Water for Wildlife:
Ponds, Amphibian Pools & More!

Water is a critical feature of wildlife habitats.  To provide water for wildlife, you could create or enhance a wetland or pond, or do something as simple as providing dripping water for birds or a saucer for a toad to take a relaxing soak.  Check out the projects below, and be sure to visit our More Habitat Project How-To’s page for excellent state-specific resources featuring instructions on this type of project and many more!

Mosquito Deterrents!

Mosquitoes can breed in any water that stagnates for just two or three days, but a properly maintained water source will not provide suitable mosquito habitat.  Follow these tips:

  • Keep it clean:  Regularly change the water in birdbaths and miniature pools (like saucers for amphibians to soak in).
  • Keep it moving:  Bubblers or fountains can be either solar or electric-sourced and will eliminate mosquitoes by keeping water from becoming stagnant.
  • Avoid pesticides and mosquito spraying:  These are often highly toxic to honeybees, fish, and small aquatic organisms. See: Integrated Pest Management
  • Add “mosquito dunks” or “mosquito bits”: These can be purchased at most local home supply & hardware stores, garden centers and online. They consist of Bacillis thuringensis (Bti), a bacterium that is toxic to mosquitoes but is safe for wildlife and people. Sprinkle the bits or float mosquito dunks in standing water, such as a birdbath.
  • Add fish: Fish will eat mosquito larvae in your container pond. Just be careful not to add store-bought fish to natural waterways, as some may be invasive.
  • More Tips on Controlling Mosquitoes without Killing Pollinators

Birdbaths

A simple birdbath is a low-cost, low-maintenance solution for providing clean water. Here are some things to consider when making or choosing a birdbath:

  • Make your own:  Place large plant saucers or ceramic bowls on tree stumps, logs or on large plant pots (filled with soil for more stability). For added fun, have students paint the pots (non-toxic outdoor acrylic).
  • Make your bath accessible to small birds: To entice small birds to jump in, a bath should be no more than 3-inches deep with a gentle sloping incline.
  • Provide cover:  Whether you place them on bases or directly on the ground, select locations where birds can have easy access to fly to cover in order to avoid cats and other predators. Ideally place it on a 3’ pedestal approximately 15’ from shrubs and trees.
  • Provide food:  Having a readily accessible source of food nearby increases you chances of attracting birds. Learn more on our Gardening for Wildlife page.
  • Provide footing: To allow birds to get a foothold while bathing, the interior surface should be textured. If you have a container that is a little too deep and too slippery, line the bottom with gravel or stones.
  • Dripping action: Purchase a drip attachment for a slow, steady dripping action, which is very attractive to birds. Alternately, make your own, such as filling a gallon milk jug or 2-L soda bottle with water, drilling a small hole in the cap and suspending it upside down above the birdbath to drip.
  • Keep your birdbath ice-free in winter: Year-round access to water is important, so provide fresh water in winter too, especially in places where precipitation is locked in snow or ice. You can rotate birdbaths, moving one inside and placing another water-filled birdbath outside while the ice melts in the first. You can also use an electric birdbath heater (some shut off automatically during the higher day temperatures).
  • Clean bird baths in warm weather:  Provide a consistent supply of water, especially on hot days. Clean birdbaths regularly in summer to keep the water fresh and healthy for birds and to avoid providing mosquito-breeding habitat. Scrub out any bird droppings and algae, clean it with a mild soap once a week and add fresh water.
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Birdbath Tips
  • Wildlife Projects: Birds

Butterfly Puddling Spots

Most butterflies feed only on nectar from flowers, but they need water for hydration and other nutrients, like salts and minerals, that nectar can’t provide. Landing on or close to a body of water is risky, so butterflies usually land on a patch of muddy or sandy ground, a “puddling area,” and drink the water there.

  • Choose a Location: Locate your puddling area near butterfly plants in your garden.  If possible, place it somewhere convenient for observation as well.
  • Choose a Container: Use a shallow container to contain the puddling area, such as a terra cottta plant pot saucer or low, shallow birdbath set directly on the ground.
  • Provide Landing Spots: Fill your container with dirt or sand. If you use dirt, avoid potting soils with fertilizers or other additives – butterflies can be sensitive to chemicals.  You can also place some flat rocks in the container.
  • Keep It Damp: Without rainfall, the puddling area will likely dry out in the sun each day. Fill it with water until the surface is wet.
  • Be Patient: It might take awhile for butterflies to discover it, but they should come around eventually!

