predators have an easier time.

Since many of the ponds at the Bosque del Apache NWR are dry this year, the Sandhill Cranes find other places to roost at night where deeper water provides safety.  The cranes can travel over 300 miles per day at speeds up to 35 mph.   They adapt to find safe roosts within easy reach of the feeding areas.  Earlier this week, I did find Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese foraging on grains at the Bosque del Apache NWR.  Some small flocks of cranes flew in to roost in the Main Pond at the refuge.

Low water level in the “Rookery Pond” at the Bosque del Apache NWR,
December 2020.

Coyote eating a Sandhill Crane at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Coyote eating Sandhill Crane with Bald Eagle flying overhead,
December 2012, Bosque del Apache NWR

Climate change and sudden changes in weather patterns have had serious negative impacts on migratory birds.   A sudden cold snap in New Mexico in early September 2020 is now considered one cause of thousands of migratory dropping dead.

Starvation was found to be another cause of the bird die-off.  Dead birds were found as early as August to be severely emaciated, already starving when they moved into New Mexico. On September 9, 2020, an unusual storm dropped the high temperatures of 97 deg F to lows of 39 deg F in Albuquerque. Starved and weakened birds became disoriented and flew into buildings and objects. Some died from exposure to the cold weather, were killed by predators, or were hit by vehicles.  Lack of available freshwater sources increases the risks to migrating birds as they have to travel further or away from their normal migratory routes to find water.

Bighorn Sheep drinking from a very low Rio Grande River in the late fall of 2020.  Taos, New Mexico.

During drought, small efforts by us can dramatically help wildlife.   Hundreds of birds visit my small heated bird bath every day this winter.  The freshwater sources I provide them are a hit, more so than my bird feeders.

In the summer months, honeybees enjoy these same sources of freshwater.  I raise honeybees and notice hundreds of bees collecting water from these sources all day long.  They prefer these clean, freshwater sources to the many ponds neighboring my property.  Dripping water faucets are another favorite water source for bees. Water is important for cooling the hives and softening the stores of honey stored in the hive.

It is common sense that wildlife needs water to survive.  It also makes sense that they prefer clean sources of water.  Birds seem to prefer moving water in a stream or water features and ponds that include bubblers or waterfalls.

Keep your birdbaths and water features clean.  This avoids the spreading of disease and reduces the spread of mosquitoes.  I replace the water in my birdbaths every 4 days and clean them with a mild vinegar solution and scrubbing brush every couple of weeks or notice algae growth.

If you are a landowner with irrigation ponds keeping some water in your ponds versus draining them dry each time you irrigate helps provide shelter for waterfowl and provides wetlands valuable to many species.

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Common Merganser with ducklings, Alaska

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