Garden birds play an important role in our lives.
“The early bird who catches the worm” may not suit gardeners who are hoping for a fertile, well-drained soil in which to grow their plants, worms being an important part of the garden ecosystem.
But those same worm-eating predators also hunt out and eat aphids and insects that will damage and destroy the gardener’s flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Depending where you live in Britain / UK will determine which birds are likely to come into your garden. It may seem obvious to you, but not everyone has worked out that country gardens and urban gardens will have different species appearing. Gardens in Inverness in northern Scotland are likely to have some garden birds the same as those in Eastbourne on the south coast of England, but also garden birds that are different.
Migratory birds, from abroad also vary across the country. Some of these transient garden visitors appear only in our winter gardens.
A garden that has a mix of native and non-native plant species and a range of different habitats within it should be able to provide some or all of the year round needs of our British garden birds.
A garden that has interesting plants in the winter for you, the gardener, is likely to provide cover and food for the birds too.
So how do you attract blackbirds to your lawn and a cheery robin to your vegetable garden during the winter?
Providing safe places for garden birds to feed
If you have the room, a range of birdfeeders gives you the opportunity to provide the preferred food for small garden birds such as sparrows, robins, blue tits and the larger blackbirds and thrushes.
Placing the birdfeeders in areas where the birds will feel safe is also important, or they won’t come down to your garden to feed. Cats are the most common bird predators in most gardens.
Grey squirrels, although not predators as such, will fight for their right to eat the food you put out. This is increasingly the case in the suburban winter garden, as grey squirrels seem less likely to fully hibernate due to the availability of winter food sources in parks and gardens.
Hanging the birdfeeders in shrubs and trees on branches that would snap under a squirrel’s weight but not a blue tit’s often works. There are various birdfeeders on the market which reduce the likelihood of squirrels accessing the nuts and other foods.
Will my cats eat the garden birds?
Many cat owners, and gardeners in cat populated neighbourhoods are often worried that their cats will eat the birds.
In this circumstance, always as yourself the question: “Is my cat a hunter already?” if the answer is “no”, then you may not have an issue. I would also suggest watching your cat. I have had a few cats over the years who consider the birds in their garden to be not worthy of hunting, to the extent that they will lie on the lawn, watching the birds come down and feed. However, the birds in a neighbours’ garden are a different matter; those have been hunted and often caught.
Offering cover for timid birds whilst preventing too much cover for domestic cats is possible. Dense or prickly hedges where there is not the room for a cat to climb through, such as privet or butchers broom are one solution.
Unless you have a wide expanse of open lawn, then encouraging ground feeding birds may not be advisable, as the birds need to see the cat approaching. With smaller gardens, putting a bell around your cat’s neck may work.
Shrubs with berries for garden birds to eat in winter
Growing berry plants to provide winter food can add a sparkle to your garden. Planted where you can see the shrubs from a window, you can enjoy watching the birds feed on a cold winter morning whilst you drink your first cup of coffee.
Berberis darwinii (Darwin’s barberry) –
is a shrub that has blue-black berries that last through the autumn and into winter. Its prickly evergreen foliage helps to keep the birds safe from cats and makes a good boundary hedge.
Mountain Ash (Sorbus species) –
I’m fond of the Rowan tree; it’s a good choice for many small gardens. As well as the more usual red berries, yellow are also found. You may find that these last longer through the winter as garden birds seem less keen to eat yellow berries, preferring red ones, so leave the yellow ones till last.
Ilex europea (European Holly) –
Holly berries are not just for Christmas – they’re good for the birds in your garden in January when there’s not much else for them to eat. In order to have berries, you need to have a female plant. Easy enough to find if you’re buying a holly at this time of year as you can choose a berry covered specimen from the plant nursery or garden centre. If the glossy green leaves of the Holly are not to your taste, this useful shrub can be found with variegated foliage, for example Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ – which despite its name, is a female plant!
Ivy (Hedera helix) –
the black berries of ivy are a rich treat for birds in the winter garden. Although often considered a weed, ivy, kept under control, can be an excellent wildlife plant for your garden.
an evergreen wall shrub with jewel like red, orange or yellow berries that will be much enjoyed by your garden birds. Its sharp spines make it an excellent boundary plant against a trellis fence or garden wall.
Cotoneaster horizontalis –
perhaps not an obvious winter berry plant for British garden birds, they do like eating the red fruits. Not a native species, this decorative wall shrub has been in British gardens since 1880. There are some concerns about its spread in the wild, particularly in limestone grassland habitats.
Dog rose (Rosa canina) –
a British native, this rose has soft pink flowers in summer and vitamin rich rosehips over winter. Bought as a bare rooted specimen and planted over the winter as part of a native hedge it will provide cover for nesting birds as well as winter food source.
As for watching and recording the garden birds this winter why not join in with the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch over the last weekend of January? An annual event, this provides a snapshot of the British bird population. If that whets your appetite, the British Trust for Ornithology – BTO – have volunteer surveys where you can record your garden birds throughout the seasons.
And remember to tweet about your garden birds…sorry! Social media pun!