I imagine that most birdwatchers with gardens try for one reason or another to attract birds to them. If they are ringers it may be that their only interest is to encourage the birds to enter their traps or mist nets. On the other hand many of us regret that birds are so wild and would like them to be-somewhat more confiding – although not so tame that they fall victim to marauding cats or to a neighbour who may resent the damage that some birds can do to plants and vegetables which they fail to protect.
You have to decide what you want your garden for: for recreation – that is somewhere where you and your family can play; for flowers, or vegetables coupled with a secondary interest in birds; or are you primarily interested in birds and willing to set about making a bird garden out of native plants and shrubs as well as some of the more exotic plants which birds willingly use and which have to be obtained from a nurseryman? I fall into the second of these groups: I have become a very keen vegetable gardener and I like to keep myself supplied with vegetables and certain fruits, but obviously I want to see lots of birds around.
The trouble is that when we think or talk about gardens we tend to think very conventionally. I expect that many of the readers of this website will live in fairly modern houses with new gardens comprising flower beds, a small vegetable plot, with a lawn and perhaps a pond or bird bath. Probably, this patch will be duplicated many times in the neighbourhood. If you overlook the whole area from some hill, or imagine yourself looking down from above, ask yourself what type of natural habitat this village or patchwork of houses and gardens most resembles. I am always struck by its resemblance to one or more stages of a woodland edge with rock outcrops (the houses) or a stage in the growth of a woodland. Many gardens have trees of varying ages and heights – the older the better. Some gardens may have shrubs up to 6 metres high. Some will have a field layer up to I 5 metres and some may have a heavily mown (or grazed) lawn. This is the same sort of structure that you find in woodland, particularly at the edge of natural woodlands which may be spreading into a grassland habitat.
I believe that if you are really trying to provide a garden for birds you must aim towards this basic concept of a woodland edge. You may not have enough room for big trees and may have to concentrate on the lower levels. Perhaps your neighbours are providing trees in their gardens. However, if you do have a tree and it grows too big you can always cut it down and use some of the wood for firewood and leave the rest to provide homes for insects. Then plant another tree. Creating a bird garden takes a long time and if you have come into a fairly new garden and have to plant it yourself you are going to have to wait for several years for it to achieve maturity. However, you have to start somewhere and the garden you lay down may set the pattern for your successors.
When choosing trees for your garden try to plant native ones. It is on native trees, with their associated invertebrate fauna, that most of our birds are accustomed to feed. An Oak takes a very long time to grow but even in its earliest years it is a very beautiful tree and is also a host to a very large number of insects. What native trees you can grow depend upon the soil and climate of your region. The Nature Conservancy Council have produced a useful booklet, Tree Planting and Wildlife Conservation. Walnut trees, too, provide delicious nuts providing that you can beat the squirrels and Rooks to them. As in forestry they can be planted fairly close together to start with and thinned out after a few years so that they grow good lateral branches which make foraging much easier for the less agile of the woodland birds. Trees will provide not only an extensive feeding ground but many species will also find in them the height they need to display their dominance.
The first trees to be considered are the fruit trees which in time develop lateral branches with plenty of cracks in which insects can hide. What I am saying is heresy to the keen fruit gardener who all too often tends to shoot birds in fruit trees. But at least two scientists have recently shown that tits, and Blue Tits in particular, eat large numbers of Codling Moth Cydia pomonella caterpillars and as apples are damaged more by Codling Moths than by birds I have erected nest boxes for them on my apple trees. Pears as well as other fruit trees can also use the help that birds will give them by eating insects. However, they will not control insects – no predator controls the number of its prey – it may, however, help to dampen the numbers down a little.
Hawthorn Cragaegus monogyna is a most valuable shrub to have in the garden. It can be allowed to grow to its full height as a shrub providing a mass of beautiful colour in spring and luscious berries for the Blackbird and Song Thrush, as well as the Redwing and Fieldfare during the autumn. It can also be layered into a hedge where, if it is trimmed once or twice a year (not too early in the year), it will provide thick cover for quite a range of birds such as Blackbirds, Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Linnets, Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Whitethroats. If it is allowed to grow more than 2 metres high it can also attract the Lesser Whitethroat – in the south-east part of the country, at least. It is also important to allow it a good thick bottom growth.
Another useful natural shrub is the Elder Alnus glutinosa with its beautiful cymes of white flowers which, if you do not pick them to make Elder-flower wine or Elder-flower pancakes, will turn into sweet tasting berries which are much favoured by both birds and winemakers. Also when large, the Elder branches and twigs become a hunting ground for warblers and are also suitable as nesting sites for such as the Goldfinch.
Ivy Hedera helix tends to have a gloomy reputation, perhaps because it is rather dark and is often found on ruins. Nevertheless it does provide a nesting site for many species and the Song Thrush and Blackbird eat its berries quite voraciously in late March and April, perhaps because there is little else to eat at that time of the year. Sometimes it is alleged that if ivy grows too densely it will strangle the tree, and just as frequently the point is disputed. However, if it is allowed to completely cover the bole of the tree it will eliminate a feeding ground for woodpeckers, Treecreepers and Nuthatches.
