Garden for birds: tips for urban plots
by Linda Harrison
© iStockphoto/David Hughes
There’s nothing quite like being serenaded by birdsong in the middle of a city. But some timid avian visitors can remain elusive in urban gardens, no matter how chilly the weather is or how much food you put out.
You may get the odd magpie, pigeon or seagull – or ring-necked parakeet in and around London – but how do you set about attracting plenty of different species to bring your outside space alive with colour and noise?
The good news is that with just a few simple changes you can turn your garden or balcony into an urban bird magnet. The golden rules for attracting birds are to provide shelter, food and a fresh water supply.
What birds might visit?
According to city bird enthusiast and campaigner David Lindo, aka The Urban Birder (www.theurbanbirder.com), there’s a huge variety of birds in cities – about 350 different species have been spotted in London alone. Robins, thrushes, blackbirds, wrens, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, collared doves, starlings, greenfinches, chaffinches and house sparrows are just some of those happy to drop by. In spring, you may spot swifts or house martins swooping overhead and you may even see black redstarts, which love rubble-strewn ground.
One of the easiest ways to provide shelter is to put up nest boxes. They give birds a place to breed, something that’s often in short supply in urban environments. In cities, there often aren’t enough trees or bushes that are dense, thorny or prickly enough to provide a safe nesting place for birds. And mature trees with holes where birds such as tits can nest can be lacking too.
Hole-fronted boxes have a particularly good success rate in cities for tits, while open-fronted boxes are popular with robins. Chris Harbard, a writer for Birdwatch magazine, says house sparrows have declined in towns and cities and providing them with nest sites in ivy or thick bushes is a great help. They will also use a ‘terrace’ nest box – a single large box with three compartments, each with its own entrance. Harbard adds, “The front of the box shouldn’t face south or west – a south-facing box can be too hot while a west-facing one can be hit by winds. It’s a simple thing but can mean the difference between failure and success. Also, avoid fixing boxes right next to a window or creeper.”
Swifts only land when nesting and cities are key habitats as they like to use the eaves of houses. Steve Hodgkinson of the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country (www.bbcwildlife.org.uk) suggests putting out a small pile of old grass, feathers or hay in March as swifts may swoop down and take them for nest building.
The key to attracting lots of different birds to the garden is variety – the wider the range of food you put out, the more species of birds you’re likely to encourage. Robins like to feed on the ground and eat cheese, cake, seeds and mealworms. A hungry blackbird or thrush will also be partial to an apple on the ground. In feeders, tits, finches and sparrows thrive on sunflower hearts and peanuts while nyjer seed is recommended for many types of finch. Fat balls are fairly universally loved (fat is important as it provides energy, especially in winter).
Harbard advises thinking about mess on the ground: “A seed mixture is great but birds will take the goodness out of the centre, leaving the shells. You don’t want to attract rats, so stick to snacks without shells. For food like cheese, limit it to enough for the day.” Mess on the floor can also be reduced by attaching seed trays to the bottom of feeders.
If you’re worried that squirrels or bigger birds will eat all the food you put out, leaving nothing left for the birds you’d like to see, there are various feeder designs that can help. A cage called a guardian will safeguard the contents of the feeder and protect the smaller birds eating there from predators. If squirrels or parakeets are a particular problem, opt for a RSPB cheater nut and nibbles feeder, from £15.99 (http://shopping.rspb.org.uk). Squirrels can’t bite through the feeder’s metal tube and find it more difficult to grip, while parakeets can’t shred it with their strong beaks. This feeder is suitable for peanuts and suet nibbles but not seeds.
Providing some plant cover in the garden which smaller birds can dive into if they detect danger while they’re feeding will also increase your chances of attracting lots of visitors. Try growing a dense climber or a bush (one that’s up to six feet high and wide is ideal if there’s space). Harbard says: “Cover is not essential – birds will visit a feeder without it – but is always preferable as an exposed feeder can be vulnerable to predators. It’s often good to position a feeder so that it’s not too far out into the open but it’s also not too close to anywhere that a cat could hide.”
Water is important all year round for drinking and bathing – try a shallow dish sunk into the ground with stones for birds to stand on. Remember to change the water regularly.
Planting for birds
When considering what to plant, you may want to go wild.
Lindo says: “Try to keep a portion of your garden wild if possible. That way, you’ll attract insects and butterflies that are food for birds.”
Insects are vitally important for many species, such as dunnocks and wrens, while house sparrows rely entirely on insects for feeding their chicks.
Lucinda Antal, development manager at the National Wildflower Centre (www.nwc.org.uk), recommends filling hanging baskets and pots with early-flowering ‘insect favourites’ such as snowdrops, English bluebells, crocuses and colourful aubretia. Plants such as yarrow, field scabious, fennel, red valerian and heliotropes will attract butterflies, bees, moths and hoverflies through the summer and early autumn while plants such as Michaelmas daisies will also keep your garden buzzing later in the year. Some plants such as sunflowers, goldenrod, knapweeds and lavender have a double benefit as they attract insects and produce seeds that birds like to eat.
If you’ve got room to plant something more substantial, then you could consider a tree or shrub that’ll provide both food and shelter for birds. A rowan tree will provide red berries – a great food source during the autumn – as well as nesting places. Small fruiting trees such as dwarf apple trees and crab apples are a draw for blackbirds and thrushes. Meanwhile, dense, thorny or prickly shrubs such as pyracantha, holly and berberis provide good cover for roosting and nesting as well as berries.
If you’re short on floor space, then you can still grow climbers that’ll provide nesting sites, shelter and food for birds. Ivy provides dense cover all year round, while its flowers attract bees, butterflies and other insects and birds such as woodpigeons, thrushes, blackbirds and blackcaps eat the fruit. Honeysuckle makes an ideal nest site for thrushes, while insects feed on its flowers and its autumn fruits attract warblers, thrushes, bullfinches and sometimes blackcaps.
Balconies and roof terraces
Balconies and roof terraces needn’t be deprived of avian visitors. Install feeders with peanuts or sunflower seeds – some can be fixed to windows with suckers. Tits are the most likely birds to visit first or second floor balconies, plus sparrows, chaffinches and greenfinches.
You might even get a robin.
As Hodgkinson says: “In the past, robins were not thought to like feeders. But in recent years they’ve been spotted on them. Of course, it depends on the weather. Birds are more likely to risk visiting a feeder on a balcony when it’s freezing cold.”
Generally, the higher you are, the less likely birds are to stop by as they mainly forage between ground level and the tops of trees. But there are still things that you can do, however lofty your space. “High-rise residents can install swift nest boxes and have wildflowers in window boxes or planters to attract and feed invertebrates that help to swell nature’s larder for birds,” says an RSPB spokesperson. There have also been some inspiring success stories. “We’ve had mallards laying eggs in planters on fourth and fifth-floor balconies around the Shad Thames area of London. The chicks hatch and tumble safely to the ground.”