Water Habitat for Backyard Wildlife

Lily Pond

Urban Wildlife Program

Water for Wildlife

This page last updated: 3/30/99

Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries
Urban Wildlife Program Series: Water for Wildlife

Creating backyard wildlife habitat is becoming more and more popular. Landscaping with native species and providing feeders for birds can go a long way to attracting wildlife to your yard, but there is another vital habitat component that is all too often left out of the plans. That is providing a source of clean, fresh water. Providing water can help your backyard habitat reach its maximum potential, and it is very easy to do.


There are basically two ways to provide water. One is to install a birdbath. This can be an elaborate, decorative fountain that might serve as the centerpiece of your backyard habitat, or it could be as simple as allowing a hose to drip into a shallow container such as a clay saucer, or any other form of birdbath that falls between these extremes. Birdbaths provide clean, fresh, water, not only to bathe in, but also to drink.

For a birdbath to be effective, it must meet a few requirements. The most important of these is placement. Birds like to feel safe when bathing, so selecting the proper location is important. The bath should be located near some form of escape cover such as a tree. It should not be placed too close to thick cover where a predator may hide and ambush the birds. Domestic cats are serious predators of birds in residential areas. Place the bath away from areas where cats may hide and attack the birds. It is also important not to place the bath too far out in the open, where the birds have no escape cover. When selecting a location, pick one that you will be able to easily view.

Bird Bath There are a few other requirements for birdbaths that need to be mentioned. The water should not be any deeper than one and a half to two inches deep. The surface of the bath should be somewhat rough or textured. Birds do not like smooth or slippery surfaces. The water should be changed every two to three days, and the bath cleaned as needed. Changing the water will help eliminate mosquito problems, and scrubbing with a stiff brush will remove any algae that forms. Never use chemicals such as algicides or pesticides in the bath.

Birds are attracted to the sounds of running or dripping water, so if you could incorporate a fountain of some sort, you may attract even more birds. Birds will also use a fine spray or mist to bathe in as sort of a bird "shower."


The second method of providing water is to put in a pond. Ponds do not have to be large to be attractive to wildlife. A pond as small as two square feet can be effective at attracting certain forms of wildlife, but a pond of about 50 square feet is recommended. Adding a pond to your yard will create an entire mini-ecosystem that can support a wide variety of aquatic plants, aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures, as well as attract birds and other small animals.

Choosing the proper location for your pond is important. It is recommended that the pond receive at least five hours of sunlight daily. Aquatic plants need this much light to grow well. This will also help with any flowering plants that you may plant around the pond. Ponds placed in shady areas tend collect leaves which will lower oxygen levels as they decay.

Just as with the birdbaths, ponds can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. A half of a whiskey barrel filled with water and a few plants can be effective, or you can build a large concrete structure with pumps and a fountain if you like. Most backyard ponds fall somewhere in between. Deciding what type of pond you want is one of the first decisions you will have to make. If your yard has a clay soil that will hold water, you can dig the pond any shape you want and fill it with water. If the soil in your yard will not hold water, flexible plastic liners are available that allow you to shape the pond as you wish, and the liner will hold the water. Pre-formed plastic and fiberglass ponds are available that only require a hold dug to fit the mold. Choosing a type that you feel you will enjoy most is important.

Small Pond with Waterfall INSTALLING A POND

Now that you have decided on a location and a type of pond, it is time to put it in place. If you will be using a flexible liner, make sure that you have enough material to extend outside the top about one foot, all the way around the edges. Dig the hole one to two feet deep and remove any roots or sharp stones that may puncture the liner. It is a good idea to include a shallow area on one end of the pond to serve as a bathing area for birds. A few square feet of shallow (no more than two inches) water with a sand bottom will do fine. Smooth out the bottom and sides and put a layer of sand in the bottom. Stretch the liner taught across the hole and hold it in place with stones or bricks. As you fill the pond with water, the liner will sag and shape itself to the hole. Fill to about two or three inches from the top. If you are planning on adding fish to the pond allow the water to stand for one week to allow any chlorine to escape.