Brambles Rubus fruticosus in some senses are an awful pest but they do produce nest sites and Blackbirds and other thrushes do eat their berries. It always seems surprizing to me that more are not eaten by these birds. Rowan Sorbus aucuparia is another shrub, more properly found in the mountainous districts of the north or higher ground, which bears colourful berries eaten by birds. The Sea Buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides is found on the sandy shores of the east coast and masses of migrants feed on it as soon as they make a landfall on their autumn migration. One native tree under-rated for its berry is the Whitebeam Sorbus aria. It is an attractive tree with white flowers and red berries which seem to be voraciously eaten by birds.
A range of berry-bearing shrubs, which generally do not grow more than 2 metres high, including the genera Berberis and Cotoneaster are important. Berberis vulgaris and Danoinii both produce berries which are taken by birds but not all the species are equally paleatable. The same applies to Cotoneaster. Although Guelder Rose Vibernum opulus is said to be good for birds, where I have been watching bushes very few of the berries have been taken by early spring. However, the berries of the Wayfaring Tree Viburnum lantana are eaten by thrushes. Our knowledge about which birds take which species of berries is still surprisingly open and someone who would really like to watch these bushes throughout the year could add greatly to the subject. However, you must pay attention to what happens to berries at the end of the winter too, when birds may be so hungry that they eat the less palateable ones. Gamekeepers have much to say in favour of the Snowberry Symphoricarpus rivularis but the berries seem to stay on the tree all the winter which, to my mind, is not a good advertisement for the palateability of a berry.
The third structural level is the field layer with plants up to 2 metres or so. I personally am not so likely to wish to plant native species in my garden, although I allow some to flower and produce seed. Queen Anne’s Lace or Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris is one of the most beautiful and stately plants of the English countryside and I was glad to see Greenfinches which nest in my thick hawthorn hedge eating its seed. I keep a rough area alongside part of my hawthorn hedge and this I only cut once a year. Cow Parsley grows here and in various other rough spots.
Another plant which real gardeners absolutely hate is Fat Hen Chenopodium album, but finches are immensely attracted by its seeds and, if you can bear to have it around, it will bring in Greenfinches, Linnets and Goldfinches in late summer and early autumn. Bullfinches like Black Bryony Tamus coinniuiiiis which, although it is a most attractive creeper, is generally disliked by gardeners. Native Teazel Dipsacus pullonum attracts Goldfinches which will also eat some of the more exotic varieties. Many species of the Compositae family are sought after by finches, particularly the Sunflower Hclicuithus anmais, aster Aster spp. And many species of thistle, although not many gardeners will tolerate Creeping Thistle Cirsium arvense.
The bottom or ‘open’ layer of the garden will usually be lawn or soil. Both are good for birds hunting for insects and other arthropods, as well as for seeds.
Ponds provide water for drinking and bathing. Most birds obtain sufficient moisture from their food but some such as Woodpigeons and Turtle Doves come down regularly to drink, and many others will drink water if it is available. Many people try to attract birds by letting water drip into a container. To do this all you need is a bucket or a container which can hold a fair amount of water. You can set up a syphon and control the rate of dripping with a length of plastic tubing and a small tap, which can be obtained from any home-brewing shop. It is best to let the water drip into a shallow receptacle such as the edge of your pond or even an upturned dustbin lid, sunk into the ground. This, according to Philip Hollom and the late Guy Brownlow, is very attractive to warblers and finches.
In my pond I have put stones which just appear above the surface which allow birds to bathe. Tony Soper recommends a flower pot upside down in the water with a stick or twig through the hole on which Wrens and other small birds such as warblers can perch and slither down to drink.
It is surprising what species will come to your pond particularly when it has matured and the water plants are growing well, encouraging insects of various kinds. On my small pool I found a Green Sandpiper one morning in the last half of June. If you have fish or tadpoles in your pond you may expect visits from Kingfishers and Herons. Both have visited my pond. I have never detected the Kingfisher as causing any serious damage. If he caught anything which my family or I were particularly interested in we certainly did not detect it. The Heron can, however, clean out a Goldfish pond in not time at all. As he is really adapted for eating eels and we like our Goldfish, we try to prevent him from eating them. You can cover the pond with wire netting, but this is unsightly. It is said that a strand of nylon line-fishing line will do – set 60 centimetres back from the edge of the pond and stretched tightly, 15 centimetres above the ground, will stop the Heron. This is because Herons tend to alight away from the water and after looking around move towards it. If their feet hit something fairly invisible and firm they take fright and move off. Never leave loose nylon line lying about as this can ‘tie up’ birds’ legs and cause serious damage. Herons are protected by law so don’t shoot them. Another will come along in due course, therefore it is much wiser, in the long run, to protect the pond.
