How to attract birds to your garden

Attract neighbourhood birds into your garden and enjoy their song all day long – we show you how…

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By Marié Esterhuyse
Photographs Francois Oberholster, Christo Lötter and Marié Esterhuyse

Every bird lover dreams of having the perfect garden where feathered friends can make themselves at home. Create a paradise for a variety of birds by providing them with food, water and shelter – and you’ll soon reap the rewards.

1. Plant for birds

By increasing the number of indigenous plants in your garden, you’ll attract more bird varieties as they prefer the foods found in their natural environment. This doesn’t mean you have to dig it all up and start from scratch. Rather, take a look at the indigenous alternatives at your local nursery next time you replace old plants.

If you’re not sure which plants will attract birds, ask at your nearest nature reserve. Otherwise, stroll around your neighbourhood and check out which plants they seem to like most – you’ll soon see who prefers what!

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Who eats what?

• Seed-eating birds enjoy the wild grasses in your garden. Allow the grasses to grow wild and run to seed, replicating the natural grasslands in which these birds feel at home.
• Insectivorous birds hunt for their prey in dead trees and tree stumps, eat the caterpillars on your lawn, and will help you get rid of aphids. Leave fallen leaves in your flowerbeds for thrushes to forage under. Plant a Plumbago auriculata, wild Pelargonium species, or a lavender bush that will attract butterflies, and a wild pear (Kiggelaria africana) which is relished by the caterpillars birds feed on.
• Nectar feeders love flowers into which they can plunge their long, sharp beaks – aloes, proteas, pincushions, bottlebrushes, wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus) and Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) are excellent choices. Plant these where you can watch the birds while they feed.
• Fruit-eaters would love to feast on your fig tree. So plant Kei apple (Dovyalis caffra), white stinkwood (Celtis africana), tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida) or karee (Searsia lancea) for their fruits and berries if you want to keep the birds out of your fig trees.

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2. Bird Banquets

Feeders are an easy way to ensure that birds visit your garden. And it’s easy to make your own: simply place a paving stone on a sturdy base such as a tree stump, or hang a wooden board from a tree with string or wire. Scatter wild bird seed and breadcrumbs for seed-eaters, and overripe fruit for fruit-eaters.

Hammer a few nails into a board, tie this to a branch, and then spike halved apples, oranges or bananas on the nails. A feeder bottle filled with sugar water will attract sunbirds. Place more than one feeder in your garden to lure bolder birds to eat near the house and position more secluded feeders for shy birds.

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Try these ideas:

• A seed funnel: You will need several 2L plastic cold-drink bottles. Make holes about 7cm from the bottom in one and then insert ‘funnels’ made from the tops of three bottles into the holes before filling them with seeds.
• A feeding bottle: Hang a bottle fitted with a feeding funnel and a perch in a tree and fill it with sugar water tinted red – use food colouring.
• Filled pine cones: Fill the gaps in-between the scales of pine cones with a mixture of either peanut butter and bird seed or animal fat and seed and hang the cones in a tree.

Don’t put out food every day, as the birds will become dependent on this. But do make sure your feeders are full at the weekends when you have the time to watch the birds feast at their banquet.

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3. Provide a place to live

If you’d like your avian guests to become permanent residents, nesting sites are essential. A garden with plenty of trees is quite enough for some species, but not everyone wants to nest on high.
• Buy a birdhouse (or three): Place birdbaths and nests everywhere in your garden. A sisal stump will, for example, be hollowed out within hours after you have hung it up – usually by a red-headed woodpecker that wants to use it as a nest. Other good places for nests are on top of a pole or hanging in a tree.
• Plant trees: Birds use trees as a place to breed, hatch or perch. They also love sipping dewdrops from leaves or nectar from blossoms.
• Plant hedges: Plumbago hedges are a clever choice for boundary walls because they attract shy birds such as the Cape robin and spotted thick-knee that enjoy nesting in the dense plant growth. Cape robins will also nest in walls that are covered in thick creepers such as ivy (Hedera species).
• Wall nests: Don’t get rid of slightly dilapidated old stone walls as many birds enjoy nesting in the gaps.

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4. Bathing beauties

A place to bathe and clean drinking water are also essential for attracting birds. Ideally, have more than one birdbath – a birdbath on a pedestal is perfect for the extroverts, but the shyer species will prefer bathing in a more densely grown part of the garden. The birdbath shouldn’t be more than 2cm deep – add a stone or two to make it easier for the birds to get in and out.

Keep the water clean so that they can drink from it as well, and make sure that the birdbath is kept topped up as birds will even bathe in winter.

But water isn’t all they are interested in; a sand bath is just the thing for mousebirds, so leave that sandy patch in your garden as is – they’ll love it.

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5. Insect control

What you consider a pest may well be your feathered friends’ idea of a gourmet dinner. By unnecessarily spraying chemicals in your garden, you’re depriving insect-eating birds of a square meal. So look for alternatives before you launch an extermination campaign. The birds might surprise you by naturally controlling insect numbers. White-eyes will relish the aphids on your roses, while hoopoes and wagtails will make short work of the caterpillars on your lawn. It simply takes a little time for nature to spring into action.

If spraying is absolutely unavoidable, look around for nests and food sources such as flowers and berries first. Birds are particularly vulnerable during the breeding season in spring, so use organic methods to control pests at this time of year.

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Take a tip from the experts
Count the species of birds in your garden before you start one or more of these projects. Then take another census two or three months after setting out a feeder, birdbath, or another form of ‘welcome mat’ to see how successful your campaign has been. The odds are good that you’ll count considerably more species in your garden.

Source: Bring Nature Back to your Garden by Charles and Julia Botha

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