hear a lot about the changes that have taken place in farming
over the last fifty years, and the problems that these changes
have caused for, amongst other things, the bird life in our
countryside. No one can fail to notice the reduction in
numbers of birds of all types, including those species that
divide their time between our gardens and our fields.
Starlings, song thrushes and house sparrows are just three
well researched examples of birds that have suffered, partly
as a result of loss of natural food in agricultural land.
That food consists largely of insects and seeds, and tidier
farmland and verges have resulted in reductions in both these
food sources. But people who positively encourage wildlife
into their gardens, and put some thought into how they manage
them and what they actually grow, can help to redress the
shortage and provide vital natural food for birds.
Finding food is
a major activity in a birdís daily life. Small birds in
particular require up to 30 percent of their body weight in
food every day, and that search may bring many different
species to our gardens. Supplementary feeding all year round
is recommended by the RSPB and the British Trust for
Ornithology, and itís been estimated that as many as a third
of British households feed the birds to some extent. The food
that we supply can be life-saving, especially during the
winter and at nesting time, but having natural
food around the garden is also important for many reasons.
Some species of birds are too shy to approach feeders,
although increasingly new species are learning to take
advantage of our generosity. Seed supplies in feeders may run
out and the birds that have come to rely on that supply will
need to seek food elsewhere. If there is a good supply of
food around the garden in the form of natural seeds and
berries, your local bird population will always have something
to fall back on and watching birds feeding naturally around
your garden is one of the great pleasures of wildlife
A mixed diet of
invertebrates and seeds is the norm for most species, with
nestlings requiring large numbers of insects during fledging.
But in addition to invertebrates the majority of native birds
eat seeds or berries at some time during their life cycle.
This means that a little information on
plants that have nutritious seeds is a good starting
place for a bird friendly garden. Providing plenty of natural
seeds and berries simply requires thoughtful planting and
Most of us at
some idle moment have watched a greenfinch on a seed feeder in
the garden. He will sit, hogging his space and squabbling
with other contenders, lazily taking seeds one at a time, and
discarding the majority in favour of the one seed that takes
his fancy. Those dropped to the ground will not be wasted.
Ground feeding species such as dunnocks and chaffinches will
find them, or perhaps a field mouse or bank vole, late at
night, will visit the area to clean up after a fussy finch.
But watching the activity around our feeders does tell us a
great deal about birds and their seed eating habits. They
have very particular preferences and we need to cater for
those if we are to provide natural seed and berry food for
them in our gardens.
friendly gardeners are advised to leave all herbaceous
vegetation uncut over the winter months to provide seed for
birds, and in the autumn we all start to think about
tidying up our borders for the winter. Unfortunately this
notion is rather optimistic Ė our fussy greenfinch would turn
his beak up at the majority of plants left to go to seed.
Leaving herbaceous vegetation uncut is extremely
important as it can provide winter shelter for insects,
amphibians and small mammals and of course some seeds will be
eaten, but in general if we see a blue tit or a wren searching
through the winter plants, they are usually looking for the
tiny insects sheltering there. In order for seeds to be worth
the bother and use of energy required to search them out, they must contain a good
few calories in the form of protein or fat. Some plants
have more nutritious seeds than others, and fortunately these
useful plants come in all types, suitable for borders or for
wilder areas including meadows.
always a good choice for a wildlife garden and there are many
pretty perennial wildflowers that attract seed eating birds
that are eminently suitable for a garden situation. Good
choices for borders would be any of the wild geraniums,
(meadow cranesbill and mourning widow are especially good),
plus greater or lesser knapweed, teasels, purple loosestrife,
yarrow and meadowsweet. Water mint is also an excellent bird
seed plant but prefers either damp soil at a pond edge, or
clay. Itís a vigorous plant and it can be grown in a
container without a drainage hole to keep it under control. I
would also include some of the more Ďweedyí wildflowers
somewhere in my bird friendly garden, perhaps in a wilder
undisturbed area, but not everyone wants a garden full of
dandelions, chickweed and thistles although I am quite happy
to have a few!
annual and biennial plants are particularly useful in a
bird-attracting garden. By their very nature, they rely on
germination from seed to proliferate and are therefore capable
of producing large quantities of sometimes very nutritious
seeds. Good choices amongst the biennials would be honesty,
evening primrose, forget-me-not and dameís violet which is
also called sweet rocket. These are all plants that enhance a
relaxed, cottage-style garden border. Good colourful annuals
to encourage birds include cosmos, and cornflowers.
permanent borders hardy geraniums are a great choice as their
seeds are large enough to tempt several species. Greenfinches and
bullfinches in particular enjoy the seeds from these plants.
Others to include would be any varieties of the lavender
family especially lavender itself, lemon balm, hyssop and
winter savoury which are all great for goldfinches. Michaelmas
daisies, scabious and Coreopsis are also good choices.
If you have a
bit of empty space in your garden, you could try sowing an
annual bird seed bed. Itís worth bearing in mind that by
their very nature these will be plants that seed profusely!
In the countryside more weedy species such as fat hen and
dandelion provide masses of nutritious seeds for certain bird
species, but you may want to restrict a bird attracting bed to
more colourful plants. You could try a mix of pretty native
and non-native annuals. Herb Robert, wild
cornflower and its many coloured varieties, amaranth, annual
grasses such as quaking grass, sunflowers of all shapes and
sizes and Cosmos will provide a colourful patch that the birds
(and bees) will visit for many months.
bird feeders topped up with a good quality, preferably
wheat-free seed mix is really important for our native birds,
but planting some of the varieties mentioned could mean
that your garden becomes a regular natural food source for our
native seed-eating species especially greenfinches,
goldfinches, chaffinches, dunnocks, house sparrows, and winter
visitors such as siskins and redpolls. Add some good shrubs
with berries, or trees with seeds and your garden or allotment could play a vital
role in encouraging birds to find the natural food they need to
survive the winter.