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A warm bath


Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

A  new arrival to the Farrar Pond area some decades past queried local conservation experts on the best ways to encourage mammalian and avian wildlife on land intended to become a nature preserve. The obvious answer—put out food—was only third on the resulting list of suggestions. Second was to create habitat for feeding, breeding, and protection from weather and predators. This led to a landscape plan focusing on edges rather than broad areas of uniform texture, and the construction and maintenance of brush-piles in several configurations. And these measures proved effective in supporting populations of both transients and permanent residents.
The main recommendation, however, was to provide water. This is a naturally wet environment: so much so that where in much of the US the natural life of large trees is limited by wildfire, here it is mainly blowdowns, followed often by quick decay. But between percolation and runoff, all that rainfall tends not to persist in forms locally available to our various creatures. Strolling a few hundred yards for a drink is slightly inconvenient for a deer or coyote, a serious burden for a rabbit, impossible for a mole. Birds are more mobile, but still pay in exposure and in energy, more so if a significant elevation change is required. So placing some kind of water source every hundred feet or so can yield rapid dividends in visible wildlife. The only needed maintenance is replenishment every ten days or so in warm weather, to prevent the hatching of mosquito larvae. (A small pond with tadpoles, fish or dragonfly larvae—three predatory categories to a degree mutually exclusive—will take care of itself.) Absent strong sun and wind, monthly precipitation close to 4″ year-round obviates the need for frequent filling.
The two examples above show a valued attribute: a way of providing accessible shelter and/or limited access to evade raptor attacks. The dish immediately above rests on a recently coppiced maple; fast re-sprouting will soon make a protective thicket. (Don’t try this on an oak or pine…)
And water serves purposes beyond quenching thirst. The “bath” aspect gets plenty of use year-round, more so in warmer weather. In this sequence a robin deep-cleans his coat,
afterward flying to a sunnier and breezier perch to dry and preen.
A reliable spectacle, especially when multiple species perch at or near the water to await turns at the splash party. Unfortunately, the most aesthetic earthenware dishes are rarely the most robust; most inexpensive glazed pottery is neither high-enough fired nor free enough of recurved surfaces to survive more than a few winters’ freeze/thaw action:
Solid granite in thick-walled forms is more robust, if a bit weighty:

ware tada taru wo shiru

Plastic, if less attractive, lasts much longer (and costs much less). But before hairline cracks break apart completely, leaky dishes still serve as both playgrounds
and tray feeders for wildlife:
This is a dry time of year. Even a week from the vernal equinox, Farrar Pond remains frozen hard enough for walking, and most pond-edge surface water runs are hidden below the ice. The only open water is near the dam or the main stream entrances. And erstwhile bird baths look like this:
–Interesting as mutable sculpture,
especially when they grow ice spikes,
but either uninteresting to or frustrating for thirsty wildlife habituated to finding refreshment at these places.
In summer, even a brief lapse or statistical variation in that 4″ monthly average can leave puddles, rock hollows and other features natural and man-made entirely dry, with only sparser ponds and streams as persistent water. In winter, even an extended drought usually leaves some snow available in north-facing gullies and hollows. But as Mary Holland observes in her excellent daily nature column, snow is very much a last resort for thirsty critters. Consider: surface snow, even on a warm day, cannot be above 0°C. A typical bird or small mammal wants to maintain its core at about 40°C. Warming a single gram of water from 0 to 40°C requires 40 calories; warming ice from any lower temperature up to freezing requires about an additional ½ calorie per °C. An even bigger issue is the exceptional latent heat of fusion of ice, nearly 80 calories per gram just to melt without warming it at all. While these “gram calories” are 1000 times smaller than the “kilogram calories” used in our own diet planning, a sparrow or chipmunk is about 1000 times smaller than a human; a bird or small mammal pays a real price in added foraging or lost body fat to “drink” snow or ice.
The solution? If we want to distort nature by helping creatures whose livelihoods we have in most other ways disrupted, one easy way is to provide unfrozen water in winter. All it takes is a readily available heater, properly connected to a GFCI-protected outlet.
A stone holds the heater in place, keeps birds and animals from singeing toes and noses, and provides a warm perch especially favored by mourning doves.
As well as avians of all sorts,
a full range of animals—from mice and voles to fox, deer and coyote—will brave a close approach to human habitation when they see or smell water (or perhaps the tracks, scents and bodies of other seekers). And they sometimes leave souvenirs of far travels, like these colorful but ill-omened Celastrus orbiculatus seeds, many more of which are no doubt being cast about into mischief:
In addition to prudent and mandated electrical safety, a consideration for bath-warmers is that most were designed for large animal husbandry, and are seriously over-powered for a small dish. The result is excessively rapid evaporation; in windy conditions, one can dry up completely in just a day. Reducing power avoids wasted energy for both people and planet. There are many ways to do this, easiest perhaps being a fan/motor speed controller or lamp dimmer of the plug-in or hard-wired type; one of these may pay for itself in a single winter.
If the bath is successful in attracting customers for both bathing and drinking, it will still empty quickly. One way to deal with replenishment, refreshment and removal of mosquito larvae is to use roof water, shortening an existing downspout and guiding the flow directly or by guiding part of it along a “rain chain” or simple string. Or for Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson aficionados with an odd corner to fill, more complex arrangements are possible. This one, with a frost-proof guardian frog and backsplatter shield,
offers fresh water year-round to all and a higher-level bath for birds in fair weather. Since the supplying roof has snow cover for much of the winter, some of which melts off each warm and sunny day,
only infrequent topping-up is required to maintain a supply of clean water for all comers.

Snow Man


The Snow Man

 by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.