Birdman of Lauderdale and the urban great blue heron

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A great blue heron’s visit prompts discussion of watering birds.

Our neighbor, Bill, has a large yard filled with gorgeous plants, trees and shrubs. There’s a small goldfish pond in the midst of it all, next to a screen house. It’s a lovely spot to sit and reflect, do some reading, some journaling.

And, apparently, some fishing.

Bill looked out his door early one morning to see what was going on in the world and there stood a great blue heron next to the pond.

It was startled, leapt into the air and did a tight, floppy circle between the flowering crabapple and maple trees before clearing them and flying away.

Somehow the heron had spotted that six-foot oval of water from overhead and dropped in to feast on the six goldfish that lived in it. Bill hasn’t replenished the “food supply.” He figures it would be a losing battle.

Birds are attracted to water. Most books about feeding birds include a section on providing them with water in birdbaths or other water sources. Birds can usually find enough food to meet their needs, but water is sometimes another matter.

The fish pond that attracted the great blue heron wouldn’t necessarily be attractive to other, smaller birds. They prefer access to edges, shallow places, or possibly where a waterfall drops into the pond.

One water feature being used more often these days is a small stream or waterfall. A sloping area is cleared and lined with plastic and rock. Then a pump is installed to lift the water to the top of the slope.

Many people report success attracting birds to a miniature stream such as this. In fact, Mark Alt, past president of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, was entertained by an oriole family bodysurfing down the waterfall in his Brooklyn Center yard this July.

A less expensive and more common alternative is the birdbath. These are most effective if placed close to trees or shrubs so the birds can dodge out of the way of stray cats and have a place to groom their feathers. A shady location will slow the growth of algae.

Sally Roth’s “The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible” lists three important things to consider when providing water for birds: keep it shallow for the birds’ safety; provide a rough surface on the bottom for sure footing; and, if possible, make it more attractive to birds with the sight and sound of running water.

One way to provide sound, and make surface ripples that help birds spot the water, is to put a water drip over the birdbath. This can be as simple as hanging a plastic jug above the bath and poking a small hole in the side of the jug. If the hole is a bit above the bottom, it will reduce clogging from debris.

There are also water-drip devices available at wild bird stores and in catalogs. Some of these are self-circulating. Others require a hookup to your garden hose. In the latter case, you’ll need to situate the bath so it can overflow or drain into an unobtrusive place. This may work best with a bath placed on the ground.

Supplying water to birds in the winter is a challenge here in Minnesota. At our house, we’re fortunate to have an outdoor electrical outlet near where we’ve placed our birdbath, which has a heating element built into it.

There are also immersion heaters available that can be placed in birdbaths. Some designs have an electric light bulb in the stand under the bath to keep the water warm. But that may pose some hazards if water leaks down onto the bulb.

If you can’t run an electrical cord to your birdbath, you could try putting warm water into it and let the birds have a chance to use it before it begins to freeze. You’d probably have to be retired like me to have time to watch water freeze.

Birdbaths aren’t always used just for drinking or bathing. Several of my neighbors have occasionally found dead baby birds, or parts thereof, in their bird baths. I think the culprits are usually crows.

Some birds wade into water, soak their chest feathers, and then fly back to the nest and let the babies slurp it off. But crows apparently don’t do that. They soak their food in water and bring back a soppy mixture of food and water to their fledglings.

So that’s one unexpected, perhaps undesirable, side effect of having a bird bath — dead baby birds and body parts soaking, especially in spring and early summer, when crow babies are being fed.

My neighbor Bill said that earlier this spring he had noticed a school of perhaps a hundred goldfish in Walsh Lake, in the northeast corner of Lauderdale. He saw them from time to time on his walks around the village.

Then suddenly they were gone. I’ll bet that same great blue heron polished off a bunch of them either before or after visiting Bill’s pond for an appetizer, or maybe for dessert.