By Robert Jaques, Garden BirdWatch Supporter Development Officer at BTO
For many people, their garden birds are the wildlife they interact with most regularly, whether it is by watching the daily visitors on the feeders, the trials and tribulations of a nest box, or simply seeing which species have popped into the garden. This regular contact provides a window into the lives of wild birds and with that comes a sense of caring for these animals and wanting to provide for them.
This desire to provide for our garden birds is now big business, with an estimated £200 million believed to be spent annually on feeding wild birds nationally. Research by BTO’s Kate Plummer has shown that the food we put out is affecting the communities of birds that choose to use our gardens. Using the data from these types of studies, we have the information needed to provide best possible advice for wildlife gardeners and bird enthusiasts. Following the tips below should ensure you have a healthy garden, teeming with birds and other wildlife!
By having a bird-friendly garden, more species will come visit your feeders; perhaps even some of the less usual species such as these Bullfinches! Photo by John Harding.
1. Variety is the spice of life. The simplest way to encourage the widest number of birds to your garden is by providing a wide variety of foods. Nyger seed and sunflower hearts are popular with finches, peanuts are beloved by tits and woodpeckers, and suet pellets suit ground feeders like starlings, robins and thrushes. Fat products, such as balls and blocks, are popular with a wide range of species and can be an important source of energy throughout the summer months. Cheaper seed mixes often contain large amounts of millet, which can be popular with house sparrows, but many other species will pick through it to reach sunflower seeds and other treats. These discarded foods can become mouldy and dangerous for your birds so be sure to only put out enough food to last a day!
2. Location, location, location. The placement of your garden feeder can be all-important. Our instinct is to place it in the middle of the garden, where it is most visible, but many smaller birds can feel exposed to predators while foraging back and forth. However, being too close to a hedge can make ground feeders vulnerable to cats. Some experimentation will provide you with an idea of the most productive spot in your garden, but around 6–8 feet from a dense hedge should allow for the best of both worlds.
3. Let it grow. During the spring and summer months many of the species which you will often find on your feeders will turn their attention to invertebrates - vital food for many chicks in nests. Patches of dense vegetation, be it a hedge, mature tree, or a patch of grass left to grow wild, provide homes for invertebrates, allowing sparrows, tits, robins and thrushes to find sufficient food for their young. Certain plants will attract more insects into your garden. White, flat-topped flowers such as carrot and cow parsley will attract small flies and beetles, while deep tubed purple flowers like lungwort or red-dead nettle are popular with bees.
4. Planting up. If you are starting a new garden you are given the opportunity to build around the wildlife you want to use it. Hedges provide space for roosting and nesting, and conifers are great for providing these resources throughout the year, and will grow quickly. If you are more patient, native trees such as holly and yew provide those resources and an additional source of food in their berries. Hawthorn berries are popular with a wide range of bird species; non-natives like Berberis and Pyracantha will produce much later in the year when other trees have gone bare. A patch of bramble will allow for dunnocks to nest happily, and maybe even a warbler or two if it is large enough. It will also produce fruits used by not only birds, but a whole host of other wildlife.
Native species such as yew provide berries, an important food source for your local blackbirds. Photo by Edmund Fellowes.
5. Creating an oasis. Water is essential for birds throughout the year, and having a readily available source will keep birds coming to your garden year-round. A small tray of water can be enough but if you have the space, a pond is often the jewel in the crown of any wildlife garden. Not only will it provide a place to drink and bathe, but the insects which emerge from the water will provide another important food source. Just be sure to give your pond or any water source shallow sides, so young birds and hedgehogs can climb out easily should they fall in.
Creating a pond not only provides an important resource for your garden wildlife, but it can also provide the perfect backdrop for photographing your visitors. Photo by Alex Meek.
6. Home is where the heart is. Many garden centres and even supermarkets will now sell nestboxes. However, it is worth being wary of any with overcomplicated designs, as these can prove problematic and contain potential hazards for young birds. Even a simple perch outside the entrance hole can provide a foothold for predators. Simple designs are most effective and can be made at home with some simple tools. It is worth experimenting with nest boxes for different species. House sparrows, starlings and swifts are all suffering from population declines and providing additional nesting sites could alleviate some pressures. These species will all nest colonially, meaning you can make the most of a small space. If you are fortunate enough to have some mature trees in your garden you might consider a tawny owl box. Even if an owl doesn’t use it, it might be used by jackdaws or stock doves.
7. Keep it clean. Greenfinch and chaffinch have both seen dramatic declines in the past two decades. One of the contributing causes is believed to be the spread of trichomonosis, a disease that affects the throat and the ability to swallow in many common garden birds. It is thought to be spread rapidly at bird feeders, so diligent hygiene is important to prevent contamination by this and other harmful diseases. Clean your feeders thoroughly in warm, soapy water once a week, making sure to remove any old or mouldy food. If you do see any signs of disease (in birds or other garden wildlife) be sure to report this on the Garden Wildlife Health, allowing us to monitor the spread of these diseases and understand their impact.