With the onset of truly cold weather now, with snow on the ground that sticks around, water is pretty much everywhere – in solid or powdered form. That makes it hard for our furry and feathered friends to get enough to drink. In fact, in winter, birds can suffer even more from lack of water than from lack of food. Today I’m going to show you just how easy it is to help your backyard wildlife friends get the water they need,

Don’t feel guilty that this might not have occurred to you yet. I’ve provided my house sparrows and their wild friends a wonderful backyard habitat with a pond for water (the kind of space which Rewilding can help you provide and certify for wildlife), but after November, it’s frozen. It took me years to finally give them this basic need in winter.

Until one day, I had the brilliant idea of how to do so with things I had on hand, in under 5 minutes (once all objects were located). And when you read to the bottom of this post, you’ll know why this is very timely, indeed! 

DIY Heated Watering Bowl instructions

All it requires is what you see in the cover photo (as described below):

  • a pickle jar (750 mL – 1 L in size) OR, AS AN ALTERNATIVE I’ve since found superior, enough sand to fill ⅓ to ½ of the can. Both of these are to shield and redistribute the heat from the lightbulb.
  • a light socket cord, such as a utility light from the hardware store, a broken lamp (even those from IKEA), or one that you wire together yourself from a plug, a cord, and a socket
  • a 25-W lightbulb, such as one left over from an aquarium, a chandelier, or an appliance (on sub -15ºC days, you may need to swap 25-W for a 40-W bulb)
  • a restaurant-sized can that contained ketchup, tomato sauce, or canned vegetables. The size of this can falls short of 3L – I don’t know how many ounces, but usually the contents will transfer to 3 or 4 quart-sized Mason jars. AN ALTERNATIVE: an empty 1-gallon paint can
  • A dog’s bowl
  • A rock
  • An exterior extension cord to reach from the outdoor outlet to the location you want to put the water heater.

The basic principle is this: Incandescent lightbulbs shed enough heat to melt ice and snow. But we don’t want to really heat the water or waste excess electricity, so use the least wattage required – this bulb is going to be illuminated 24/7. 25 W works nicely up to -15ºC, whether it has a standard base or a chandelier base. You will put it in a can that conducts that heat to the bowl of water the can is supporting – and putting extra weight into the can and water bowl helps distribute the heat, protect the bulb, and keep the bowl sturdy for perching animals.

Because you’re working with electricity, metal, and water, and you don’t want to break the bulb or shock yourself let alone your furry and feathered pals, you need the pickle jar to put the lightbulb into, like so (alternative: put sand into the can):

A lightbulb (25W) in a jar, turned on to see if it works
Clearly I’ve had the lightbulb going a little while here, and you’ll be putting it right on the ground likely where the snow is

The jar is open upwards. You don’t want water to accumulate in there. So you take the bigger can and invert it* over the lightbulb jar:

Inverting the large metal can over the lightbulb in a jar. The lightbulb is on.
* If your bowl fits nicely over an open-topped can – and it should be at least that large – put this can right-side-up and put the lightbulb jar (or sand) right in. Put the bowl on top.

 And this is sooo exciting, because the last step is: put that dog bowl on top of the can, weight it down with a rock (bonus as birds can perch and bathe if they want to – and on warmer days, they do!), and…

The dog bowl, with a rock and water in it, on top of the heated can (lightbulb as a heat source)
The ever-ready bird/squirrel/feral-cat heated winter watering bowl!



Wash the bowl (and rock) once a week – a proper dishwashing, maybe even in the dishwasher – and replenish with fresh water when it gets low.

Please note: Do NOT put any agents into the water to keep it from freezing. By “agents” I mean NO sugar, salt, or anything else. If your lightbulb isn’t keeping the water in a liquid state, chances are you’ll have to increase the wattage to put out more heat. 40 W will likely do when the weather’s a chilly -30 ºC.  50 W, if you’re in the Far North, or Rogers Pass, Montana.

Why is this post timely?

Project FeederWatch began in mid-November, the Christmas Bird Count is happening this month (mostly about two weeks from now, depending on your area), and the Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up in February. These three events are a citizen-science project that has taken place in North America for years (almost a century for the CBC, in fact), but in 2015, the GBBC went full-fledged (pun) global!

For Project FeederWatch and the GBBC, all you have to do is watch your back yard for 15 minutes, a few times over the weekend, and send your observations to the associated websites for the projects (see Bird Studies Canada for more detail). If you put out your spiffy home-made bird watering bowl out now, you’re giving the local birds an opportunity to discover it in time to see more of them over the GBBC, and for the rest of the winter.

Each winter, I get to see house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, as well as the occasional white-throated sparrow, house finch, and downy woodpecker. I hope you get to see all these and more. A handy reference to help you identify the birds you see is here, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Happy backyard birding!

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