Birding: The Complete Guide to Garden Birding
Your home is one of the best places anywhere to watch birds—especially if you happen to have a garden. They're fantastic places for birds for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, the trees and bushes provide a safe place to shelter, roost, build nests and raise young. Secondly, gardens are often a lot more productive in terms of food than the surrounding urban sprawl or the industrially farmed fields that form large parts of our modern countryside. Thirdly and finally, gardens are the best place for birds to get a free meal, due to the kind hearts of their human inhabitants.
Providing food doesn't just benefit the birds, it also gives us the chance to enjoy close-up views of a wide variety of common and not-so-common species. Because they are usually at close range and tend to stick around to feed, birds in gardens also provide an opportunity to learn about and brush up on bird identification and behaviour. And, of course, watching birds in the garden from the comfort of indoors is more than ideal for those of us who are housebound for whatever reason.
Attracting Birds to Your Garden: The Tutorial
How to Attract Birds to Your Garden
In the old days, feeding the birds in the garden used to be ever so simple; all you had to do was throw a few scraps of stale bread on to the lawn and waited for the birds to arrive. But nowadays there's a whole range of hi-tech equipment and foodstuffs available, guaranteed to please even the most discerning diner. It's well worth considering these in detail to make your garden a favourite port of call with the birds.
The centrepiece of any bird garden is the classic bird table, you can't beat it. You'll often see ornamental varieties at garden centres, but I implore you to stay away from these. They may look pretty, but they rarely offer the birds the necessary cover they need in order to feed.
The main purpose of a bird table is to provide a sturdy platform for the birds to feed, and shelter, in the form of a roof to prevent the food from becoming spoiled. If possible, try to hang a peanut and/or seed feeder from the base of the table itself to attract more visitors.
If, unlike me, you actually effective DIY skills, then you could try building your own bird table, but if you're like me, then you'll probably prefer to buy one. I would recommend going to a reputable supplier such as the RSPB. By doing that, you should be able to pick up a bird table for a reasonable price. Moreover, it'll likely last much longer than one bought from an unreliable source.
Whilst the bird table is a good starting block. No bird garden is complete without some sort of bird feeder. They come in a wide range of designs, with each one suited to either the food they carry or the birds they intend to attract. So, without further ado, I shall run through the various types of feeders that are available.
Firstly, we have peanut feeders. These are typically made from sturdy wire-mesh and hung from a washing line or tree, are widely available and fairly cheap. Once established in a garden, they will become a regular rendezvous for the local Tit population, although Grey Squirrels often monopolise them at the expense of the birds.
Seed feeders are much better, not to mention even cheaper than a peanut feeder. I highly recommend buying the ones specialised for carrying sunflower seeds as your garden will no doubt be graced by beauties such as Goldfinches as well as the regular small passerines. If you're lucky, you may be able to attract other finches such as Siskins and Redpolls. These feeders are convenient for birds as they have small perches for them to land on, and small holes to dispense the seeds gradually, thus preventing wastage and mess. I would recommend getting at least two of these sort of feeders for your garden, so that you can fill them with different types of seed, thus increasing your chances of attracting a greater diversity of species.
Squirrel-proof feeders are another highly recommended option, as I'm sure most of you will agree that it can be very frustrating putting out food for Tits and Finches, only to then see it taken by an inquisitive squirrel. Squirrel-proof feeders are typically equipped with bars to keep out unwelcome visitors. They are inevitably a little more expensive than the typical feeder, but are worth considering, especially if your area has a particularly high population density of squirrels.
Another option is to go even further down the specialist avenue and invest in a suet feeder. Suet feeders typically come in a couple of forms. The first one being a cylindrical feeder similar to a peanut/seed feeder that can be hung from a tree. In these, you can put a few suet or fat balls the provide much-needed energy for birds like Starlings. The alternative suet feeder is a small metallic square cage that a suet block/cake can be placed in. Like the others, this can be hung from a tree or a bird table.
At the luxury end of the bird feeder market is the feeding station. Essentially, it's a long pole that is thrust into the ground with a number of hooks and trays that are ideal for hanging feeders on or filling up with food and/or water respectively. These can cost anything up to £100, but they are built to last, and once established, the birds will visit every day and make regular trips throughout the day.
