While birds are evident almost everywhere, they will only set up residence in an area that is wildlife-friendly, often returning to breed there season after season. By providing a sanctuary for feathered friends – safe perches, feeding tables, food, water features, nesting opportunities, as well as keeping an eye on the activities of domestic pets – you can ensure that birds will arrive (and stay) in numbers and in surprising variety.
If you want to attract more birds to your garden, this article is for you.
With few exceptions, indigenous plants provide much more food (directly and indirectly) for local animals and insects than alien plants. This is particularly true when it comes to the invertebrates required by insectivorous birds, and by nestlings of nearly all bird species. Furthermore, indigenous plants are also more reliable fruit-producers, as their local specialised pollinating agents (that is, local insects!) are present.
So, if you’ve planted a variety of indigenous plants in the different sections of your garden, there will be food available for birds on an almost continuous basis. The seeds, fruit, buds and nectar produced by these plants at different times throughout the year will ensure a steady, permanent presence of birds.
Seeds are a favourite source of energy for many birds.
Finches will hang on the grass stems and pick off the seed. Others, like the guineafowl and francolin also feast on seeds. Doves will feed on the ground and pick up seeds that have dropped off the plants.
The Rhus (Searsia) genus contains a number of tree and shrub species that produce masses of seeds that are eaten by various birds. *Remember to buy this specie in threes, as the male and female are separate with only the female plant producing seed.
Sunflowers are also an excellent seed-producing option, and the dwarf sunflower varieties available will provide a spectacular show in the garden.
Grasses and other plants like restios produce seeds, which will attract more birdlife to your garden. Think: Elegia tectorum.
You can also sow a handful of mixed birdseed into one of the garden beds.
Fruiting plants are a big favourite among many birds species – which is why a range of indigenous plants that produce fruit at different times of the year is essential for a successful bird-feeding garden.
Plant as many different species of indigenous trees, shrubs and groundcovers as you can, rather than masses of a few varieties.
Even if the plants fruit within weeks of each other, it helps to extend the feeding frenzy over a longer period.
Fruiting plants to consider:
The num-num (Carissa macrocarpa) produce large, succulent fruits that can support the appetites of fruit-feeding birds for months.
Trees like the Natal mahogany (Trichelia emetica) and wild plum (Harpephyllum caffrum) are also a good source of food for fruit-eating birds.
Flower nectar is an essential part of the diet of several bird species. Including the sunbirds and the Cape Sugarbirds. Others, like the Cape White-eye and all the bulbul species supplement their diet with nectar when available.
Nectar-rich flowers are produced on many indigenous trees and shrubs and should be included in the planting palette for the wildlife garden.
The Cape honeysuckle is one of the most popular nectar-producing plants and is available in a variety of colours.
Bulbuls are particularly fond of the flowers and nectar of the aloe species that flower mainly in the winter when food is scarce.
The tubular flowers of the famous southern African ericas are a main source of nectar – particularly in the Cape region.
Our indigenous thorn trees have much to offer here. The predominantly yellow flowers attract many insects which in turn attract insect-eating birds to the garden. These include the bar-throated apalis, cuckoos, flycatchers, shrikes, sunbirds, warblers, and even woodpeckers.
The seeds of many thorn trees are also an important fruit source, as is the nectar from the flowers. And they are good nesting trees!
On cold winter days, get out into the garden and turn over the top of your compost heap. Compost hides millions of insects that will provide a feast for many small birds.
Buds and other delicacies:
Flower buds and young leaves aren’t generally bird’s food of choice but are eaten of necessity when food is scarce, particularly in early spring.
If you’re distressed about birds feeding on your young flower buds, artificial feeding (by means of feeders) will provide some protection to the garden showcase.
Supplementary feeding becomes necessary when the garden is less productive, and can also ensure a greater number and variety of birds in the garden year-round.
Nectar feeders like the sunbirds, for instance, may leave for greener pastures when your Cape honeysuckle plants end their flowering cycle, and the addition of artificial nectar feeders will ensure that they have no reason to go.
A variety of commercial bird feeders is available.
When selecting a bird feeder, ensure that it’s roomy – birds are reluctant to enter a feeder that restricts their vision and make them feel ‘boxed in’.
Seed feeders attract a huge number of the more common, bolder bird species like the doves, sparrows and weavers; the bully tactics of these birds ensures that the shyer species stay well away. For this reason at least one feeder should be placed in the “open” area of the garden (which is the preferred feeding area of the ‘bully’ birds), and at least one other can be placed in a more quieter/private part of the garden – for the more timid species like the waxbills. (Spreading the seed around the lawn will also reduce competition and allow more birds to visit the feeding area).
Hanging, tubular seed feeders are designed to keep doves and pigeons away. They should be equipped with very short perches that make it impossible for doves to sit and feed. Feeders like this will not, however, discourage the sparrows and weavers.
Fruit feeders generally have a bar mounted under the roof which protects the fresh produce from the sun and rain. The spikes on the bar are used to attach pieces of fruit and prevent the birds from dragging the pieces off the bird feeder and onto the ground. The feeder floor is simply a landing area for the birds.
Ensure that fresh fruit is used and leftover scraps are regularly cleaned up. The accumulation of bird droppings and old food can pose a health hazard to the birds, so it’s a good idea to sterilise the feeder once a month.
Bulbuls, mousebirds and barbets are fond of fruit and will readily tuck into a meal of bananas, pawpaw, apple and orange.
These feeders, which can be hung in a tree, are designed to hold suet or other fruit scraps.
Suet is high in energy and a favourite among most bird species. Seed-eaters, fruit-eaters and insectivorous birds alike will feed on this delicacy.
Robins particularly are regular visitors of this type of feeders.
These feeders hold a suitable liquid that will attract nectar-feeding birds like the sunbirds.
Nectar feeding is controversial and should be carried out responsibly to avoid causing disease in the birds that visit.
The content of the feeding bottle is the most critical part of the feeding regime.
According to the book ‘Gardening with nature’ (Roy Trendler and Peter Chadwick) normal sugar can be used at a rate of two tablespoons to 500ml water. Ensure that you add a dose of avian vitamin supplement – available from pet shops (dose rate as per product instructions). Bovril can also be added to the mixture at a rate of one half teaspoon per 500ml water.
The mixture can be kept in the fridge for about two weeks. The content of the artificial feeder should be replaced every second day as the mixture will attract bacteria and fungi.
‘Gardening with nature’ (Roy Trendler and Peter Chadwick)
‘1001 Hints and tips for your garden’ (Reader’s digest)
‘Gardening with indigenous shrubs’ (David & Sally Johnson, Geoff Nichols)