Birds in the garden

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Rainbow Lorikeet; photo: Mick Roderick, BirdLife Australia

This week is National Bird Week, so it is a good time to think about birds in our gardens. I can't imagine not having birds around; they provide a delightful soundtrack with their songs and chatter; bring life, movement and colour into our backyards; and are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem, keeping all sorts of undesirable insects under control. But apart from what birds do for us, we can also think of what we can do for birds! With ever-increasing development in our city, birds are losing their habitat, food and water. In our own modest way, we gardeners have the resources to help birds survive and thrive. I think we are all probably aware that the bird populations in our Sydney gardens have changed markedly over the last few decades. For example, I no longer have any small birds such as wrens or eastern spinebills in my garden; they are all bigger birds these days!

Birdbath in the garden of Jill Hankinson, Sydney

There are various steps we can take to attract birds to our gardens. One vital requirement is to offer a source of water for them to bath in and drink. Ideally, a birdbath should be shallow enough so a bird can stand in it to clean its feathers. A brick could be placed in the base of the birdbath for birds to stand on if it is deep. A birdbath should be located near to a dense (preferably prickly!) shrub so that birds can quickly escape to safety if threatened. Birdbaths on a stand or hanging in a tree can provide more security for birds. The water in the birdbath needs to be changed regularly and the birdbath cleaned every so often. Providing birds with a couple of sources of water in the garden is ideal.

Laughing Kookaburra; photo: Mick Roderick, BirdLife Australia

Generally speaking, it is not advisable to feed birds. Though it can be so tempting (and I am guilty of this myself!) to toss a bit of meat to a kookaburra or throw some seed mix around to bring birds into your garden, it can make birds dependent on your handouts and can encourage more aggressive birds to arrive, disrupting the natural ecological balance. However, we can plant specimens in our gardens that can attract birds in a more desirable way, and the key to success is a diversity of flora that covers different layers of vegetation at varying heights. Providing plants for nectar, seeds, fruit, insects, nesting material, shelter and/or nesting sites will help encourage birds to visit and even live for a while in our gardens!

Little Wattlebird; photo: Mick Roderick, BirdLife Australia

Native plants are ideal for this purpose, some examples being grasses such as Poa labillardieri and strappy-leaved Lomandra species; groundcovers including Hibbertia sericea and low-growing Grevillea species; taller shrubby Grevillea, Banksia and Callistemon; and trees such as Acacia and Melaleuca. Having plants that flower at different times of the year is beneficial, so as to offer food continuously. Low, dense shrubs provide the best shelter for smaller birds. However, many exotic plants are also frequented by birds, so a wide variety of specimens is likely to work. The eastern spinebills that once visited my garden, for example, loved my Salvia plants!

Grey Butcherbird; photo: Mick Roderick, BirdLife Australia

Avoiding the use of harmful chemicals in the garden is an important point to remember if you hope to attract birds to your garden, as it destroys the very ecological balance that we hope to create by bringing birds into our backyards! The less we spray of these nasty products, the more likely it is that birds will visit our gardens and dispatch the caterpillars and other annoying insects that infest our plants.