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Gardening is for the birds

Creating a safe space for bird life in your garden.

A young eastern spinebill sampling the nectar of Chilean pitcher sage (Lepechinia salviae) (photo Wendy Cecil). 
 
By Joanna Feely, national engagement coordinator, and Dr Holly Parsons, urban bird program co-manager from Birdlife Australia. 
 
With the Aussie Backyard Bird Count returning this October, there’s no better time to consider the birds that visit your garden.

One of the joys of having a garden is listening to a warbling magpie or twittering fairy-wren. Birds are a wonderful presence in our gardens and the Aussie Backyard Bird Count is a great way to get to know them. Bird count participants report feeling happier and more relaxed after they’ve done a count – and also more aware of how our gardens influence the birds that visit us. Creating a bird-friendly garden is an excellent way to connect with your local birdlife. Birds can be great garden friends, performing vital functions like pollination, seed dispersion and pest control.

What a bird wants

Birds are a lot like people. They’re looking for food, water and shelter. Most Aussie birds get these resources from native plants – it’s what they evolved with, after all.
By providing them with these things, you’ll be making your garden beautiful and bird friendly as well. However, the whole garden doesn’t have to go native for it to be good for birds, so think about what plants you might add to entice the birds.

You can’t provide all things to all birds, so think of your garden as a resource stepping-stone. Birds will visit several gardens, parks and green spaces, picking up the resources they need from each one.

Garden structure

If you want to create diversity in your garden and attract some less-common species, you can make your garden a safe space for birds by creating different layers of plants. 

Ground layer 

Many gardens have lawns, but these open spaces often attract large and aggressive birds which chase other birds away. They include introduced common mynas, but also native noisy miners, pied currawongs and rainbow lorikeets. Replace unused lawn areas with garden beds or tussocky native grasses that produce attractive seed-heads, which provide food for finches and other seed eaters. Mulch keeps plants healthy and provides invertebrates for insect-eating birds. 

Shrubs 

Smaller native birds like thornbills, fairy-wrens and silvereyes need shrubs for food and shelter from aggressive birds, and it’s these plants that are most often missing in gardens. Shrubs are essential for small birds. A dense clump of shrubs provides shelter and protection, while rambling climbers like clematis, in among medium to tall shrubs and trees, provide extra shelter and potential nesting sites. 

Trees 

Trees provide important perches and the canopy provides food and protection. Even if you have a small space, a small tree does wonders for your garden (but remember to consider its eventual size before planting).

A bird-friendly garden (photo Mark McGeachie).

New Holland honeyeater with Banksia menziesii (photo Jane Putland).

Plant for food

Some people think a bird-friendly garden needs big showy grevilleas or bottlebrushes, but there are many plants that provide food for birds.

Natives 

? Insect eaters: wattles, tea-trees, thryptomene and kunzeas.

? Seed eaters: kangaroo grass, wallaby grass and wattles.

? Nectar feeders: small ‘spider’-flowering grevilleas – small honeyeaters’ beaks fit into them, but larger ones don’t. Also try banksias, hakeas, melaleucas and correas. 

Exotics 

Although native plants attract native birds, so do some exotics.

Shrubs like abelia, salvias and clumping plants like red-hot pokers (kniphofia) have small tubular flowers that are perfect for the slender bills of spinebills and other small honeyeaters.

Roses and other ornamentals attract silvereyes and various thornbills, which pluck aphids from the leaves and stems.

Also consider ornamental pears, cherries and plums, whose fruits act like magnets for lorikeets and other parrots and cockatoos, as do many berry-producing plants.

Be cautious of some berry-producing shrubs like cotoneaster, although they attract gang-gang cockatoos, and some succulents whose flowers attract honeyeaters, as they are considered environmental weeds.

Scarlet honeyeater with Grevillea ‘Fire Sprite’ (photo Silva Vaughan-Jones).

Graceful honeyeater (photo Mark Lethlean).

Accessories

Birdbaths and nest boxes both complement a bird-friendly garden – but they require maintenance. Birdbaths must be kept clean, full and out of reach of cats. Nest boxes should be monitored – they can attract bees, mynas and starlings. If bees move in, call an apiarist to remove them; if mynas or starlings take over, remove their nesting material before they get settled.

Yellow-tailed black cockatoos (photo Shirley Kucks).

Aussie Backyard Bird Count 18–24 October

To participate, simply spend 20 minutes counting the birds you see in your garden or favourite green patch and tell us what you see via the app or website. Record the birds you know and look up the ones you don’t with our handy bird-finder tool.

To learn more, head to: 
aussiebirdcount.org.au

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