How to make a garden a haven for birds

Don’t trim hedges or bushed just yet. Overgrown foliage provides protection and cover and is a source of berries, seeds and insects for birds, says Fiann Ó’Nualláin.

How to make a garden a haven for birds

Blackbird from a willow sings: tiny beak with voice that rings: yellow bill, like coal his coat, merry music from his throat”.

THAT ninth century poem (by an anonymous Irish monk and scribbled in the margins of an illustrated manuscript) sums up the splendour of the blackbird and the joy of being in its presence.

For blackbirds and garden-visiting birds, March is the commencement of nest-building. For this reason, motorway and farm-boundary hedge-cutting is banned from March 1 to September 1, and gardeners are asked to check their privet, before plugging in the trimmer. Unkemptness is the key to attracting birds this spring — so skip the spring clean and welcome them in.

A hedge and bushy shrubs give these visitors cover — not just to nest, but to perch and rest when visiting in any season and to hide from the neighbour’s cat. If the cover foliage is also edible, then birds will favourably smile on the invitation to dine.

Bird-friendly shrubs and hedging with edible berries include Rowan (delicious to winter thrushes and waxwings), hawthorn (blackbirds and redwings adore it) and holly (a favourite for mistle thrushes). The plantings don’t have to be native. I have dogwoods and viburnums that positively chirp throughout the year, and pyracantha and cotoneasters are avian Tesco expresses. If you have the space for a crab apple, you will find feathered friends in abundance.

That said, not all birds dine exclusively on berries and many favour weed seeds — which is another reason not to be too spick and span in garden maintenance. Some birds love the bugs and insects that populate garden habitats, such as that corner of windswept leaves. There are ways to make the garden more attractive to birds — feeders and bird tables, for example — but any garden left wild/natural for a few weeks will be bird-friendly. It’s not just about not trimming the hedge — your garden is a builders’ providers for nesters.

Desist from lawn treatments (many are toxic to birds) and mowing for a few weeks longer and let the windfall twigs and leaf litter rest awhile. Among those birds foraging for grass bedding and construction material are robins, sparrows, martins and blackbirds. Song thrushes, greenfinches and a variety of tits are also on forages — not just to clean the garden of debris for nests, but to pick plants clean of pests.

Apart from our native species of bird, which are emerging from winter inactivity this month, many of the petite warblers are returning from their winter hols — notably the blackcap and chiffchaff. Those chiffchaffs, piercing the air with songs learned on winter retreat south of the Sahara desert, are also keen to pick your garden clean of pest insects. And a single hawthorn can host up to 356 different species of insect, which is great for feeding.

Gardeners are often out there covering their seedlings, their peas, and their fruit bushes against hungry birds. I am a herbalist, so I cover my patches of dandelion, cleavers, burdock, coltsfoot and chickweed from scavenging birds. Now that sentence may dismay some, but apart from the shock or horror of someone cultivating weeds, many birds love weed seeds and an intentionally weedy corner not only yields seeds, but will host insects for the grubers, too.

It may come as a surprise, but dandelion and chickweed seeds are often found in budgie and pet-bird feed — so somebody, somewhere, is not hoeing but harvesting those.

Goldfinches, redpolls, siskins, and doves enjoy thistle seeds. Milk thistle seed is often prescribed by avian vets for sickly birds. Of course, it doesn’t have to be all weeds. By planting ornamentals that produce avian-edible seed, you can have a beautiful garden, but also feed birds throughout the seasons for years to come.

A goldfinch feeds its chick in a garden.

Sparrows and goldfinches like asters and rudbeckias. Buntings, finches, siskins and many warblers like goldenrod.

Finches, jays and sparrows love sunflower seeds — well, everything loves sunflowers. Zinnias, calendula, cumin, nigella, lavender, perovskia, cosmos and teasel will all feed the flocks. Many ornamental grasses, miscanthus in particular, supply inviting seed, too. Safflower seed is high in protein and fat and features in commercial feed mixes.

For ideas, look at the ingredients of bird feed the next time you are in a DIY or pet store. I’m not saying sow the mix, but you can try. Word of warning, though — my dad kept birds when we were young and he had a corner of the backgarden where he routinely cleaned the feed trays.

Sometimes, there were germinations; one year we had a cannabis plant come up. For months after that, my brother and I sang or put on Bob Marley songs every time he went out the back.

The garden can be a bit bare and it is no harm to put out feed to encourage initial visits, while we wait for the growth to come on. Feeders are great, but put them in the right place — out in the open is well and good for us to see the birds, but also an advantage to spying predators. Instead, place feeders under cover. Think strategically, too, with tables and nest boxes.

But the most important thing, and final tip, is think water — birds need access to clean water to drink and bathe. All the comforts of home make your garden welcome for birds this spring — then every little thing is gonna be alright…. Don’t worry!

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