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Nature

Good Natured in St. Charles: Hot idea for the birds – takes cool planning to execute

Open water can be hard to find in winter, yet local wildlife depends on it for survival. A heated birdbath, once properly installed, can be just the ticket.
Open water can be hard to find in winter, yet local wildlife depends on it for survival. A heated birdbath, once properly installed, can be just the ticket.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

For years, I’ve touted the benefits of winter water sources for wildlife. And while we’ve got plenty at various locations throughout the St. Charles Park District, I personally had none.

But that changed – make that started to change – in December 2016. That’s when I purchased for myself, as well as all the neighborhood birds, squirrels and other thirsty critters, the ultimate gift for wintertime nature lovers: a heated birdbath. Merry Christmas to us!

The only problem was that the best part of the gift – the heat – required electricity. And my vintage 1970s house, groovy as it is, had no outdoor receptacles.

Undeterred, I mounted the unit on my deck railing. As I attached the bolts and nuts, I made a vow to install an outlet the next spring, and resolved that, in the meantime, I’d get up early every morning, heat a kettle of water, de-ice the birdbath, refill and repeat daily until warm weather returned.

It was a great plan all right. For about a day. After that, the birdbath sat there on the deck rail, frozen over and, I swear, taunting me, until about April.

But each day from then until November, I’d use an old toothbrush to cleanse the interior of the bath before rinsing and refilling with cool, refreshing and life-giving water.

But the outdoor outlet? Didn’t happen.

Winter of 2017-18 came and went with its attendant icing over and taunting, and spring-summer-fall brought more daily rinses and refills. November rolled around again and, at long last, the day came when I decided Jack Frost would not ruin another season of bird bathing.

Armed with a Menards gift card and a rudimentary knowledge of household wiring, I tackled the power problem head-on. I bought an outdoor light fixture with two – count ’em, two – GFCI outlets. Happy Black Friday to us.

Since I already had a light on my deck, installation of the new fixture was pretty straightforward. I shut off every circuit that could possibly serve that side of the house, then connected black wire to black, white to white and ground to ground. No sparks flew, no hairs were singed. And, most important (once I remembered to flip the switch), there was light!

I plugged in the birdbath using a new, all-weather extension cord, filled the basin with water and spent the rest of the evening congratulating myself on getting the project finished before the blizzard that had been added to the forecast began.

The next couple of weeks went something like this: day one, no birds. Night one, blizzard, complete with heavy snow, wind and a tree falling across the backyard. Day two, no birds, but steam rising tantalizingly from the bath. Day three, water level down due to evaporation; still no birds. Days four through 18, birds all over the yard, but not a single one at the bath. Doggone it!

At that point, I decided to go outside and take a bird’s-eye view of the situation. After a little inspection and introspection, I came up with a hypothesis on why my birdbath was a nonstarter.

When the tree fell down, it left more than just debris on the ground and a branch poking through my bedroom wall. (A branch that, by the way, makes a dandy hat hook. But that’s a story for another time.)

The cover provided by the tree, even though it was dead, gave visiting wildlife a sense of security. Its spreading limbs provided a distraction for raptors sailing overhead, and made it less likely they would notice the birdbath and its occupants. Birds approaching the bath could perch and size up their landing strategy without fear of attack. And, should a Cooper’s hawk or other bird of prey come calling, the tree and its camouflage were only a hop, skip or jump away.

I took stock of what lay around the backyard. The trunk of the tree at 15 feet long and 1,000 pounds wasn’t going anywhere. But two 15-foot branches had possibilities. I broke through the ice pinning them and dragged them to the deck.

A couple of failed engineering attempts later (and, by the way, hats off to beavers for what they can accomplish with similar materials), I finally succeeded in piling the branches in a way that delivers just what the critters were looking for: shelter, protection and safety.

I came home from work the next night to find the birdbath nearly empty. Even better, there were telltale signs that the water didn’t just evaporate. The birds that had visited during the day had kindly left various calling cards, including a small gray feather and the cutest little dot of bird doo I ever did see.

Maybe, just maybe, that heated birdbath was a good idea after all.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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