Watching the birds in your garden or community green space is a calming, mindful activity. In gardens and allotments, birds can be great allies in helping keep pests at bay.
So encouraging more birds to visit is a good thing. And providing garden birds with food, water and shelter can help boost populations of those species that are struggling.
Here are a few suggestions for ways to attract more birds to your garden.
Put out food
Different types of food will attract different birds. Many of our favourite garden bird species – such as blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, robins, and bullfinches – will eat peanuts and seed mixes. Peanuts are also particularly enjoyed by nuthatches and woodpeckers. Nyger seed, meanwhile, should attract goldfinches and siskins.
Suet balls and bars provide birds with a high-energy boost, and all sorts of birds love them. Mealworms sprinkled on a bird table will attract robins.
Provide seeds, nuts and suet balls in bird feeders – but never use nylon mesh, as birds’ tiny feet can become entangled. Also scatter some seeds on the ground or on a bird table, for ground-feeding birds such as blackbirds, robins and thrushes. Only feed whole peanuts in a feeder, though, to prevent choking.
A note on avian flu. According to the RSPB, garden bird species are currently understood to be low risk in terms of susceptibility to the virus. So it’s extremely unlikely that bird flu could be transmitted to people by feeding garden birds. It’s important however to maintain good hygiene at bird feeding stations – including regularly cleaning feeders with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, and washing hands.
Waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans, meanwhile, are highly susceptible to the disease. So current guidelines recommend not to feed the ducks just now – this will help avoid large populations of these species congregating in one place.
Offer fresh water
Water is just as important as food – birds need fresh water for both drinking and bathing. During winter, natural sources of water may become frozen. In prolonged periods of dry summer weather, the same sources can dry up.
A wildlife pond is an excellent water-source for birds. Make sure there are shallow areas, or strategically placed stones, so that birds (and other creatures) can reach the water easily.
In very cold weather ponds can freeze over, so you may need to break the ice.
If you don’t have a pond, there are lots of decorative bird baths available to buy. But any watertight container with a depth of up to 10cm will do the job. It should have sloping sides, for ease of access, or put some stones into it to allow smaller birds to reach shallow patches of water. Make sure there’s an escape route, such as a plank of wood, to allow small animals such as hedgehogs to exit the water if they fall in.
It’s important for birds to have places to rest and nest. Plants that provide thick foliage and protective thorns will help keep birds safe from predators – hawthorn, blackthorn and holly are ideal. If you have space, grow a hedgerow containing some of these plants. Birds also like to roost and nest in ivy thickets, so avoid cutting ivy back, especially during nesting season.
Increase insect populations
Swallow, swifts, blue tits, robins, wrens, blackbirds, house sparrows… all these birds and more will include insects and other invertebrates in their diet. So, to attract more birds to your garden, first attract more insects!
Growing nectar-rich plants is a good way to do this. Annuals such as cosmos, calendula, poached egg plant, or nasturtiums are cheap and easy to grow. Sedums, lavender, rosemary, verbena bonariensis and penstemons can be grown in a flower border or in containers.
Other ways to increase supply of insects include creating a pond, and allowing areas of grass to grow long. Leaf and log piles can be great habitats for invertebrates such as spiders and beetles, which are eaten by several garden bird species.
Don’t be too tidy
Avoid cutting back dead plants in winter, as these can provide food – either from the insects sheltering in the stems, or from seeds in the seed heads. Teasels, thistles, and sunflowers all produce seeds that are eaten by birds.
In spring and summer, let dandelions grow – the flowers attract insects, and goldfinches feed on the seeds. Other wild plants can also be beneficial to birds – nettles, for example, are a food source for butterfly caterpillars, which are eaten by some birds.
Avoid hedge cutting and trimming from the beginning of March to the end of August – this is the breeding season for nesting birds.
Put up a nesting box
Giving birds a place to bring up a brood is a good way to attract more birds to your garden. Nest boxes come in different sizes for different species, and should be positioned in a safe place where cats or other predators can’t reach it.
It’s a good idea to get nest boxes put up a few weeks before birds start to think about breeding. National Nest Box Week (www.nestbox week.com) encourages people to provide more nesting sites for birds, and runs from 14 February each year. Birds also use nest boxes to roost in – so if you can put up a nest box earlier in the year, even better.
Avoid toxic chemicals
Use of some pesticides, weedkillers and fertilisers causes toxic chemicals to leach into the soil and end up in water sources. Pesticide residues in insects and worms can move up through the food chain and harm birds.
Pesticides and weedkillers also reduce the natural food sources available to birds, by killing the insects that birds eat, or the plants that produce seeds that birds eat. In fact, these toxic products can have a massive impact on all sorts of wildlife.
Birds are brilliant at keeping pest populations in check: blue tits, for example, feed on aphids, and thrushes eat snails. So instead of using pesticides and weedkillers, aim to improve the natural ecosystem in your garden by making it as nature-friendly as possible.