In my mini London garden, I don’t see enough birds. There’s the occasional robin that hangs around, picking through the spoils when I’m out digging or weeding, especially at this time of year. There’s also a pair of blue tits that made a nest in next door’s chusan palm last spring. It was lovely to see them flitting back and forth with insects for their young. Then there are the pigeons, of course, crashing about in an ungainly fashion among the robinia and silver birch trees. Oh, and the rose-ringed parakeets! How could I forget those flamboyant immigrants? There are several theories as to how they got here, the most favoured being that they’re descendants of a couple of domestic escapees. I prefer the more romantic tale of the original pair finding their way out of Ealing Studios during the filming of The African Queen in 1951.
Either way, there are colonies of them all over the south-east and apparently as far north as Glasgow. They’re well known around here in London, and sometimes it seems as though most of them have settled in my back garden, screeching and flapping about in raucous groups. They’re beautiful to look at, resplendent in yellow and green with great sweeping tail feathers and orange beaks. But somehow their being here doesn’t seem right. They’re natives of Africa and India, and their presence is having a negative effect on the less boisterous native bird populations. Conversely, however, there’s been a rise in the numbers of their predators: birds of prey in London and the south-east are on the increase and hobbies, peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks have been seen preying on the parakeets.
So perhaps I should say ‘I don’t see enough of the right kind of birds’? One of the reasons is, no doubt, the parakeets. Plus the number of cats that prowl the back gardens of our London terraces. But I also wonder if I’m providing enough in the way of food and shelter for them. In autumn there are a few berries on my pyracanthas, but they’re soon stripped bare, so it must be a struggle getting their beaks on enough to eat at this time of year, let alone heading into winter.
I’ve fashioned my own ready-made bird food before and it’s not hard to do. Start by softening some lard or suet in a pan, then mix in any combination of seeds, nuts, dried fruits and chopped bacon rind. Tip into a plastic cup through which you've threaded some garden twine. Left to cool it soon hardens, ready to hang out on branches high enough to be safe from the cats, of course.
It’s easy to forget that once things start to freeze, drinking water can be hard for birds to find. One simple trick to prevent ice forming on the surface of bird baths and ponds comes in the shape of a ping pong ball. Floated on water, the slightest of breezes keeps it moving and the water stays ice-free. I rarely need this ploy in our sheltered London garden, but nonetheless I’ll be whipping out the ping pong ball as soon as frost threatens!
Planting a native hedge is probably the best single thing you can do for your local bird population. It’s not only brilliantly useful for wildlife but it’s beautiful too; an ever-changing patchwork of greens, reds and oranges, flowers and berries. Now is the ideal time to order and plant a mix of hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, elderberry, dog rose and more. I’d do it if I had the space. I know the birds would thank me.
Since I can’t plant a dense hedge, I’ll let the ivy grow a little to provide great cover for birds as well as places where insects (aka bird food) thrive. It’s a hugely misunderstood plant. Yes, it can be vigorous, but, contrary to popular belief, it won’t strangle trees (it does them no harm at all). According to the Wildlife Trust, it supports more than 50 species of wildlife with the cover it gives, as well as providing berries and early-season nectar and pollen.
It’s not easy to make a shortlist of the best plants for birdlife in the garden, but here’s my personal top five, some of which you can buy here at Ashridge Nurseries:
2 Wild hedging roses, such as Rosa rugosa, for their autumn hips, popular with mistle thrushes and blackbirds
3 Hawthorn, for shelter and autumn berries (the favourite berry of many native species, including blackbirds, greenfinches and starlings)
4 Viburnum opulus, the guelder rose. Bullfinches in particular love the glossy red berries
5 Teasels. They’re gorgeous to look at, and the winter flowerheads are a huge draw for goldfinches and blue and great tits.
Enjoy sharing your garden this autumn.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer