The role of the garden ecosystem was thrown into focus with the first-ever Backyard Bird Watch, organised by Birdlife Australia last spring.
During the week-long event thousands of bird-watchers and bird lovers compiled lists of bits spotted in gardens and forwarded them to the birding organisation so a census could be compiled of birds visiting urban and suburban areas nationwide.
I took part in the survey, spotting about 40 birds in a garden which I have carefully turned into a bird reserves in the 15 years or so I have lived in Dynnyrne.
In truth, it wasn’t such a big task for me to plan a bird-friendly garden. The previous owners of my house situated above the banks of the Sandy Bay Rivulet planted Australian exotic species which attract birds, like some of the more showy mainland grevilleas, and some plants not native to Australia at all, like fuchsias, rhododendrons and camellias. Although I have subsequently planted purely Tasmanian species, I have let the other plants stay, after determining they are not listed as invasive weeds and they genuinely provide food for native birds.
As I said last week in the first of a two-part series on gardening for birds, the key to a bird-friendly garden is a range of shrubs and trees of varying height.
I have two lawns on my property, which frame an area of exotic, non-Tasmanian wattles, and around these I have planted low shrubs like a ground-hugging banksia to give cover for small birds which like to scamper across my lawn, mainly the fairy-wrens, and also the scarlet robins which in spring delight in snapping up insects disturbed as the grass is being mown.
When choosing ground cover it is important to select dense and possibly thorny species which will not only keep predator birds at bay, but also cats.
The very dense and tall strands of yellow bottlebrushes form another layer of vegetation and in these new holland honeyeaters and even grey fantails have been known to build nests. The bottlebrushes stand about as high as the exotic acacias and I am lucky to have an even higher layer of vegetation, silver wattles and blackwood close to the rivulet, and beyond this blue gums, stringybark and white peppermint gums.
Added to the mix are hakeas planted by the previous owners, whose seeds provide food for visiting yellow-tailed black cockatoos in the autumn.
It is a delight some days to hear the loud cracking sounds emanating from the garden when the black cockatoos are at work, often with youngsters in tow.
The Grant Daniels’ study of bird-friendly gardens mentioned last week found water was a key component, although in my case it is not important because the rivulet always has water in it.
Bird baths do not only provide an essential water supply for birds, especially in summer, but can provide a wonderful spectacle as the birds arrive to drank and bathe. Placement and design is important, however. Birds will feel more confident about visiting a birdbath if it is located in close proximity to dense shrubbery. This will give thirsty birds a vantage point from which to check for predators before drinking, and also a place to retreat to if they are ambushed.
Birdbaths with gently sloping, non-slippery sides increasing to a depth to around 40-50cm are best. Anything with steep sides could become a death trap.
Daniels also found the provision of artificial food had a very positive influence on the number of birds attracted to a garden. But generally the provision of seeds favoured introduced species, apart from eastern and green rosellas, and attracted enormous numbers of house sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and spotted turtle doves.
To attract a wide range of native species – especially members of the honeyeater family – it is worthwhile providing a commercially-available nectar mix, or fruit or food scraps.
Providing food for birds, though, can never be a substitute for planting natives to provide nectar, pollen, fruit and seeds. In general, some of the best bird-attracting shrubs are grevilleas, bottlebrushes (callistemons), banksias, wattles and eucalypts.
Although not native, domestic fruit trees can also be important for all birds, especially parrots.
I have two apple trees in my garden and it is always a race towards the end of
summer to gather apples before they are eaten by visiting birds.
I thought green rosellas were responsible until one morning I saw swift parrots – a new bird for my garden checklist – munching on the apples.