Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bringing in the birds.

Natureblog July 2010
Benny Hill thought he had a talent for bringing in the birds but he was always upstaged and to the tune of Yakety Sax, fled the chaos he had caused. Girls aren’t called birds much these days but various bird names are applied across humanity to showcase our attributes, usually the deficient ones. Dodo, turkey, goose, vulture … you might be able to continue the list.

Attracting birds is an age-old human quest; we’ve done it to catch them for food and for conservation and because we like to have them around. The art has attained its highest expression in the duckhunter. There are no limits to what a hunter will spend or to how much trouble he goes to to camouflage himself and build himself a little house in the swamp. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned it to a duckhunter before, but it is much more fun to visit a supermarket and get your bird there. It’s cheaper, it comes plucked and gutted and its not full of steel shot.

There’s a bit of science in attracting birds to your garden. There are around 30 species in Southland that might land in your trees or wander across your lawn. It depends very much on the size of section and proximity to the bush, ponds or parks but you can do your bit to help.

I think the most important factor is height. I was contacted once by a school which wanted to attract birds. “We’ve cut down our pines, macrocarpas and gumtrees. What should we plant to attract birds?” I suggested pines, macrocarpas and gum trees would be a good start. Birds like height. They feel safer from predators, it’s easier to take off from a high branch than the ground and they can see what everyone else is up to. Tall trees are necessary for most nests. Bellbirds, tuis, magpies, White-faced herons, finches, sparrows and pigeons need that height, and fast-growing trees are the answer. Other birds – silvereyes, dunnocks, blackbirds, thrushes and starlings for example – don’t need the tall trees and utilise buildings or lower shrubs.

What can you plant for birds to eat? This is less important than height but a good practice.

Many plants, native and introduced, provide food for garden birds and a variety of plants can make a real difference to what lives in your garden. Unfortunately some introduced plants with edible berries are pests. These include Chilean flame creeper, cotoneaster, bittersweet, holly and barberry which are all spread by birds. One fast-growing species with edible berries is karamu Coprosma robusta, but although a New Zealand native, it is not native to Southland.

Other useful natives which occur naturally in Southland are wineberry, Tree fuchsia, Red matipo, pate, Three-finger, Cabbage tree, flax, Black matipo and various shrubby coprosmas. All grow rapidly and produce flowers within a few years of planting.

These species are of benefit to nectar-drinking and fruit-eating birds but plenty of other birds use trees and shrubs for a source of insects and spiders. Kowhai, laburnum, Tree lucerne, plum and willow leaves are eaten by pigeons but by attracting them to an urban garden you may be exposing them to cat predation.

Seed-eaters such as finches, yellowhammers, thrushes and sparrows need open space as they do much of their feeding on the ground or close to it.

Only a few species of birds will use a nest box. Examples are starlings, riflemen and grey teal but the starling is the only bird you can be sure of attracting to a nest box in town. This can be a mixed blessing. Although it is educational and entertaining watching the antics of starlings inspecting the nest box and filling it with material, they can be aggressively territorial and the growing chicks can be noisy. The nest box needs to be installed high in a tree, under an eave or in a place where the birds are confident it will be inaccessible to predators. A starling nest box needs a hole 58 mm across and the dimensions of the box should be around 250 x 300 x 370mm. An optimistic bird enthusiast might try to attract a Little owl. They like a 70mm entrance hole in a box about 800mm long and 200mm width and height.

Supplementary feeding not only attracts birds but it provides a vital food source for them in winter. Silvereyes probably rely on sugar-water to sustain them when there is little else around. I provide sugar-water for silvereyes, tuis and bellbirds. I put out food scraps such as bones, peelings and over-ripe fruit which are picked by starlings, blackbirds and silvereyes. Slices of dog roll in a netting bag, suspended well out of cat and dog reach, are attacked by silvereyes and starlings. Wheat and birdseed bring the finches and sparrows. A word of caution about seed cakes – as seeds are dislodged they fall. Make sure your feeder is above open ground otherwise cats lurk and take the food chain a step too far when your finch starts foraging in the shrubbery. Bird food also attracts rodents so keep those traps on a hair trigger!