Bring the birds into your garden
Irish gardens should be welcoming places for native songbirds. John Manley has some tips on how to make your patch more conducive to feathered wildlife
LAST weekend an estimated 17,000 people across the north took part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. Billed both as the world's biggest wildlife survey and the planet's largest annual citizen science exercise, it's effectively a yearly audit of the birdlife that inhabit the habitats around our homes.
Naturally, while the RSPB give birds top billing, the survey isn't just about avian life and sets out to record sightings of everything from frogs to red squirrels.
By making your garden bird and wildlife friendly, you not only do our feathered and furry friends a good turn, you also provide yourself with additional outdoor interest, especially in winter when there's fewer flowers on display.
The sight of a charm of finches or a solitary song thrush on a frosty January morning is perhaps the equal of any summer bloom.
Additionally, gardens created for more than just conventional displays of flowers and shrubs are much more interesting and usually have a healthy, biodiverse ecology.
There are essentially two strategies for attracting birds into the garden and ideally they should be used in tandem. Firstly, there's the direct provision of food and shelter with a feeder and nesting boxes.
Protein-rich feed like fat balls are recommended in spring when there's young to be fed then seed in the winter. Ideally feeders should be situated near to a dense bush that'll provide cover for small, shier birds.
Nesting boxes should be located in a sheltered site, at a safe height where predators can't get at them.
The complementary method involves creating a habitat with plants that will attract birds, and letting as much of your garden as possible remain wild so insects and other bird snacks can thrive.
Shrubs and trees such as cotoneaster, berberis, holly, hawthorn, blackberry and rowan will provide food in the form of fruit. Flowers such as sunflowers, teasel and poppies are also a good source of food for birds.
Other flowers will attract insects such as flies and aphids that are also a food source.
Cover, both for when feeding and roosting, is desirable. Arguably, ivy provides the best cover – and all year round too. The flowers and seeds of ivy are nutritious, and are a good source of pollen. Virginia creeper and clematis make good ivy substitutes and are easier to control.
And remember all creatures, including birds, need a constant source of fresh, unchlorinated water. A pond – the bigger the better – is always best but, if you don't have room, bury a shallow bucket or fill a half barrel.
Always remember to create a causeway of sticks and stones so creatures such as frogs can get in and out.
With the exception of a automated bird scarer firing a noisy blank round every couple of minutes, the single greatest deterrent when it comes to attracting birds into the garden is cats.
Personally, I'm not a cat lover, but am obliged to say that I appreciate that some (odd?) people do like to keep them as pets.
Cats are thought to be responsible for a large proportion of premature bird deaths – and those they don't kill they scare, meaning the birds are more likely to go hungry.
If you're cat owner, put a bell on your pet to alert birds to its presence. These days you can even get sonic collars that are designed to warn potential prey. Other advice for owners includes keeping your pet indoors when birds are most vulnerable – the hour after dawn and the hour before dusk.