Bath time for the birds

Staff Writer
Story City Herald

—by Steve Lekwa

I’m delighted to report that the “attractive young couple” who moved in next door last spring are back again, or at least it appears to be the same pair. There’s no way of knowing if this year’s bluebirds are actually the same pair that raised a family in our back yard last year, but the first day they were here they already seemed so at home. They have been around the yard every morning for a couple of weeks and seem to take turns checking out the house. They’ll go in and stay there for a minute or two; then come out and sit on the roof and preen for awhile. I suppose they’re trying to decide how they want to arrange the furniture or something. They’re not moving any nest material in yet, though.

This morning the female bluebird decided it was a good day for a bath. She chose the elevated bird bath not far from their house in the back yard and appeared to have a good time drinking and splashing. An occasional robin, house finch, or gold finch use that bird bath, too. It’s not the favored public bathing place it used to be, though. A small ground level pool in our side yard attracts far more birds. Sometimes three or four species are using it at once. The pool is actually the outlet for one of our sump pumps and sits at the head of a wetland garden.

We used to discharge our basement sump pumps to the street where the water ran along the curb to the nearest storm sewer intake. That was a problem, though, because it left the edge of the street very slippery with algae in the summer and with ice in the winter. The city banned discharging to the street several years ago. The only choice was to run it out into our side yard where it slowly flowed away from the house. That left a swampy spot in the middle of the yard that was difficult or impossible to mow, so I decided to plant wetland flowers there and let the wet spot become a little urban wetland. Red swamp milkweed, white Canada anemone, great blue lobelia, dark pink New England aster, and golden sneeze weed along with some interesting sedges add color and texture to the area all spring and summer. I lined the small muddy depression that was forming at the discharge pipe with colorful stones as a decorative touch, but that little stone lined pool has since become a favorite spot for the neighborhood birds. All kinds visit it to splash and drink. Even the little gray juncos that paid no attention to the heated bird bath all winter seem to enjoy bathing there. Regular discharges from the sump pump don’t seem to bother them at all and keep the water fresh and clear. I have to replace the water and clean the elevated bath in the back yard every couple of days or it becomes kind of messy and even a possible health risk to the birds that use it.

The city eventually installed new storm sewer lines in our neighborhood and hooked our two sump pump discharge lines to it. We enjoy our wetland garden and stone lined bird pool so much that I had them plumb in a special alternate discharge for the garden pump so I can reroute its discharge into the garden in spring and summer. Your birds might enjoy a ground level bath, too. Any simple basin an inch or two deep will work as long as the water is kept fresh. Decorative stones can add interest and gives the birds some options on depth for bathing and handy perches for drying and preening. Our little pool wasn’t planned for wildlife, but has become a focal point in our urban yard habitat.