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  Gardening for Birds

Encouraging birds to any garden is easy if you do just a few simple things. Provide them with shelter in the form of trees, hedges and shrubs, add a few nest boxes, make sure there is a clean source of water and of course, feed them.  In my garden I regularly use peanuts, sunflower seeds and hearts, mixed seed and nyjer seed as well as fat blocks, fruit and table crumbs. It is also really important to make sure there is plenty of natural invertebrate food for many different species including warblers in the summer, but also for nestlings when birds are breeding, and this means avoiding pesticides of all types in the garden.  Predators (including your birds) will soon build up in number to establish a balance in your garden and you will find you have few, if any, problems with pests.  Many of our native bird species are declining in number because of loss of habitat, nest sites and natural food in the wild.  You can help them by encouraging them to feed and breed in your garden. Making your garden a haven for birds can be achieved in a number of different ways. 

Feeding your birds  Feeding the birds with seed mixes and peanuts, which more than thirty percent of us do in one form or another, is a very important aspect of wildlife-friendly gardening and nowadays contributes to the conservation and survival of many species. It is important to use good quality mixes of seeds, sunflower seeds or peanuts, to ensure that you are not introducing disease of any kind.  Cleaning your feeders and bird tables is also necessary.  There are several bacterial and viral diseases that affect our birds and these can be passed from one to another in their droppings or by close contact.  Many types of feeder are available, but do make sure you keep them clean at all times.

Both the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and the RSPB advise that we feed our garden birds throughout the year, rather than just in the winter months.  Mixed seeds, black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts and peanuts from hanging seed feeders or on a bird table can be fed all year round. These seeds are highly nutritious and provide adult birds with extra energy to search for the natural food needed by their chicks in the breeding season as well as being a vital food source for all birds in the winter.  

Different species prefer different types of food, so the more variety available at your bird table and in your feeders, the more birds will visit your garden.  You can also feed kitchen scraps, such as the crumbs of bread or cake, small pieces of cheese, and fruit including apples or pears which may be past their best.  A mixture like this will attract blackbirds, thrushes, blue tits, great tits, sparrows, starlings, greenfinches, chaffinches, collared doves, dunnocks and robins to name a few. Nyjer seed will attract goldfinches and siskins. In more rural gardens you may also see great-spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches, and in the winter, redwings and fieldfares.  

Providing natural food A well-designed and effective wildlife garden will always make provision for its wildlife visitors by incorporating plants that provide natural food.  There are many trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that will encourage birds to the garden.  Most native trees and shrubs will support large numbers of insects - these in turn will attract insect-eating birds like the tits, robins, wrens and warblers.  A tree of any kind in the garden will provide a song post for birds, as well as a source of insect food. If you can plant a native tree, so much the better.  Good native trees for birds include oak, wild cherry, goat willow, silver birch, holly, hawthorn, rowan, crab apple and wild pear.  Some non-native trees are also good for birds, especially the flowering crab apples, willows, Prunus species and the varieties of elder.  Shrubs with berries will encourage birds to feed in your garden in the autumn and winter.  Plants such as Cotoneaster, Berberis, Holly, Pyracantha, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Dogwood and many other berried plants will bring birds to the garden.  It is important to note that as a very general rule red or orange berries are most palatable to thrushes and blackbirds.  Yellow berries, now common on some varieties of shrubs, are often not eaten.  In springtime young birds in the nest need the protein-rich diet supplied by insects and other invertebrates, and at the beginning of winter seeds and berries provide the nutrients birds need to see them through the cold weather ahead.  There was a time when this natural harvest in the countryside, together with spilt grain and weed seeds from fields of stubble, provided good pickings and a vital food supply for all manner of bird species.  Sadly this is no longer the case.  More and more birds need to rely on our gardens as a source of food at all times of year so once you start feeding them it is important to keep feeders topped up at all times.   

Providing nest sites   Putting nest boxes around your garden can be immensely satisfying.  Robins, wrens, blackbirds, spotted flycatchers, great tits and blue tits, will all very readily use an artificial nest box in the right situation.  Boxes should be attached to trees, fences or walls, facing away from full sun and prevailing winds.  South facing boxes can get too hot and nestlings may overheat and die, so never place a box in this situation unless it is very well shaded by branches or climbers.  East facing boxes may be exposed to cold spring weather, so use your discretion when placing your box.  The height of the box from the ground will vary with the species you are trying to attract.  Blackbirds, robins and wrens will all nest quite low down but in general look at putting your box at head height or above.   Many birds prefer to choose their own nest sites.  Prickly bushes such as holly, hawthorn, Pyracantha and Berberis make good nesting places for those species that won't use a nest box.

Don't forget birds such as swallows, swifts and house martins, which are declining due to lack of nest sites.  Visit Swift Conservation for information on helping swifts and nest cuops for swallows and house martins are readily available.

Water is also vital to your garden birds.  A tiny barrel pond (see Make a Wildlife Mini-pond below) will bring birds of all species to drink and bath.  If you have room for a bigger pond you will be creating a habitat for all manner of wildlife as well as keeping your garden birds supplied with water for bathing and drinking.

If you enjoy watching the birds in your garden, and would be interested in helping with a Garden Bird Survey, the BTO runs the Garden BirdWatch scheme.  Participation entails counting and listing the birds seen in your garden on a weekly basis.  There is a quarterly newsletter.  For more information contact the BTO at The Nunnery, Thetford, IP24 2PU, or visit The BTO Website.

Related Topics...

* Create a Shady Wildlife Habitat

* Feed your Garden Birds
* Grow Native Trees and Shrubs from Seed * Growing Climbers for Wildlife
*Make a Wildlife Mini-pond * How to Make a Log Pile
* Natural Seeds for Birds * Wildlife Watering Holes
* Preparing your Wildlife Garden for Spring * Plant an Orchard for Wildlife
* Helping Garden Wildlife through the Winter * Make a Mini-Woodland
* Growing Fruit and Berries for Birds * Grow a Native Shrub
* Making a Wild Corner for Wildlife * Feed your Garden Wildlife

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Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017