If you had to describe the perfect garden, you would probably include a birdbath. They are part of our horticultural landscape and yet the birdbath has an indistinct history. Any investigation into their origin will immediately lead us to the ancient garden areas of Persia where the introduction of water into streams and splashing fountains would surely have attracted the attention of all birds. There are also the courtyard pools that captured and stored rainwater in the venerable buildings of Asia and the Roman Empire. But in these cases, any bird daring to take a bath would likely have been kept as a pet or captured for food.
We have to travel to the great estates of Europe in the 1600s and beyond to get a feel for where a birdbath fits. The construction of lakes, caves and fountains was a sign of enormous wealth and led to the less formal work of the designers. like the English landscape designer Capability Brown in the 1700s. These man-made waterways were home to swans and other waterfowl, often complementing a private deer park. There were also dovecotes, like the picturesque dovecotes that can be found all over France. But pretty as they were, their intention was ultimately to provide food and fertilizer. It’s still different from a birdbath, but the notion of attracting birds to our immediate surroundings seems to have taken hold.
The bird bath became, in fact, popular in small gardens in the Victorian era, with a new appreciation for the informality of the cottage garden as a counterpoint to the growing industrialization of the landscape elsewhere. A birdbath added an extra touch of naturalness. Garden ornamentation became extremely popular from the mid-1800s, from ornate statues to simple sundials, and much of it is made of cast iron, the material from the industrial age. The Arts and Crafts movement popularized the simple joy of having a bird bath by using simpler, less ornate materials. One of the early garden designers, Gertrude Jekyll, advocated that all of these items be made from lead, which pairs well with old brick and fluffy stone. By the turn of the 20th century, whether it was metal, stone or terracotta, the bird bath had really arrived.
They have remained popular, especially in Australia, as climate change has produced more vicious summers in which birds quickly succumb to thirst and heat. As the city’s density increases, a birdbath on a balcony or rooftop terrace can support the local ecosystem, feeding not only birds, but insects and other wildlife as well. They may be reminiscent of the great man-made lakes of the past, but unlike these, modern birdbaths do nothing more (and nothing less) than encouraging nature in our space, adding movement and color. They are therefore an icon of empathy, showing an understanding of our environment. Our reward is the beauty of nature. The perfect pact.
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