Beyond the Birdbath: A Pond in the Backyard Habitat

Water is an essential ingredient for a healthy backyard habitat. Just a small amount in a birdbath can offer birds and other small creatures a place to drink and bathe. However, with a larger water source such as a small pond, you can attract a greater diversity of wildlife that may use it as a place to live and raise young as well. Even a very small pond may accommodate local wildlife residents such as frogs, toads, salamanders, dragonflies, or water bugs, each providing diversity and value to your habitat. Having any of these creatures at your pond can also provide interesting opportunities to observe various stages of their lifecycles. At my own pond, in September I enjoyed visits by a migrating Wilson’s Warbler and an American Redstart. In the Spring I loved watching and hearing several male American Toads calling for mates from my pond, followed later by dozens of developing tadpoles.

Planning Your Pond
You will need to decide on the size, shape, and location of your pond. Be sure to choose a spot that is visible from inside your house. Consider adding a pump and filter. Though optional, they will re-circulate and help clean your pond’s water and make it easier to maintain.

A pond can be successful whether located in a shady or sunny spot. In the shade more leaves will fall into it in the autumn. However, you can use inexpensive netting temporarily to keep the leaves out. A sunny spot can mean challenges in dealing with algae, although using other plants that grow beneath the surface of the water helps control algae growth.

Key Concepts for Making your Pond Attractive to Wildlife

  • With a pond liner as a base rather than a rigid form, it is easier to create sloping sides and shallow depths so that birds and other creatures can enter and exit readily.
  • In southeastern Pennsylvania, a depth of 18” is sufficient to allow for over-wintering frogs, provided the pond surface is not allowed to freeze solid. A small electric birdbath de-icer in one corner can ensure some open water all winter.
  • Frogs and salamanders will not lay eggs in a pond that contains fish because fish will eat eggs and tadpoles. One exception is the American Toad, which will deposit eggs where fish exist. Since the toad eggs and tadpoles are toxic, fish soon learn not to eat them.
  • Adding native aquatic plants to your pond will make it more natural and inviting to wildlife, and more interesting and beautiful for you as well. These plants may attract pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds, too.
  • Underwater plants will act as natural competition to algae, provide hiding places for tadpoles and other aquatic life, and can serve as a food source for fish. I use Anacharis, an inexpensive plant available at tropical fish suppliers, and have had about 20 small fish in my pond for seven years without ever having to feed them.
  • Because the chlorine in tap water is harmful to fish, salamanders, and frogs, add a de-chlorinating agent when you fill or top off your pond.

Pond Maintenance Tips
Although I used to clean my pond once a year, I have found that with a re-circulating pump, using plants that help clean the water, and preventing entry of a lot of leaves in the autumn, little maintenance is needed other than cleaning out the pump filter periodically. Debris accumulates in the bottom of the pond but decays in time and also provides an over-wintering habitat for frogs and other pond life.

What about mosquitoes?
Mosquitoes will be attracted to your pond and will lay eggs – especially troublesome since the advent of West Nile Virus. However, the best approach for dealing with this problem is to allow the predators of mosquito larvae such as dragonfly and beetle larvae to come to your pond and multiply. It takes just a year to attract sufficient numbers of predators to keep mosquito larvae in check. To get through the first year, you can add some mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis), 1.5 to 2.5 inch voracious predators of mosquito larvae. These fish will not survive cold weather, but by the following spring, you should have enough dragonfly and beetle larvae, which work as natural “sharks” to hunt down mosquito larvae. Also, the adult dragonflies will catch and eat mosquitoes in mid-air, so if adults frequent your yard, you may have even fewer of these pests than you had before.

Another technique for mosquito control is using a small fountain to keep the water moving. Mosquito larvae need still, warm water to survive. However, though frogs, toad, salamanders, dragonflies, and other good insects may still be attracted to your pond, they won’t lay eggs in moving water. Mosquito dunks, a biological mosquito larvicide, are also an option and reportedly are harmless to amphibians, fish, and beneficial insect larvae. Or you can add small inexpensive “feeder fish” or goldfish such as Comets that will eat mosquito larvae; however, their presence is likely to dissuade frogs, salamanders and other water creatures from staying and/or laying eggs.

What about Cost?
Adding a pond to your habitat does not have to be costly. My setup was less than $150, including a pre-formed pond, pump, filter, and hosing for the pump. Home Depot sells “water garden kits” in different sizes, with liner, pump, fountain nozzle, and hardware for $100 to $200. Avian Aquatics, a business that specializes in water features for attracting birds, has pond kits, with pond form and pump, in a similar price range. They also stock a number of other items designed to attract birds by moving water, including bird creeks, waterfalls, misters, and drippers.

Attracting Wildlife to Your Pond
Based on my experience, if you build it, they will come. Keep a close watch and you’ll see birds, frogs, toads, dragonflies, chipmunks, and many other creatures.

Recommended Native Plants for Ponds and Pond Borders
Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica)
Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia)
Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
American White (Nymphaea odorata)
Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata)
Spike Rush (Eleocharis montevidenis)

Suppliers of Pond-Related Items
Avian Aquatics (www.avianaquatics.com) – variety of water features, especially those for attracting birds
Home Depot (www.homedepot.com) – pond supplies, including pond kits
Redbud Nursery, Glen Mills, PA 19342 (610) 358-4300 (www.redbudnativeplantnursery.com) – aquatic native plants for ponds, bogs, and wetlands
Lilypons Water Gardens (www.lilypons.com) – variety of pond supplies and some native aquatic plants

If you have any pond-related questions, please contact Barb Elliot at bfn@valleyforgeaudubon.org.