A Birds-Eye View
Winter is a notoriously difficult season for birds. With survival foremost on their minds, birds can easily be attracted to your carefully landscaped garden. Many summer visitors leave us during autumn each year but a surprising number of bird species remain at home. The shimmering colours and cheerful calls of the sunbirds and sugarbirds can add additional interest to a drab winter.
The cold months of winter create an opportunity to attract these wonderful little creatures to your garden, the first step is to understand their needs and behaviour patterns during these colder months. The bird friendly garden starts with a good foundation. As an artist might approach a painting or a builder the first steps of a project, the basics need to be in place. Once this foundation has been created successfully, one can easily make the finer adjustments needed to complete the picture.
Not unlike other living creatures, birds have three important needs, all of which are difficult to come by during the harsh winter months, food, water and shelter. When landscaping your garden, these essentials need to be prioritised.
Give a little thought to the food requirements of the birds that frequent your area. The selection of shrubs and trees that are able to provide a natural food source should be the first priority. This natural menu can be supplemented by creating feeding stations using the many wonderful products available from any GCA accredited garden centre or nursery. You’ll be able to find a list of these on our website.
Not only will a careful selection of suitable trees and shrubs offer your feathered visitors fruit, berries and flowers, they will also add much needed colour to your winter garden. Careful selection is the key, consult with your local nursery and select from indigenous, evergreen and colourful shrubs and trees. Remember to consider the frost factor in the colder regions. Many trees flower during winter, our 2012 tree of the year, the Water-Berry (Syzygium cordatum); Black Mangrove (Burguiera gymnorrhiza) and the Red Beech (Protorhus longifolia) are suitable for planting in most regions. The latter grows quite tall (20-25m) and has a lovely pinkish flower from July to October.
Shrubs and flowers attract birds in different ways, for example the Honeybell bush attracts insects and butterflies, essential food for the meat eating birds. Shrubs can be planted individually or grouped to form a hedge. Wild Rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus); Tick Berry (Chrysanthemoides monilifera) and the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) are all suitable options.
The more we can add to our offering, not unlike a shopping mall or a good restaurant, the more successful we’ll be. Once the foundation has been set up successfully, complete the picture by including the warm colours from some winter flowers, aloes, strelizia, daisies, the Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia praecox) and the many familial varieties of this favourite will add lovely warm orange colours to your garden.
Your selection of trees plays an integral part in attracting garden birds, they have dual roles, as food providers and as safety zones. If one studies birds in their natural habitat you will notice that after eating for a while they regularly head back to a safe area. From here they will survey the scene and when comfortable, hop down to eat or drink.
Catering to different feeding habits and the suitability of nearby cover will enhance the bird friendliness of your garden. Locate feeders at different levels where they can be viewed easily and where possible, cater for the different bird species by offering a menu of seeds and colourful fruit. Select gravity feeders that are able to keep seed dry and feeders that are able to withstand the wintry gusts as they pass through. Take time to study the habits of the different birds. Some can be quite greedy or dominant and chase away others.
Suet and other meat based options attract certain meat or insect eating birds. Make your own by melting a little fat and stirring in a few seeds; some over-ripe fruit, even a little cheese, left-over bread and meat scraps. Once the mixture has cooled you can cut it into portions, freezing the extras for later use. The birds will love you! Don’t underestimate the simplistic approach of a decomposing bed of fallen leaves to provide a suitable environment for worms and grubs, an appealing food source for our meat eating visitors.
Many of our best gardens include running water features. Aside from being attracted by the sight of water, the natural sound of running water is sure to appeal to any bird scanning your garden during a fly-by. Unless you live in the Western Cape, our South African winters can be quite dry. Start with a simple water dispenser hanging from a branch, or a standing bird bath as an entry level option. Water and feeding stations, when used together, offer attractive design options while fulfilling the basic needs.
In addition to attracting birds, these enhance any garden and can be fun to build. Birds love bathing in a shallow pool, perhaps you have some weathered stones, or a shallow section of your water feature which allows them to spread their wings a little. Involve the children, consider adding a goldfish or two and make the most of the many new planting options a water feature can create throughout the year.
Now that your foundation has been laid, you’ll already be enjoying the sight and sounds of your new visitors. Take a walk around the garden, coffee in hand and soak up the warm morning sun. Fine tune from time to time by shifting the feeders a little, seeking out the areas enjoyed most by the birds.
Above all else, don’t forget to enjoy your creation. You’ve planned well and worked hard. One of the most important things you can now do is to sit back and enjoy both the gifts of nature and the fruits of your labour. Even if you’re not an avid bird watcher, get yourself one of the lovely field guides available from your nearest book store, involve the family and see how many of our feathered visitors you can identify.