Birds live in a diverse range of habitats, from arid deserts to sparse, icy tundra, many of which lack natural water sources, such as rivers, pools and lakes. Although some species take the majority of their hydration needs from their diet, most birds do need to drink each day to stay hydrated.
Do birds drink water, and if so, where and how do they find reliable, clean water sources? Read on as we find out how often birds need to drink, and whether any birds can survive without water.
Birds rely on regular access to clean, fresh water in order to stay hydrated. Although some of this moisture is taken from food, such as insects or plant roots, most birds do drink water from puddles, birdbaths, ponds, lakes and streams, and other naturally occurring water sources.
A bird’s water requirements vary from species to species, and their natural habitat plays a significant role in how and where they look for water sources. Larger birds can survive for longer periods without drinking, while smaller species, such as robins and sparrows need to regularly hydrate themselves to remain in good health.
Raptors tend not to drink, instead gaining sufficient moisture from the meaty carcasses of the prey they hunt or scavenge. Many desert-dwelling birds do not rely on traditional water sources for hydration, with their water intake coming instead from plants or insects.
Continue reading as we take a look at the drinking habits and preferences of birds, and how to safely supply water in your backyard to offer a source of hydration to visiting birds.
Close up of a pine siskin drinking water
Most bird species drink by dipping their bills into a water source, and then tipping their heads backwards to swallow.
Aerial birds, such as swallows and house martins, swoop down and take tiny sips of water from the surfaces of lakes and rivers, barely pausing for a second. Swifts typically drink in flight, taking moisture from raindrops in the air.
An exception are pigeons and doves, which have specially adapted “piston tongues” which act in a similar way to drinking straws. By putting their whole beaks in a pool, puddle or water dish, their tongues suck up the liquid without the need to tip their heads backwards to move the water towards their gullets.
Female House Sparrow tipping head back to swallow water
Barn Swallow flying down to take a drink of water
Thirsty birds will opportunistically seek out even the tiniest droplets of water to satisfy their need to drink, taking advantage of raindrops that have fallen on leaves, puddles, water that has collected in backyard water butts or watering cans, and even moisture on blades of grass from early morning dew.
Larger natural water sources include ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and reservoirs. Birds are attracted to running water, so garden ponds with fountains or water features may draw thirsty visitors. Birdbaths and other human-provided water sources are vital to urban birds.
Many seabirds, such as gulls and albatrosses, which spend extended periods of time far from land with no access to fresh water, have adapted salt glands which allow them to safely drink salty sea water to meet their hydration needs.
Seagull drinking water from the sea
All birds need to stay hydrated and many will seek out spots with access to fresh water wherever they can. Many birds gain a substantial amount of their hydration needs from their food intake, through roots or fleshy parts of plants, or through insects, invertebrates or larger prey, such as mammals, fish, or other birds.
Raptors usually get sufficient water from prey they hunt, and tend to drink less water from natural water sources, like ponds, rivers and streams. However, this doesn't mean they won't sometimes utilise these water sources.
The natural diet of seed-eating birds lacks water content, so their need to find additional hydration sources is greater than insectivorous birds.
Hummingbirds, honeybirds, and wattlebirds drink nectar from plants, and sweet-toothed Baltimore orioles and woodpeckers may often be seen visiting backyard hummingbird feeders for a taste of sugar water.
Hummingbirds usually get enough hydration from drinking nectar from plants
The amount of water needed each day varies from species to species. Larger birds have greater demands, with emus drinking 9 to 18 liters (2.5 to 5 gallons) each day, if they can. At the other end of the scale, smaller birds, such as finches, need far less, requiring as little as 15 ml (0.5 oz) water on a daily basis.
Although birds get a lot of moisture through their food, they do need to drink a couple of times a day to remain well hydrated. Birds do not sweat, so do not lose moisture in the same way as mammals do, but do still need to replace water lost through respiration and through their droppings.
Eurasian Blue Jay having a drink of water
Birds instinctively look to replace moisture lost through exertion, droppings, and respiration, and particularly on hot summer days, can be observed to pay frequent visits to backyard water sources provided by humans for a quick drink.
Research shows that offering water in a backyard can be more effective in attracting birds than food, particularly when a water feature with moving water is added.
Female mallard ducking taking a drink of water on a hot day
For most birds, the danger of dehydration is a very real issue, and the health of smaller birds can decline rapidly if fresh water is not readily available and they are unable to drink at least once or twice a day.
Birds whose natural habitats are in arid deserts or areas with infrequent rainfall are well adapted to survive for longer periods without water. Ostriches and emus are two examples; ostriches can survive without water for 2 weeks or more, and get a large percentage of their water intake from food.
Male emus can survive even longer through necessity, as they have sole responsibility for incubation duties and do not leave the nest site for two months while waiting for the eggs to hatch.
Emu taking a drink from a water hole
A shallow bowl or birdbath is an ideal source of water for backyard birds. The container should be placed out of direct sunlight, but with a clear view, so pet cats don’t take advantage and pounce on birds who have stopped to quickly quench their thirst. Raising the container off the ground on a pedestal may offer additional security against threats from predators.
Drinking water should be replaced daily and the container cleaned regularly to avoid the spread of disease from the build-up of algae, dead leaves and birds’ droppings. Diluted household cleaning products can be used to clean any containers that garden birds may drink or feed from. Toxic chemicals should be avoided.
In winter, care should be taken to ensure that water sources do not freeze and fresh drinking water continues to be readily available. Water can be poured onto a frozen birdbath to melt any ice that may have formed.
Greenfinch drinking water from a bowl
Birds drink water whenever they can find it, and in winter this may be in the form of puddles formed by rain or melted snow or ice. They may also find water droplets on leaves after rainfall, or moisture from early morning dew on lawns and plants.
In summer, birds may rely on natural water sources, such as pools, ponds, lakes and rivers to stay hydrated. Water from natural sources such as droplets on plants, after rain or morning dew, are a welcome source of moisture on warm days. Human-provided water sources are vital for many urban birds in the height of summer when a natural supply of fresh water may be harder to find.
Tap water is safe for wild birds, as is filtered water and spring water, so it is fine to top up your backyard birdbath or garden water bowls from your domestic water supply.
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