Birdscaping Your Garden

Many of us go out into the bush to spend time with nature and usually return home with fond memories. As you look around your garden you may wonder what it would have been like before the bush was cleared and houses built. Many people are looking for ways to create natural gardens so that they can experience the joy of having wildlife at home and know that they have put back some of that which has been taken away.

Birdscaping is the designing of a garden to attract the variety of birds that would have occurred originally in the area. Birds need many types of foods including insects, reptiles, seeds, nectar, and fruit. Plants should be selected to provide as wide a variety of each of these as possible and over as many seasons as possible. They also need nesting material and shelter from the weather and predators. Plants that provide nesting material include grasses and stringy barks. Dense foliage plants or those with spiny foliage provide good shelter. Birds also have very different foraging and nesting requirements and the garden needs to be planned so that there is a diversity of shrub and tree heights, as well as leaf litter/mulched areas and areas of mature grasses. To achieve this you need to be conscious of their needs and then set out to provide them. A balanced garden will attract a wide range of other wildlife such as insects, spiders, reptiles, frogs and possibly even mammals. Your garden will then resemble the bush.

The best way to provide for the local wildlife is to plant local native plants. Not only are these best suited to the conditions where you live but the wildlife is best adapted to them. Choose from a list of natives that give you the greatest diversity of food types and heights. If you need to remove existing exotic plants or plants that have the potential to become weeds then these should be removed gradually so that the birdlife does not loose shelter before those you have planted can take over the job. Keep in mind that many native plants can become invasive weeds when planted outside of their normal range and some are threatening endangered local native plants either because they colonise more readily or because they hybridise with local species.

Hybrid native plants are often chosen because they appear more spectacular having larger flowers and longer flowering periods; but they can present problems. Birds visiting these hybrids will spend less time pollinating local native plant species and the reduction in seed set could lead to their extinction. In addition, these hybrids are often more attractive to large aggressive honeyeaters and lorikeets which defend the flowers and prevent other smaller birds from entering the garden, even those that don’t take nectar. In particular the Noisy Miner can be a serious pest. Our habit of clearing bush for housing development, leaving a few trees and then planting hybrid grevilleas creates ideal habitat for the Noisy Miner. Use of shrubs with smaller flowers that provide less nectar and more dense cover make it less worthwhile for the Miners and also more difficult for them to defend territories. If you live within a Noisy Miner colony you need to take this into consideration. It is suggested that you avoid selecting plants attractive to them for at least three years while the rest of the garden becomes established and other birds take up residence.

Plants that provide fruit and seeds need to be selected carefully as birds will carry seeds back into the bush where they may germinate and compete with the local native plants. This can be as much of a problem with non-local native plants as with introduced species.

Artificial food supplements should be avoided as these can cause nutritional imbalances, aid the spread of disease and are more likely to attract introduced rather than native birds. Water can be provided by means of a bird bath placed a safe distance from dense shrub cover and with a high nearby vantage point so that birds can check for predators. Water needs to be replaced regularly and the bath needs to be kept clean to minimise disease transmission between birds. The presence of water in the garden will increase the diversity of birdlife that visits your garden.

Protecting wildlife from domestic pets is always difficult. Cat bells do not work. When a cat is in “stealth-mode” the bell is silent and when the cat is attacking it is too late. Cats should be kept enclosed 24 hours a day and should be provided with a cat run. Nightly curfews and inertia bells (a new type of bell designed to make noise when a cat is striking) do not protect insects and reptiles from cats. Dogs can be trained to leave birds alone.

There are many reference books available for birdscaping gardens. They provide lists of plants, their requirements and the types of foods that they supply for birds. Take care however when consulting them as many suggest food supplements and do not specify which plants are local to your area. You will perhaps need to consult a local native plant guide, your local native nursery or local council.

Birdscaping Your GardenBirdwatching in Sydney with the Cumberland Bird Observers’ Club