Once upon a time, a birdbath was a birdbath: a white cast-iron or concrete pedestal with a basic basin on top. But these days, birders and backyarders can choose from an array of watery oases. Nurseries and garden catalogs carry birdbaths as varied as the feathered friends who splash around in them.
"There's no one set style anymore," says Noelle Smith, publicist for Smith & Hawken, which has a store in Glastonbury, Conn., a catalog and a Web site. "People are choosing styles and materials that work well with their outdoor areas so the outdoor look reflects their interiors."
The Smith & Hawken Web site (smithandhawken.com) features more than a half-dozen birdbath designs - from the popular Tall Copper Birdbath to staked and suspended models.
At Gledhill Nursery in West Hartford, Conn., about 30 birdbaths are typically on display, in cast iron, cement, copper, concrete resin, glazed pottery and blasted or sculpted stone.
"There's definitely a whole range of materials," says Ken Olsen, assistant manager of Gledhill's Garden Center.
One of the newest models at Gledhill - a 24- to 30-inch granite pedestal topped with a slab of the same stone - is "the penultimate of birdbaths," Olsen says.
Many of today's models are no longer confined to pedestals. Sculpted natural rock baths at Gledhill sit on the ground in the garden or are stacked like cairns. The Hanging Blue Birdbath Feeder and the Oasis Birdbath at Smith & Hawken appear to float from tree branches, suspended by hooks and metal chains. Smith & Hawken's Staked Birdbath sits atop a slender rod.
Birds may look upon these watering holes as places to drink and cool off, but to the human eye, the elegant and sometimes playful forms amount to garden sculpture.
At Gledhill, several models in concrete resin are shaped in the manner of large tropical leaves. One in cast iron features a basket-style "handle" upon which two sculpted birds appear to rest. Smith & Hawken sells a Bird & Twig bath made of aluminum with a verdigris finish adorned by three songbird statuettes.
Although the traditional white birdbath still has its adherents, newer styles come in brilliant colors as well as copper, glazed enamel and metallic.
Prices for birdbaths range from about $35 to more than $400.
Olsen and others caution that owning a birdbath incurs certain responsibilities, as birds will come to depend on it as a source of water, especially in hot, dry weather.
Birdbaths should regularly be cleaned and refreshed. Standing water develops scum and can attract mosquitoes for breeding. Olsen recommends using the garden hose. "Just blast it out," he says. A scrub brush can also be handy.
Olsen and others say to avoid using toxic agents. "You are feeding nature," Olsen says, and chemicals in a cleanser can be passed on to the birds.
Not all birdbaths are created equal when it comes to wear and tear. Olsen has seen squirrels sharpening their teeth on metal basins, leaving nicks in copper and aluminum.
Winter weather also poses a challenge. Because water expands as it freezes, porous or fissured concrete birdbaths can develop cracks if they're left outside in the colder months.
But a birdbath that can withstand the seasons will become a garden fixture - an architectural component in a flowering garden and an attractive reminder of the blooming things at rest beneath the snow.
Deborah Hornblow writes for the Hartford Courant.