Animal care and behaviour:

Birdwatching in your garden and making your garden bird-friendly

garden bird

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Birdwatching is an enjoyable hobby for busy people, because it allows you to relax and watch other living creatures without the responsibilities of pet-ownership. Even small city gardens can attract interesting avian visitors, especially if you provide food, water and a safe habitat for them. This takes a little thought and organisation, which is well worth the effort.

The key attraction that most people think of is a bird table, and it's true that they act as a magnet for birds. Some birds are shyer than others, so if you want to see a lot of different species, put the table where they cannot see you watching. It's fun to wash up and watch birds through the window, but if you can watch birds from a comfy chair, where you can keep still for long periods, they are less likely to be startled than if they see you moving doing the dishes by the window. Bird tables fairly near trees are also likely to attract more birds than are tables right in the middle of a very large lawn. However, the table should be visible from the air, and preferably not be under, or very close to a tree because otherwise cats, rats or other predators may jump onto it.

There are different types of container for bird seed on the market. Ordinary small bowls are fine if you don't mind feeding the occasional pigeon, though if you prefer to restrict your visitors to other species, you can get containers that only smaller birds can feed from. Clean the containers regularly, because otherwise they may spread diseases, or poison birds through mould. Water containers should also be washed regularly, especially if the birds take a bath in them. You'll need to check for ice in very cold weather, to ensure the birds have access to unfrozen water.

Birds especially benefit from food you put out in winter, when it is more difficult for them to find food elsehwere. They need more food when the weather is especially harsh, and can benefit from regular feeding until springtime. Some foods, like peanuts, bread, and fat, can harm nestlings, so avoid  them once the nesting season starts. Good-quality bird food is safer than scraps, though birds do like unsalted, cooked rice, pastry and fruit. Peanuts are cheap, but whole peanuts can kill adults as well as nestlings, so you need rigid mesh containers with spaces too small for the birds to extract a whole nut. Mesh bags are not a good idea, because they can trap birds' feet. Providing food in winter can save birds' lives. However, feeding birds regularly obviously changes their behaviour, including territorial and courtship habits, so many people prefer to reduce the amount they put out gradually as the weather gets milder, and stop feeding altogether once  food elsewhere is plentiful.

Another way to feed birds is to grow plants and trees with seeds they can eat. Most birds like trees, but not all gardens are big enough for tree planting. Instead, you can plant small shrubs, especially those with berries that birds like to eat, such as cotoneaster and pyrocanthus. Both are easy to grow, and pyrocanthus can be trimmed to form a prickly hedge. Many climbing plants can also give a lot of cover, and even shelter for a nest. Virginia creeper can look very attractive against a wall, especially when its leaves go red in the autumn. It is a useful climber for a summer 'roof' because it is deciduous, losing its leaves just when you want more sunlight. Clematis montana is another tough, fast-growing climber, with masses of flowers. Avoid Russian vine. It can look very pretty when it is flowering, but can grow so fast that it becomes a pest, invading neighbouring gardens as well as smothering your own.

Birds can vandalise gardeners' efforts. Blackbirds, for example, may uproot seedlings in their quest for worms, while finches may attack the buds of fruit trees. Physical barriers, like wire netting, help to protect seedlings. Dangling CDs hung in trees are good bird scarers to help prevent damage as fruit tree buds are coming out, and if your bird table is far enough away, you will still have avian visitors where you want them.

A safe environment includes insect life free from pesticides, and lawns free from herbicides. There are many other ways of avoiding damage to plants from pests. Snails come out at night and after it has rained, for example, allowing you to collect them in large numbers. And if you just have a few roses, it is faster to brush off greenfly into a jar with a paintbrush, than going to the shops for poison. You can also site vulnerable plants where they are less likely to be attacked. Hostas, for example, tend to attract slugs and snails, so are best grown in pots raised on bricks, making access more difficult for snails. Plants that give ground cover are one way of keeping weeds at bay. If you specialise in shrubs, with shade at ground level, the weeds are also sparser than if you have a border with flowering plants. People with large gardens can attract seed-eating birds by allowing some 'weeds', in other words, leaving an area for wild grasses and other  native wild plants. A weed, after all is just a plant in the wrong place!

Other dangers to birds include rats and cats. Rats can be attracted to bird seed, and eat nestlings. If you see rats in your garden, they may well live there, so check for their nests, often found under sheds and in dry stone walls. There are many ways of making bird food containers less accessible to rats or cats, for example by dangling the containers from the side of the bird table. Another safety measure is never to leave food on the lawn.

Cats can catch large numbers of birds, but the big threat to bird conservation is habitat destruction. Whenever a garden is paved over and weed-killered for convenience, it becomes a less friendly site for birds. Trees and shrubs are much nicer to look at, don't need much maintenance, and help to fill your garden with bird life. If you have bought a house with the garden concreted or paved over, shrubs in pots can make it more attractive.

You can spend a lot on buying new plants in garden centres, but one of the joys of gardening is that it is very easy to create new plants for free. Many shrubs grow easily from cuttings, so it's worth having a go, especially if you're pruning, so have potential cuttings that would otherwise go to waste. There are online guides to techniques, but often all you need to do is take an end branch about the length of your hand, and put the fatter end in some soil in a pot, first stripping off the bottom leaves so they don't rot underground. Pinch off the top bud, so the energy of the cutting goes into making roots rather than leaves, and put the cutting in shade so that evaporation from the leaves is minimised. Keep the soil moist, and wait. If it's dry, it can help to put a plastic bag over the pot, so the leaves of the cutting are surrounded by moister air, though put a ventilation hole or two in the bag. It's also easy to grow many climbers by layering, covering part of a stem with earth, waiting until it grows roots, then separating it from the parent  plant.

Some keen garden birdwatchers can tell similar species apart, and keep a diary of their sightings. There are many guides to bird identification, two of which are listed below, along with a guide to wildlife-friendly gardening. Some of the guides come with a CD, so you can identify birds by their songs as well as by their appearance. Bird conservation organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, are keen to hear from garden birdwatchers, whose observations can make a major contribution to the conservation of British native species. People who live outside the UK can contact their own national bird conservation organisation.

There are more wildlife-friendly tips in: 

  • Amphibians  if you want to attract frogs and toads to your garden.

Further reading

Jonathan Elphick, Lars Svensson, and Jan Pedersen (Author) (2012)  Birdsong: 150 British and Irish birds and their amazing sounds. Quadrille Publishing
Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterström, and Peter J. Grant (2010)  Collins Bird Guide, Second edition. Collins

Adrian Thomas (2010) RSPB Gardening for Wildlife: A Complete Guide to Nature-friendly Gardening A & C Black Publishing Ltd

For Birds on Stamps:

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