Birds in your garden – how to ensure a healthy bird population

02. March 2021 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
Categories: About gardening, english, Seasons, Spring | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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Vögel im Garten - Kohlmeisen © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – Watching the wildlife in the garden, it is clear spring is approaching. Squirrels are chasing each other, birds are courting. They are inspecting birdboxes in their search for a suitable home, some are already building their delicate nests. The dawn chorus not only starts earlier from day to day, but it is also getting louder as spring approaches. At dusk the call of the blackbirds reminds me of my childhood, their loud and clear song telling me it is time to go inside.

Vögel im Garten - Meisennist © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Tit nest

Our garden is small and very urban. For serious gardening we escape the city and “borrow” a garden out in the Lüneburger Heide. Last winter we started feeding the birds there regularly. Over the year we noticed how this really made a difference in the variety and the numbers of birds that have adopted this garden as their home for at least part of the year. I am pleased to see them in large numbers and increasing variety. Not only are they delightful to watch and listen to, I am reassured by the knowledge they will remain here as spring progresses to take care of potential pest problems in the garden.

Vögel im Garten - Der falsche Nistort © Isabelle Van Groeningen
The wrong nesting place

Pest control

Although some are purely carnivorous, and others solely vegetarian, quite a few of our garden birds are omnivores, that are on the look-out for a protein-rich diet in the spring time when feeding their young. But like humans, they also need other substances such as carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins and minerals to maintain overall health.

Our birds have spent the winter months feeding on berries, seeds and nuts, but with the arrival of spring, most will be on the look-out for high-energy food in the form of insects such as aphids and caterpillars to feed their offspring. Sooner or later the little troublesome enemies appear, and with a bit of luck and patience, disappear again as birds discover them.  For the larger enemies I am pleased to observe a pair of common buzzards that have a daily routine circling overhead: they are on the lookout for our voles and moles which rank high on their menu. Nature doing its job…

Bird diversity

Vögel - Amsel im Zierapfelspalier © Isabelle Van Groeningen

All winter the birds have provided great entertainment, as we have watched blue- and coal-tits, as well as willow tits perform their acrobatics. Occasionally we enjoy the flurry of excitement when long-tailed tits descend on the garden like circus acrobats. Although fewer in number, we have noticed how tree creepers and the greater woodpecker have the upper hand on the feeding stations, under the motto “height is might”.

Looking like a ripe tomato, a bullfinch occasionally pays a visit, whilst at ground level blackbirds, thrushes, a jay and a robin clean up that what the messy, picky eaters above head have rejected form the bird table, feeding tube and fat balls. Some have yet to turn up, but as the cranes are flying northwards again, I am sure the smaller travellers will soon return as well.

Providing for birds naturally

Normally birds should find sufficient food to survive without any problems. However, as mankind’s interference has not only disrupted their habitats but also their natural supply chain of food, it has become increasingly difficult for bird populations to thrive. Supplementing their food supplies and providing habitats helps to sustain birds through winter and particularly through cold weather spells. With this in mind, I am planning to enhance the planting and extend their natural larder by planting more trees and shrubs.

Already the blackbirds have discovered the yellow crabapples we planted a few years ago. This autumn was the first year it carried small yellow apples, which disappeared quickly during the recent cold spell. I love watching quarrelling blackbirds as they defend “their” tree from other birds. Therefore it helps to plant several. If space is at a premium, consider planting them as espaliers that will also act as a screen or can be used to divide and create spaces.

What to plant?

In principle, everything I like to eat, they will love too. I have always planted more fruit bushes in my fruit garden than I needed, knowing the birds will get a good part of it. There are however many fruit-bearing shrubs we may not think of as palatable, which they will enjoy.

The garden already has a good selection of  several interesting shrubs such as Euonymus europaeus, whose colourful seeds are eaten by blackbirds, amelanchiers, Mahonia aquifolium, Cornus mas and elderflowers, and there are also self-seeded Sorbus, which are particularly enjoyed by thrushes. The small jewel-like rosehips on wild- and rambling roses like R. multiflora or R. ‘Kew Gardens’ sooner or later disappear too. The plump rosehips of the rugosa roses are particularly enjoyed by greenfinches. 


Stechpalme © Isabelle Van Groeningen

It is good to have dense twiggy shrubs in the vicinity where birds can queue up for the feeding stations to free up. The roses along the pergola are a very popular queueing place. They are just short flight away from the bird feeders and the bird table.

Evergreen shrubs are particularly valuable, as they provide excellent cover in case of danger. When a bird of prey is spotted, or other danger is signalled, all birds immediately take cover in the large rhododendrons. Yews, ivy and hollies are valuable too as they also provide edible berries. Holly is particularly useful, as the prickly leaves also discourage animals from encroaching. Fortunately, birds have already imported a seedling holly. We cleared the space around it so it will get some extra light and hopefully quickly grow into a good new home. We will add more to increase the evergreen cover.

Food plants

I am planning a thicket of Aronia melanocarpa. This North American shrub has attractive white flowers in late spring, followed by almost black berries in early autumn. It will also produce good autumn colour. Like many red berried fruits, they are particularly rich in anthocyanins, and also contain many valuable vitamins (A, B2, K and C) and minerals. Healthy, balanced diets are not only important for humans! We will also plant several Sorbus torminalis to replace some trees that were felled this winter. This  rowan is more drought resistant, and should cope well with the changing climate conditions. Other valuable trees are Crataegus. Their fruits are enjoyed by blackbirds, song thrushes and robins, though some of the varieties with larger fruits are only eaten once very ripe and falling to the ground, which means you can enjoy their decorative display longer! Other ornamental shrubs with palatable fruits for birds are Callicarpus bodinieri with its unusual violet pearls, and of course the jewel-like red Berberis and black Cornus sanguinea.

Changing gardening habits

It is important not to cut back herbaceous plants before the end of winter. All throughout winter I have observed tits and a wren flit in amongst the stems of phlox, asters, Eupatorium rugosum, Iris sibirica and thistles picking seeds and insects, whilst at ground level the blackbirds and robins have rummaged through the leaflitter in search of insects. By now the grasses are being collected for nest building, and all soft material like moss or fluffy seedheads of autumn anemones are sought after for lining. I spotted a beautiful tit’s nest, entirely woven out of grasses. Although precarious, it was beautifully crafted.

Think carefully where to position these plants so they work best within the design of your garden, but don’t forget the view from the windows. I used to have my favourite crab apple just outside my office window, which provided hours of entertainment.

Make also sure there is always a shallow dish of water where birds (as well as insects and mammals) can drink. 

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