Water in winter

Robin getting water from pond ©Janet Allen
Robin getting water from pond

Water is just one of the many ways our habitat garden is different in winter here in cold, snowy Central New York.

Wildlife needs water in winter just as we do. But wildlife native to our region has survived for thousands or millions of years without our help.

So what do we do with our ponds and birdbaths in the winter?

The pond and stream

waterfall in winter ©Janet AllenWaterfall and stream in winter

Our Aquascape owner's manual recommends leaving the waterfalls going all year. In fact, it says that winter can be the most beautiful time with icicles and other icy decorations. But were they talking about Central New York winters?

The pond pumps 2,000 gallons of water an hour. In a 1,000-gallon pond, the water goes through twice an hour, so it probably wouldn't totally freeze. We tried leaving it running the first winter, which was unrelentingly cold with no intermittent thaws, but we found it was a constant worry.

Pond and stream turned off ©Janet AllenPond and stream turned off

Perhaps Aquascape was referring to just a pond with a waterfall going directly into the pond. Our wide, shallow stream seemed to freeze very easily. We decided to bring the pump inside—sitting in a bucket of water —so we wouldn't have to worry about water being diverting by ice dams and the pump being damaged by insufficient water. There was so much snow that there wasn't much to see, since we aren't outside very much in the winter. Cooped up inside, we couldn't appreciate the soothing sounds of running water anyway.

And now that we're more conscious of global warming and thus our energy use, we're just as happy not to be using energy all year.

The pond in early spring(Enlarge) ©Janet Allen
The pond two days after starting it on March 22

We generally start the pond back up again in late March or early April. This particular year, we thought winter was over, but this late snowfall created this winter-like wonderland for a few days.

The wildlife pond

Pond in the winter near the house ©Janet Allen Pond in the winter near the house, which sometimes thaws under the bay window

We don't do anything special with our wildlife pond in the winter. But since this pond is right near the house, if anything thaws at all, it's likely to thaw here first.

I've noticed mourning doves flying out from below the bay window in the winter, and I suspect that they're getting water the pond along the house.It also can thaw on the very shallow "beach" area at the end where the morning sun hits it. So even though we don't do anything special with this pond, it still provides some water resources when other water is scarce.


Water heater in birdbath ©Janet AllenWater heater in birdbath

We've been providing water in the winter by using this inexpensive heating coil (the aqua-colored device in the photo) designed for birdbaths. We use a plastic saucer designed for large flower pots, since a clay saucer would probably crack in the winter. We put stones in the saucer so birds will be less likely to take a bath and also so they can perch on them to reach the water.

Goldfinches ©Janet Allen Goldfinches drinking in winter
(It's not always snowy even here in Syracuse …)

Perhaps a better idea, which we'll try this next winter, is to put a non-metallic mesh grille (perhaps made of wooden dowels) over the saucer as Laura Erickson recommends in 101 Ways to Help Birds. She says birds bathing in heated birdbaths have been known "drop like stones" when their feathers freeze after leaving the water.

I've read cautions about NOT using antifreeze in the water. It seems obvious not to put toxic chemicals in water intended for drinking (I certainly wouldn't want to drink water with antifreeze in it!), but I guess some people must do it or they wouldn't have to warn against it.

Buried in snow ©Janet AllenSometimes, I have to shovel out the birdbath since it gets buried in snow

Of course, the bigger issue is whether we should be using electricity in this way at all. Birds do use this water source, but they're, of course, perfectly capable of getting water from snow.

(And I have to admit it would also be nice to not have birdbath cleaning duties in the cold winter months, since they still do need to be cleaned every week.)

One thing we should do is measure the actual amount of electricity being used by this device. We have a handy-dandy Kill-a-Watt meter that can measure this, but we haven't gotten around to it yet.

If it doesn't seem to use an inordinate amount of energy, I could balance it against the amount of energy we save by hanging our clothes on the indoor line all winter. (Although this kind of energy trade-off thinking isn't going to begin to solve global warming …)