Pre-formed ponds require a hole dug to fit the mold. Once the hole is dug, install the pond and check to see that it is level. Once level, fill the space around the edges with sand or soil and fill with water. Let stand for one week.

A pond with a clay bottom need only to be dug and filled with water and allowed to stand for a week. This will let the suspended soil particles settle out, and dechlorinate.


After a week, you are ready to put in some plants. You may cover the bottom of the pond with a layer of soil and root the plants in the soil, or plant them in pots and submerge the pots. Submerging the pots will make it easier to care for the plants, and prevent them from overtaking the entire pond.

There are three types of plants to consider.

  • Submergents
    These are plants that have their roots and leaves entirely underwater. Submergents add the most oxygen to the water, and require sunlight to penetrate the water. They provide good cover for aquatic organisms.
  • Floating Plants
    Floating plants have their root systems underwater but their leaves float on the surface. Water lilies are a good example of floating plants.
  • Emergents
    Emergents are rooted under water and have their stems and leaves above the waters surface. Cattails are emergent plants. Emergent plants do not add oxygen to the water.
When selecting plants, pick one or two of each group if your pond is large enough. It is a good idea to include submergent plants in any pond because of the amount of oxygen they provide. Plants will take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, while animals, such as fish, water beetles, and insect larvae, take in the oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Algae will also form in the pond and produce oxygen. Algae are microscopic simple plants without roots, leaves, or flowers.


Once the plants become established, about two weeks, you can add some small fish. Mosquito fish ( Gambusia affinis), or some goldfish will make a nice addition to the pond and they will feed on insect larvae. Do not overstock. One fish for every two square feet is enough. This will help control mosquitos. When adding fish, it is important to avoid shocking them. Fish should be in a plastic bag and floated in the pond for about an hour to equalize the temperatures.

You will probably have to feed the fish for the first two weeks. Use regular fish food (as done with aquariums), and only put out as much as will be consumed in five minutes. Eventually the pond will attract dragonflies, damselflies, frogs, toads, salamanders, beetles and various other species of aquatic wildlife. Once the pond supports a population of other organisms that the fish can feed on, you can stop feeding them. Do this by gradually reducing the amount of food given every day for about a week, and the fish will begin feeding on the "natural" foods.


Unless the pond becomes polluted somehow, or a heavy growth of algae completely covers the ponds surface, it should only be necessary to clean the pond about once a year. This involves a partial water change, cleaning out plant debris, and repotting and separating the plants. Early spring is a good time for this. It is not necessary to completely drain the pond unless it has been contaminated in some way.

To change the water without removing the fish, siphon or dip out about half of the water and refill with a garden hose. Another method is to let a hose drip or run slowly into the pond for several hours. This will gradually replace the old water with new water. In both cases, a dechlorinator must be used to keep the pond safe for the fish and plants.

If for some reason it is necessary to drain the pond completely, remove some of the water and place it in a container to keep the fish in while the pond is cleaned. If the fish are returned to the pond, be sure to use a dechlorinator when refilling the pond.

Note: Check your local laws and ordinances regarding pond construction in your area. There may be restrictions on the construction of ponds.


  • Emergents
    • Cattails ( Typha)
    • Smartweeds ( Polygonum)
    • Arrowheads ( Sagittaria)
    • Spikerush ( Eleocharis)
  • Floating Plants
    • Water Lilies ( Nymphaeaceae)
    • Duckweed ( Lemna)
    • Pondweeds ( Potamogeton)
  • Submergents
    • Naiads ( Najas)
    • Water Celery ( Vallisneria)
    • Waterweed ( Elodea)


This document is part of
The Urban Wildlife Program Publication Series
published by
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
2000 Quail Drive
Baton Rouge, LA 70808

Contact: Jimmy Ernst

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality 602 N. Fifth Street Baton Rouge, LA 70802
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