I have been writing about using nature to make your garden attractive to birds, and also making nature provide the food and shelter. You can also attract birds by setting up bird tables and nest boxes. Bird tables can be made easily or can be purchased from the RSPB. They are essentially a board with an edge to prevent the food being knocked off. Some have shelters over them which prevent the food becoming wet. They should be set at least one metre above ground to make it more difficult for cats and squirrels to get at them. The wooden support can be sheathed in a length of slippery plastic drain pipe. The problem of Starlings and House Sparrows taking too much food is difficult to overcome. I have no satisfactory solution although some people have made wooden tops to their bird tables with holes big enough for Blue Tits to get through but then only Blue Tits can feed, and hanging food baskets really cater for them. I have tried putting food out in different places which disperses the different species for a time. It is essential to clean and sterilize bird tables from time to time to avoid the risk of Salmonella infection. You should not leave out so much food that it is left lying about.
A variety of different makes of seeds are available from pet shops and are advertised in the different bird magazines, and I imagine that most people will, if they are going to buy seed, buy it in bulk from a supplier. I used to make up my own mixture at one time, with Black Rape, Millet, Hemp, Niger, Sunflower and Peanut. Dunnocks used to love Blue Maw, a poppy seed, which they take from the ground.
On the bird table you can put not only seeds, but household scraps and fruit, whether berries or the rotten part of apples. Do leave rotten apples under the trees – thrushes particularly the winter visitors, love them.
Nest boxes can be made from a variety of simple plans which are specifically designed for a range of birds.
Some people hang out nuts – for some reason those in red bags prove very attractive to Siskins – and others jam nuts or fat into the bark of trees in their garden. This is fine for tits and others that can hang on to the sides of the tree, but Blackbirds and other thrushes need flat surfaces.
Putting up nest boxes is a good idea particularly in new gardens which have not developed a wide range of nest sites. Most people buy the standard tit nest box, not realizing the other possibilities. Different species of bird need different designs of nest box. One simple type of nest ‘box’ can be made from half a coconut, with a hole in the base for drainage. If it is placed in a wall climbing shrub like a wisteria it will make an ideal nest site for Spotted Flycatchers, which often make use of old Blackbirds’ nests. They also use small open-fronted nest boxes with base dimensions of 15 x 9 centimetres. Swifts, as the late Dr Lack demonstrated, used nest boxes if they are provided. These are 46 x 20 centimetres wide by 14 centimetres deep with an entrance hole in the base and an inspection lid at the opposite end. It is fitted under the eaves of the house at least 3 metres above the ground. Artificial House Martin nests are more difficult to make unless you have a kiln in which you can bake clay. However, they are occasionally advertised for sale. The Tawny Owl is another species whose breeding distribution you can help by making a nest box. This should be made from wooden planks at least 75 centimetres long and 20 centimetres wide with a square base which must have at least half a dozen drainage holes. The box should be lined with peat or sawdust before it is hung in position under a bough at about 300 from the vertical.
Comparatively few people would appear to have attempted to artificially thicken vegetation around trees, or thicken forks in branches in hedges by inserting handfulls of dried leaves for Wrens. This is something that used to be practised on the continent. By tying a spruce branch to a trunk with strings about 30 centimetres apart it is possible to provide a space in which thrushes might nest. There are many other ways in which these simple aids to nest building can be applied.
Perhaps, at this point I ought to say something about two problems that arise in bird gardens. The first one is the problem of pesticides. There has been a lot of concern over the last twenty years about the effects of certain organo-chlorine chemicals. Many of them are now banned, at least for garden use. However, all pesticides should be used with discretion and it is best to use them only when you really need to against a pest which you are sure is harming your plants. It is a waste of money using insecticides on something which is doing no damage. Do not use a pesticide unless you know what it is; the active ingredients should be stated on the container label. There are some pesticides which the RSPB feels are relatively speaking non-poisonous to birds and mammals and are not persistant. These are Derris or Rotenone, Pyrethium, Malathion and Carbanyl. The RSPB produce a booklet called Pesticides and the Gardener.
The second problem concerns the activities of cats. One extreme view says that cats should be got rid of at any cost. The other extreme says that cats only kill birds if they are not fed properly, which in my experience is nonsense; good feeding will probably make the cat a more effective hunter. There is no proof one way or the other as to what effect cats have on local bird populations. Luckily my family’s cat – not mine – is very territorially minded and generally keeps other cats away. However, when I have to take action to save a nest I rely on ‘shushing’; occasionally a lump of dried earth lobbed to fall just short of the cat so that the lump breaks open and harmlessly spatters the offender with dust will do the trick – if the throwing motion has not been enough to frighten it away. Cats, like birds, can be a nuisance in the wrong place. But there is no justification for using cruel methods to get rid of them.