How to turn your garden into a bird paradise

As wild bird populations decline due to lack of habitat and natural foods, providing a safe haven in your garden can help them survive, so says Olive Ryan in her weekly gardening column
How to turn your garden into a bird paradise

Echinops Ritro are beloved by goldfinches

AS I sit here looking out the window, I am amazed at the spectacle of wild birds feeding from my bird feeders (and seed-heads that remain in the garden).

There are chaffinch, goldfinch, siskins, hedge sparrows, bullfinch, blue tit, robin, and other tits and finches that I struggle to identify, and each offer a profusion of song and colour to brighten up the day.

A marvel of evolution and adaptation, birds range from the petite hummingbird, the showy peacock, the flightless penguin, the colourful parrot, the enormous ostrich, and so many in between. They are among the most intelligent of creatures, with the ability to make and use tools, pass knowledge on to the next generation, and have complex communication systems, with some species able to produce two distinct songs at the same time.

As wild bird populations decline due to lack of habitat and natural foods, providing a safe haven in your garden can help them survive. Attracting them fills your garden with activity and song, and green spaces directly benefit from their presence too.

A bird feeder is a good way to attract our feathered friends — but certain plants will also do the job.
A bird feeder is a good way to attract our feathered friends — but certain plants will also do the job.

Many kinds of birds feed on pests like caterpillars, beetles, and grubs. They can also help reduce your weeding by eating the seeds of unwanted plants.

In winter and early spring, birds benefit hugely from food put out for them. The less time spent looking for food in winter, when days are short, the greater their chance of survival, especially in cold and freezing conditions.

The practice of feeding wild birds initially began when newspapers in the UK asked people to put out food for them after a particularly severe winter in 1890. Since then, setting out bird feeders and birdseed has become a thriving industry; bird lovers spend a lot of money on seed and feeders.

A much more budget-friendly, low-maintenance, and natural way to feed our feathered friends is to simply grow plant cultivars that will provide enough food to satisfy their hunger. Birds like to forage for their own food, and you will attract more winged creatures to your garden by growing flowers, grasses, and berries than using a bird feeder alone.

Some of the following plants may sound a bit exotic, but can be easily sourced on the internet and, once planted, you can collect your own seed for future use.

NIGER (GUIZOTIA ABYSSINICA)

Native to Ethiopia, niger is an annual flowering plant that can reach heights of 6ft. Niger is easy to grow and does well in any soil type and pH level.

Blooming bright yellow flowers in August, it produces nutrient-dense seeds which are a favourite of finches. Smaller seed-eating birds like finches and sparrows have developed into experts at eating tiny seeds such as niger. These species have smaller, pointed and sharp beaks, ideal for cracking open the shells of the niger seed.

SUNFLOWER (HELIANTHUS ANNUUS)

These are very easy to grow and will add a burst of sunshine to your garden beds. Sunflower seeds provide a good source of vitamins and minerals to both birds and humans.

Pearl Millet seeds provide a feast for doves, sparrows, thrushes and siskins
Pearl Millet seeds provide a feast for doves, sparrows, thrushes and siskins

PEARL MILLET (PENNISETUM GLAUCUM)

Millets are small-seeded grasses and there are many different types. Pearl millet produces attractive cones bearing thousands of seeds per season. Ornamental varieties such as ‘Purple Majesty’, ‘Jade Princess’, and ‘Purple Barron’ provide a food source for doves, sparrows, thrushes, and siskins.

CHIA (SALVIA HISPANICA)

A flowering plant from the mint family, chia is a very pretty herb that can grow nearly 6ft high and blooms purple or white clusters along a central spike. Chia seeds are loaded with nutrients for our garden birds.

ZINNIA (ZINNIA SPP.)

A long-stemmed flower blooming in an array of bright colours, zinnias are highly prized by butterflies, bees, and birds. After the flowers fade, they provide a feast for sparrows and finches.

GLOBE THISTLE (ECHINOPS RITRO)

Globe thistles are hardy and quite visually striking with purplish-blue, perfectly spherical flower heads. Beloved by goldfinches, globe thistles are an easy to grow perennial that will feed the birds well into wintertime.

 Salvia Hispanica are loaded with nutrients.
Salvia Hispanica are loaded with nutrients.

DOGWOOD (CORNUS SPP.)

With varieties that span trees, bushes, and shrubs, there are plenty of choices in dogwood that will suit the space you have. Whether large or small, dogwoods display gorgeous white flowers in dense clusters. They also produce colourful drupes that have been known to feed over 40 types of birds.

HOLLY (ILEX SPP.)

An important food source for wild birds in colder climates, evergreen holly shrubs or trees develop showy red berries that robins and other birds love to eat long after the first frost.

RUSSIAN SAGE (PEROVSKIA ATRIPLICIFOLIA)

Flowering from June to October, Russian sage is a fragrant, woody, extra long-blooming perennial that resembles lavender. It has an upright, bushy habit with bluish-purple flowers along each branch. The nectar is popular with butterflies and bees, while the seed pods will get a lot of attention from the local bird population.

Once you’ve planted some bird-friendly cultivars, you can just leave them be and birds will be more than happy to feed directly from the plants. Resist the temptation to deadhead all of your flowers, leave some on the plant and let it go to seed. Wait until the spring to cut them back.

For a more hands-on approach, you can harvest the seeds yourself to make your own birdseed blends, as well as to save seeds from annuals to grow again the following season.

To harvest the seeds, you need to wait for the flowers to form seed heads, then you cut seed heads from the stalk. Put the seed heads into a brown paper bag and set it aside for two weeks in a warm, dry space. Then you vigorously shake the bag to separate seeds from the their casing. Discard the empty seed heads and you will have a nice supply of seeds.

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