Container Ponds

A container pond is simply a small above-ground pond that provides a permanent water source for wildlife. Learn how to create one:

Ponds

Freshwater ponds can be an exciting addition to any yard or schoolyard. In addition to providing a ready water source and valuable habitat for a variety of plants and animals, ponds provide many opportunities for a variety of engaging educational activities and investigations. Considering installing a pond? There are infinite variations, but a well-designed one can make all the difference. Constructed ponds can be surrounded with native vegetation for a natural look, while floating plants and submerged aquatic plants will improve water clarity. You will need to filter water with a pump, preferably through a plant-based bio filtration system, in order to keep the water clean. If possible, provide a shallow area at one edge for smaller birds to bathe and drink, and avoid mowing to the edge of the water. Tall vegetation, will encourage birds to nest and rest there, and provide cover for other critters. Allowing vegetation to grow around your pond also reduces erosion and helps filter pollutants out of the surface water before it can reach your pond. Learn to build one:

Rain Gardens

Designed to capture and absorb rainfall, rain gardens can also provide valuable plant and wildlife habitat. A rain garden works like a sponge, collecting stormwater runoff that would otherwise flow to the street or storm drain, or create a soggy area in a lawn, and allowing it to slowly percolate into the ground. Researchers have found that rain gardens collect about 30% more water than conventional lawns. When filled with native plants, they can also act as magnets for birds, butterflies and bees! Learn how to build one:

Stormwater Ponds

Many schools and communities have stormwater management ponds. In many cases, these can be maintained and enhanced (e.g., adding native plants) to support wildlife.

Toad Mini-Pools

A garden will be most appealing to toads if you put a “mini-pool” near a toad abode: a terra-cotta saucer, a birdbath without a stand or even a garbage can lid. Choose a shady location, nestle the container in the dirt and fill it with water. A daily spray with the hose keeps the pond fresh; scrub with a wire brush if algae builds up.

Vernal Pools

Vernal pools are natural depressions in the landscape filled with rainwater or snowmelt, and not connected to any other water source. These seasonal bodies of water show up in the spring (vernal is derived from the Latin word for spring) and disappear by summer. While they are only around for a short period of time, they play a critical role in the ecosystem by sheltering species, including declining amphibians. Vernal pools are important because they offer wildlife, such as salamanders, frogs and other amphibians a place to lay their eggs where they won’t be eaten by fish. Sadly, many vernal pools have been lost to development and drought. Learn more about creating and preserving vernal pools:

  • Locate wet areas: Usually a low position in the terrain and impermeable soil types like silty loam or clay will help collect and hold water during rainy seasons. Sand and gravel soils, or construction fill, will drain too quickly, putting the inhabitants at risk. To test, dig a hole at the site, 2- to3-feet deep and bring up a soil sample. The more you can squeeze and shape the soil without it crumbling apart, the more clay it has, and the more likely it will hold water, especially if the soil base is compacted during construction.  See: Soil Texture Chart
  • Retain cover: Topsoil, leaf litter, and any sticks, logs or rocks should be carefully set aside and saved to be reapplied later. This debris already has a large part of the biota needed to re-establish the fungal and microscopic communities necessary for vernal pool success.
  • Contours: Curvy edges and a variety of depths applied to each pool will add light and temperature differences to create unique habitats and increase species diversity. Also, a variety of shapes and depths available across the landscape is ideal as a set of small wetlands can host more species than a single large wetland.
  • Return vegetation cover: Saved topsoil, sticks, rocks, and native leaf litter should be applied to the newly constructed edges. To prevent invasive plants from colonizing, native plants should be added immediately to stabilize soil, attract wildlife, and provide shade and cover. Larger pools could have logs and other woody debris partially submerged, providing cover, perches, and egg attachment sites.
  • Ensure longevity: The most important thing to remember is that vernal pools are inhabited seasonally and those inhabitants need a high-quality surrounding environment to spend most of their adult life. Constructed wetlands can also fail if they do not hold water long enough to establish vegetation or allow full stage development of its inhabitants. A failed vernal pool can be an ecological trap if it attracts breeding adults but does not contain all the elements to support multi-stage lifecycles, so monitoring is helpful.
  • Designate a No Disturbance Zone: Create a natural buffer to protect the vernal pool and maintain the habitat and food supply for its residents. A minimum 100-foot no-disturbance zone is recommended for good quality pools
  • Amazing Animals That Use Vernal Pools: Habitat Network
  • Frog Projects
  • More Habitat Project How-To’s: State-Specific Project Resources

Wetlands

Wetlands perform a critical role providing wildlife habitat and absorbing stormwater runoff. A schoolyard wetland can also be a fascinating outdoor laboratory! Learn how to plan a project to create, restore or enhance a wetland project on school grounds: