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  • Ernie Cowan

Fountains: A Big Attraction

Ernie Cowan

Outdoor columnist and photographer

This article was originally published in the San Diego Union Tribune on May 31, 2020.

Roses & You, July 2020

The sound of the gently gurgling water was almost hypnotic.

To be honest, I had drifted off to sleep until being rudely awakened by the chattering and splashing of a very animated hooded oriole who decided it was time for his morning bath.

As I sat quietly on my patio enjoying the activity, other birds began to arrive. Within a few minutes a dove had come to drink, a spotted towhee, lesser goldfinch, a couple of hummingbirds, a scrub jay and a very animated rufous-crowned sparrow had also splashed about in the fountain.

I’ve said this before but can’t say it enough. Adding a water feature of some kind to your garden will have a huge impact on attracting more birds, not to mention other kinds of wildlife.

A fountain can be something as simple as a shallow saucer with fresh water added daily, or you can spare no expense with an elaborate commercial installation. In between, the handy do-it-yourself birder can make their own bird bath that is both inexpensive and decorative and only limited by your skill and imagination.

Building your own fountain can also be a fun family activity that will teach youngsters many skills, in addition to providing ongoing joy of watching the attracted wildlife.

I have four fountains on my property. One is a large, three-tiered concrete commercial fountain, and the others I made myself using inexpensive items found in any garden center.

Near the seed feeders I keep a simple clay saucer on the ground. These are the saucers that are normally put under a larger planter pot. This is most popular with quail, towhees, dove and other species that prefer feeding on the ground.

The tray saucer is a stationary water source and will evaporate or foul quickly, so make sure you put in fresh water daily, especially during hot weather.

While any water will attract wildlife, moving water is far more enticing.


The large, commercial fountain is our garden centerpiece and attracts just about everything, including most of our bird visitors, coyotes, frogs, racoons, dragonflies and butterflies.

But the smaller, homemade fountains also see lots of action. One is on our patio outside the kitchen window, and the other in the garden under a bedroom window. Each of those hold about five gallons of water, so they do not require being refilled very often.

We have seen everything from dozens of bird species to a kingsnake, roadrunner and a coyote who showed up to drink in the dead of night.

The concept of a bird fountain is simple. A container to hold water, a small aquarium pump to circulate water, and a shallow basin where water will flow and provide wildlife with a place to drink and bathe.

Garden centers offer a variety of planter pots. I have used clay, but those are difficult to work with, especially if you have to drill holes.

Plastic pots come in various sizes and colors and there are matching saucers in various sizes to place on top for the bathing basin. Look for pots without a hole in the bottom.

You will need to use a hole cutter to drill about a 1 3/4- to 2-inch hole in the center of the saucer. Then secure a piece of plastic pipe about four inches long, using waterproof glue. The pipe should extend about an inch or so above the bottom on the saucer, but not above the rim. This will determine the depth of the water.


The submersible pump will go into the bottom of the large pot. You can notch the rim of the pot for the electrical cord.

Attach clear tubing to the pump and run it up through the pipe. Secure it to the pipe with glue or ties. Water will then be pumped up into the saucer, then drain back into the pot.

Nozzle kits are available to attach to the plastic hose that will provide spray patterns, or you can simply let the water run from the tube and cover the outlet with rocks. The rocks will create a spray pattern and gives birds a place to perch when drinking.

All of the fountains I made are a single basin, but with a little creativity, you can add layers, creating cascades that will increase the sound of running water and provide additional drinking and bathing opportunities for birds.

It’s also a good idea to consider some type of anti-algae tablets to keep the water clean.

Homemade garden fountains can save you money and the soothing sounds can provide hours of pleasure, not to mention the joy of seeing animal visitors up close.

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