Garden Fountains for Bird & Bee Habitat

Goldfinches at fountain
Goldfinches and other birds at garden fountain

One of the greatest joys in the garden is the vicarious pleasure of watching the birds enjoy the fountain, especially now during wintertime, when they come in numbers.

The location here was mostly bare when we arrived, other than the grandfather oak tree, two white willows and two old plums (which we adore). Having been a sheep and horse farm for many years, it was open field except near the farmhouse and modular (which we lovingly call “the cottage”.) Nearest those houses, the ground was covered in AstroTurf for the outdoor dogs that lived here. After removing the AstroTurf, one of the first things we did was put in a fountain.

I had just finished my BA in Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community, and was given a monetary gift to honor the occasion. I used it to buy the fountain which, I guess, shows my priorities. At about six feet tall, it looked weirdly out of place in the middle of what was to become the main potager garden, but at that time was just bare ground. Twenty years later, it is dwarfed by the surrounding garden and it has been a great source of pleasure all those years.

The birds here seem to prefer the running water of the fountain more than the static birdbaths we also have around, although I’ve read it stated the opposite elsewhere. Our birdbaths are almost always empty and the fountain is almost always occupied. (The fountain water recirculates, if you didn’t know that, so, though there is evaporation and need to top it up with water, they do not constantly use fresh water.)

Goldfinch at fountain

This fountain draws all kinds of birds throughout the year, in particular the goldfinches and rosy-colored house finches. I’m not a skilled birder, but other easy-to-identify bird visitors are various woodpeckers, flickers, bluebirds, hummingbirds, orioles, titmouse (with their cute pointy-hats), the meditative black phoebes, and of course robins, sparrows, crows and jays and mockingbirds. Once I spotted a red-tailed hawk — common in our area — taking an immense bath. (Note to birders: if I’ve misidentified any birds in the photo captions, please let me know).

The smaller-winged creatures also find the fountain indispensable as a drinking water source: honeybees and wasps, bumblebees and ladybugs. Yellow jackets also visit it, but as they are getting what they want–water to drink–they usually leave me alone when I’m near there.

During heat-waves and smoky air from nearby wildfires, made worse by climate change, I really feel for the birds and insects and then it seems especially important that they have access to that water source to drink and bathe in.

Goldfinch and house finch at fountain

A good watering hole for birds is ideally up off the ground far enough to be safe from cats. Make a strong footing for it to sit atop, unless you already have a cement patio to put it on. For the recirculating water pump, you will need a GFCI electrical outlet. Fountains must be cleaned periodically, and algae controlled by a nontoxic additive. Please do not use bleach! Besides being toxic to birds, it will also kill your fountain pump. The fountain and statuary store I’ve linked below will give you all the instructions you need to install one.

The size and shape of a fountain or even birdbath seems to make a big difference to birds. Our fountain has two basins, one bigger than the other. The birds always use the upper, smaller basin. Never the larger one. I also think they like a rough surface to grab onto with their feet. Smooth edges are not preferred, in my observation. The only regularly used birdbath we have has a rough texture and striations for gripping. The shape should allow for dipping their bodies and tails into for bathing. If it’s shallow, they will get into it, if not, they need an edge from which to perch to bathe. I’ve tried putting rocks in the deeper basin, from which to perch and bathe, but they do not use it. But rocks or a floating stick in deeper water can help insects who fall in to get back out.

If you get a fountain, keep a bench, your binoculars and your bird ID book nearby! Send me photos!

Happy bird-watching!

Some relevant fountain and bird-watching resources:

Absolute Statuary, Sebastopol CA
A valuable source of statuary, fountains, nontoxic algae control, fountain pumps and skilled advice.

Birds of Northern California by David Fix and Andy Bezener
An old favorite for 20 years. There are probably more recent versions.

REI for binoculars

Pond Vacuum
That link shows the vacuum I have now, which also serves to clean the deep fish pond. Probably overkill for a single fountain. A small wet/dry shop vac would also do, or, there are also simple pond vacs that only require a garden hose to work. The pressure from your hose creates a suction that will vacuum your fountain. In the early years, I just scooped out the water with a yogurt container, but this takes awhile and doesn’t get it very clean.

Goldfinches and other birds at fountain

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