Last Updated on August 12, 2021 by Nancie
Thinking about making a DIY heated birdbath? It’s understandable. A really good heated birdbath can be expensive. A DIY birdbath is usually much less expensive.
In This Post:
Why a DIY Birdbath?
I looked at birdbaths when they were on sale in the fall at my local bird store, but just couldn’t spring for one. As well as the price of a good one, I had a few other concerns. One was that I wasn’t happy with the design of most commercial birdbaths. They often have an old-fashioned Victorian look that doesn’t fit my yard, although here were a couple four-legged birdbaths with a more Asian style that I liked.
But I also worried that the concrete would crack with freeze and thaw cycles during the winter. (The concrete birdbaths had tags suggesting that you bring them inside when the weather gets cold.)
(2020 Note: I now use a combination of DIY and purchased birdbaths. See links at the bottom for more on which purchased ones I use.)
Terracotta Pots or Plastic Saucers?
In my early bird watching years, during warmer months, I used a shallow terracotta pot saucer on the ground near thin bush cover. The birds loved it. I also put a deeper terracotta pot on the front porch that Carolina Chickadees became quite fond of.
But I figured a terracotta container full of freezing and thawing water would crack over the winter. I wanted something else.
So I thought about it and decided to improvise. I went to the local home improvement store (Lowes) and purchased two very large plastic pot saucers. These are deeper than the original shallow terracotta saucer and so were initially less popular.
At first I tried putting one saucer up on a cinder block, but found that being up off the ground, it got icy quicker. And putting them on the ground let me easily put branches over and near them. This was helpful in making them more accessible. It provided perches to wait for their turn at the water. But when both the shallower terracotta saucer and the larger plastic saucer were available side by side, most birds picked the terracotta one.
Options When Birdbaths Freeze
Once it got cold enough for water to freeze at night, I brought the terracotta in for the winter. Each morning I went out to crack and remove ice from the plastic saucers and add to or replace fresh warm water. This was fine on days that got warm enough for the water to stay unfrozen but not when temperatures stayed in the teens or twenties. And frankly, it was a pain (and cold!) to do every morning.
I solved my dilemma with two strategies: a heated pet water bowl for the front of the house and a birdbath de-icer for one of the large plastic saucers in the backyard.
Heated Pet Water Bowl as Birdbath
I used heated pet water bowls for several years. The first was purchased from a local pet store to sit on my back step, while the second was purchased later from Amazon to put on a little table on my front porch (K&H Manufacturing Thermal-Bowl Blue 96 Oz. (It can be hit or miss finding them locally.)
This second bowl was ignored by the birds very consistently until the weather got cold enough for the remaining plastic saucer birdbath out front to stay frozen. Then this heated bowl got to be a popular bird gathering place.
These bowls are too deep for most birds to bathe in except for a flock of American Robins one winter. But they are fine for even the littlest birds like American Goldfinches to sit on the edge and get a drink.
The trick with deep bowls like these is to fill them very close to the top. If the bowl gets too empty, little birds have to tip forward and be almost standing on their heads to drink. I’ve heard of someone who put a rock in this type of bowl to make it more shallow. I haven’t tried that and am not sure if this would cause any problems with the way the bowl works, but it might be worth trying.
These pet water bowls are very inexpensive. They do have wire wrapped around the cords to protect them and the cord is fairly long. They are not thermostatically controlled though, so you need to be very careful to unplug them when the weather is warm and not let them become empty.
My second DIY birdbath strategy is a bit more elegant. This time I purchased a birdbath de-icer. This cool little gadget sits in the bottom of any birdbath to turn it into a heated birdbath. You can even use it in a plastic birdbath, so I got one for my backyard plastic saucer. Because this birdbath is shallower, birds can both drink and bathe in it. (It’s always a little amazing watching birds take a bath on a cold day. Brrrrr!)
I purchased the Allied Precision BDT250 Bird Bath De Icer from Amazon. It has a ten-foot cord. Because my saucer was out in the yard, I needed to purchase an additional Master Electrician 20-Foot 16/3 Vinyl Landscape Outdoor Extension Cord and Hot Headz Extension Cord Safety Seal Water Resistant Cord Cover for where the de-icer cord and the extension cord come together.
The de-icer is thermostatically controlled so you don’t have to worry about outside temps or water temps. Still, once the weather warms up in the spring, I’ll bring it in to store until next winter.
GFCI For Birdbath Safety
With either of these solutions, you need an outdoor electrical outlet with a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter.) This is a safety feature that will trip the outlet off if the de-icer or heated bowl overheat/burn out, something that is not uncommon with these products over time. If you don’t already have this, you might need an electrician to set that up for you.
Do DIY Heated Birdbaths Work?
So how do they work? Very well (with some caveats). Here on the east coast one year, we had an actual blizzard and got about 30” of snow. Both DIY heated birdbaths stayed clear of ice. The snow built up around them kind of like the cone of a volcano, so I did need to clear away snow to provide easier access.
They’ve been popular on cold days when most outdoor water sources are frozen. With my DIY heated birdbaths, I’ve had a few visitors who don’t come to bird feeders. For example, during the blizzard I had an American Robin and a Mockingbird come to the birdbath.
A few caveats: My heated pet bowls lasted for a number of years. The birdbath de-icers tend to burn out after about two years of winter use, so factor that into the cost. (Again, be sure to use a GFCI.)
Birdbaths on the ground are also less protected from cats lurking around the birdbath. And they tend to collect leaves more quickly and so may need to be cleaned more often.
DIY Heated Birdbath Maintenance
Having a heated birdbath does not eliminate all winter chores. Birdbaths that get used get dirty quickly. And it is especially important to keep water in heated birdbaths and not let them go dry. So you still need to go out every day and check the water.
I top my heated birdbaths off with warm water every day. And I dump the water and use a birdbath brush to clean them about every other day as needed and then re-fill them. It’s still much better than having to crack and remove ice every day and it makes the birds quite happy.
Using Both DIY and Commercial Heated Birdbaths
2020: I still use one DIY birdbath but I’ve also added a commercial birdbath, the Studio-M Birdbath Artpole which is my new favorite, as well as a porch mounted birdbath with an optional heated bowl and a simple inexpensive unheated birdbath. I currently use the de-icer in the Studio-M birdbath during the winter. I’m really liking it. Being off the ground keeps cats away and the stainless steel bowl is very easy to clean.
More Posts on Birdbaths
Taking Care of Summer Birdbaths
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