Feeding the Birds
In the case of certain birds, such as Starlings, they'll eat almost anything that you put out for them, from kitchen scraps to peanuts. But others have more specialised diets, so if you want to maximise the range of species in your garden, it's worth considering a wide range of foods.
As mentioned earlier, sunflower seeds are highly recommended and a clear step up from peanuts. Moreover, they are actually slightly cheaper than peanuts and provide excellent nutritional value right throughout the year. Sunflower hearts and niger seeds are also excellent options in particular for attracting Finches, including Goldfinches and Siskins.
Smaller seeds, such as wheat, grains and corn are a slightly cheaper option and are ideal to put either in a feeder, on a bird table or on a ground feeder. Doing this, allows birds such as Pigeons and Sparrows to benefit from your generosity. However, I would caution against putting out too much food in one go, as you may end up attracting unwanted visitors such as Rats.
Suet-based food such as suet/fat ball and suet cakes contain a rich mixture of food in block form such as insects, fruit and even seed. These, along with the rich energy and nutrition provided by the suet, are invaluable for helping small birds survive during periods of extremely cold weather during the winter.
Another option is live food, such as mealworms. These are particularly popular with Robins, Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Thrushes. However, mealworms tend to come in rather small quantities, and they are expensive compared to other food. Moreover, their popularity with birds means that you may struggle to keep up with demand given their expense.
Incidentally, I must implore you to keep your feeders and bird table as clean as possible. Be sure to dispose of any food that has been left uneaten after three days or so. The reason for maintaining cleanliness is that unhygienic conditions can result in birds becoming infected with diseases and parasites. In a worst-case scenario, this can involve in epidemics that have the potential to decimate a bird population.
When Should You Feed Garden Birds?
Most people feed birds in their garden throughout the winter months, which is when they need the food the most. In cold weather, songbirds need to eat the equivalent of around one-quarter of their entire body weight each day simply to survive, so the food provided in gardens is a vital lifeline.
Until fairly recently, experts advised people to stop feeding birds in the spring, as there were reports of baby Tits choking on peanuts brought in by the adult birds. However, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) now advise us to continue feeding birds throughout the spring and summer months, as the adult birds need all of the nutrition that they can get.
On the other hand, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) advises that in Spring and Summer, it is best to avoid peanuts and switch to seeds or live food, as these are the best substitute for the birds' natural diet. Be mindful too of the fact that once you start feeding them, the birds will quickly come to rely on you. So if you happen to go away, try and arrange for someone to check that the bird table and feeders are well stocked in your absence.
How to Make Your Own Bird Bath
Food isn't the only lifeline for garden birds. Water, too, is essential, especially in cold winter weather when other sources are likely to be frozen over. You can either buy a ready-made bird bath, or make your own out of a shallow dish, but whatever you do, make sure that the water is clean and regularly changed. Also, remember to break the ice when temperatures drop below freezing.
Please make sure that the water isn't more than a few centimetres deep, and that the bath sides are shallow, to make it easier for the birds to drink and bathe.
Gardens may be a welcome larder for wild birds, but they are also one of the most dangerous places to visit. Cats are the biggest problem, killing tens of millions of birds every year, often while the birds are busy feeding. However, there are a few things that you can do to reduce the death toll:
Firstly position your feeders in a safe place, away from cover where a cat could hide to stalk its prey. Secondly, reduce the amount of cover around the feeder by cutting back twigs and branches where a cat might perch. Thirdly if you're a cat owner, then consider placing a loud bell around its neck so that any bird will hopefully hear it coming.
Its also best to avoid putting feeders too near large windows, as birds may not see the glass before it is too late, and get killed in the collision. Alternatively, you can stick a silhouette of a hawk up on the window-pane, which is supposed to frighten the birds off.
Other garden predators include Jays and Magpies and of course, Sparrowhawks. The former two, members of the crow family, generally prey on eggs and chicks rather than adult birds, but Sparrowhawks will take Blue and Great Tits from right under your nose. Unlike cats though, this magnificent raptor is a natural predator.
How to Build Your Own Nestbox
If you want to encourage birds to stay and breed in your garden, there’s no better way than by introducing a nestbox. Nestboxes, as their name suggests, are simply artificial substitutes for natural nest sites, such as holes and cavities in trees. The best-known nestboxes are designed for use by Tits, and are essentially a rectangular-shaped container, made of treated wood or other waterproof material, with a small entrance hole in the front for the parent birds to enter and leave.
As well as conventional nestboxes, a number of specialised types are available. These have often been crafted for certain species, ranging from the smallest such as Wrens to large birds such as Kestrels and Tawny Owls. However, to succeed with species like these generally requires specialist knowledge and experience, so it's best to start off with the standard box and branch out later on.
Speaking of experience, including a nestbox is certainly not a simple matter of fixing it to a tree or wall and hoping that a bird happens to occupy it. There are a number of things that need to be considered, so without further ado, here are a few hints and tips that should guarantee success:
- Firstly always buy nestboxes from a reputable supplier, such as the RSPB or the Wildlife Trust.
- If you do decide to build your own, then I recommend that you follow approved plans, which, again can be obtained from organisations such as the RSPB.
- Put your nestbox up in late winter rather than in the spring, so that the birds have plenty of time to investigate and assess its suitability.
- Site your nestbox carefully: either on a tree, wall or garden fence, ideally 6-16 feet above the ground. Also, try to face the box in an easterly direction, to avoid the strongest sun and wettest winds. Also, make sure that the box is well out of reach of predators and inquisitive children.
- Keep a close eye on your nestbox, especially during the spring, to watch out for prospective tenants. Once you think the birds have taken up residence, never remove the cover or look inside the box, as this may reveal the site to predators, or cause the parents to desert the nest.
- Each autumn, after the young have fledged, check your nestbox and clear out any nesting debris, so that the box is clean and dry for the following year's use.
Gardening for Birds
Us Brits are often depicted as a nation of gardeners, but not all of us are keen, including yours truly. Even so, there are a number of ways to make your garden more attractive to birds. The main thing to remember is that by providing the widest diversity of habitats you will attract the greatest variety of birds. A good tip is to not only think of your garden as an extension of your home but as your own private nature reserve, so try and manage it in the same way that an organisation like the RSPB would manage one of their reserves. Bear in mind that different species prefer different things; as well as food and nesting sites, they need roosting places too.
So, what sort of trees and shrubs should you plant in your garden? The simple answer is the ones that will make a huge difference to the birds, but which ones?
I would recommend favouring native species, such as Hawthorn, or any other tree that provides plenty of berries or fruit, such as Wild Cherry, Elder and Hazel. There are some non-native plants, such as evergreen cypresses that are excellent for providing valuable shelter, and are particularly favoured by Greenfinches. However, they should be planted sparingly, as they can easily dominate the garden and overshadow other more valuable plant habitats. Seed-bearing plants such as teasels are also highly attractive to finches, especially Goldfinches, and flowers such as honeysuckle will attract warblers like Blackcaps, which enjoy feeding on nectar. Most other flowering plants attract insects, which will themselves encourage insect-eating birds to visit your garden.
Try and encourage a part of your garden to grow wild. You will find that it's a good way to increase the number and variety of birds there. Try planting a stand of nettles, or a couple of bramble bushes down the back, out of sight. With luck, you should manage to create a habitat that attracts birds without giving the neighbours cause for complaint. Remember that birds need the support of plants throughout the year: in the spring and summer, as a place to build nests, in autumn to stock up on nutritious food for the coming cold weather, and in winter as a place to roost and keep warm. So try and design a garden that will provide something for the birds during all four seasons.
How to Build a Garden Pond
If you really want to broaden the range of species attracted to your garden, one of the best ways to do so is by building a garden pond. Even a small pond can be home to all kinds of insect life and amphibians. It also provides a valuable place for birds to drink and bathe, and a regular observation point.
A pond can be surprisingly easy to make and not too expensive, although homeowners whose precious goldfish have been stolen by a visiting Heron might not agree. There are plenty of resources available for anybody wishing to 'make their own' pond, or alternatively you can buy ready-made 'shells' from a garden centre. Make sure that you keep your pond well stocked with aquatic plants and keep it clear from fallen leaves, especially during the autumn and winter months.
© 2018 James Kenny