Safe Havens

Safe Havens


Home GardeningTurning your backyard into a safe haven for native birds is a lot easier than you think

Story & photos: Diane Norris

One of my favourite childhood memories is my mother’s enthusiasm for attracting birds into our backyard — and it’s something she still does. I loved them all: the butcher birds, crested pigeons, little finches, wrens, honeyeaters, willy-wagtails and many more. I remember, too, the excitement we all felt when the migratory Koel bird returned year after year. All were made welcome in a garden full of bird-attracting plants, little ponds and native trees and shrubs.

It’s very easy to attract birds into your yard, whether you live adjacent to bushland or in residential areas. With bushland being encroached upon, our gardens have become a vital haven for birds, so it’s important to develop your garden with some particular considerations in mind. Think about what birds like to eat, where they nest, how and where to locate a clean supply of water and how to provide a safe retreat for your feathered friends. Let’s look at the basic procedures you can employ to enjoy native birds in your garden.

Layer upon layer
Ideally, living near a national park is perfect as birds can just pop over the fence to visit your garden and then fly back to their natural habitat. But if you live further away from these reserved areas, you can easily birdscape your garden. Of course, native or indigenous plant species attract local wildlife. Even if you have an established garden, whether cottage-style or formal, native plants can easily be incorporated — even just a few will bring bird life.

I live right in Wollemi National Park and have thousands of birds visit each week. Even though there is plenty of their preferred vegetation at my doorstep, I have planted flowering native plants in three large garden beds and these are all filled with hybrid (mixed species) of grevilleas, banksias, callistemon (bottlebrush), melaleucas, kunzeas, lilly pillies (Syzygium sp.) and kangaroo paws. From my observations, without any doubt, birds really like red or yellow flowers best. Honeyeaters particularly love the yellow-flowering Grevillea ‘Orange Marmalade’ and one of these dense shrubs can be filled with more than a dozen birds, of varying sorts, at any one time.

The larger parrots, such as the crimson rosellas or king parrots, like the red flowering Grevillea ‘Majestic’ or Grevillea ‘Sylvia’, and the yellow-tailed black cockatoos flock every October to March and visit their favourite shrubs, mountain devil (Lambertia formosa) and pink spider flower (Grevillea sericea), or sit gnawing the hard seed pods of one of our Banksia serrata trees.

When planting for birds it’s best to plan your garden to include growing layers. By this I mean planting shrubs and trees of varying heights. You could start with low-growing plants such as Grevillea ‘Bronze Rambler’ or a variety of native grasses, then the next  storey might be shrubs up to about a metre in height (Grevillea ‘Robyn Gordon’ or Grevillea ‘Coconut Ice’ are both great), then backdrop these with spiky or dense-foliaged, large shrubs such as Grevillea ‘Ivanhoe’ or Grevillea ‘Coastal Glow’. We have these last two plants and I often hear our little finches happily chatting away inside the seclusion this thick foliage offers.

It’s also important to have trees. Even one or two provide essential shelter for birds. My mother-in-law, another bird lover, has a maple in her yard. Recently, I spotted four king parrots in it. There were three males and one female, all sheltering from a hot summer’s day, sitting peacefully with their wings spread out a little in the cool of the canopy. One male yawned and nodded off as I sat and watched and, even though this little tree wasn’t native, it provided a safe resting place for these beautiful birds and they were so relaxed they didn’t worry about being photographed.

Water, water everywhere
Whether you have room for a pond, dam, water feature or birdbath, clean and fresh water is sure to catch the eye of passing birds. We have four birdbaths in our yard. I made them from old earthenware plumber’s pipes and topped each with a shallow terracotta planter-dish. A champagne cork adequately blocks the drain hole. Each bowl has a gradual slope into the water, which means the tiny finches and wrens can drink or splash in safety, while bigger thrushes, honeyeaters or parrots can have a good bath. They are about 1.2 metres tall and the water depth is 8cm. If you have a deeper dish, you must make sure you put a few pebbles in the bottom so the little birds won’t drown.

Also worth remembering is the quality of the water. If you can replenish with fresh tank water, that’s ideal. I clean my birdbaths every second day. Whatever you do, don’t add anything to the water (such as algaecide), as it may harm the birds. Also, if using terracotta, or any kind of dish for that matter, don’t paint, lacquer or waterproof, as these substances can also be dangerous. Pre-fabricated cement birdbaths vary in height but it’s wise to keep them well above the reach of cats, dogs or little children and they are best positioned in the garden where foliage and branches give birds a perching place from which to go to and fro in complete safety and ease.

Water provides sustenance for not only birds but also insects, frogs, lizards and other native animals that may also enjoy a drink or two. If you have room for a pond or small dam, remember to plant some nice native water-plants as they can add beauty as well as attract insects for little birds that are solely insectivorous, or drip nectar that other birds may like.

Food, glorious food
Controversy is never far away when you talk about putting out bird seed for native birds. Recently, however, I heard Terri Irwin say it was great to supplement the diet of native birds with a little good-quality bird seed, fruit, nuts or vegies.

I have a couple of bird feeders hanging from a branch of a scribbly gum, about 1.3m from the ground, which is safe for the birds and within easy reach to fill with seed. If I run out of food for them, there’s always some nuts or flowers in this eucalypt that they can sustain themselves with until I replenish their bowls. You may like to simply put seed on a flat, wooden tray if you are limited for space. Again, be mindful that it needs to be out of reach of the family pet.

Native birds may eat nectar, seeds, berries or insects and your local native nursery can advise you of what trees you need to attract certain types of birds. It is vitally important that this food is safe, so if possible don’t use pesticides in or around your home. We have never used any insecticides or herbicides in our yard and we have loads of spiders, insects, frogs, lizards and hundreds of birds thanks to the healthy ecosystem we maintain.

Last year, for instance, I noticed a huge, lustrous redback spider near a doorway and planned to photograph it straight away. Unfortunately for me, our regular grey thrush, one of the most beautiful songsters in the bush, also noticed it and I watched as it swooped down and ate my perfect photographic subject in the blink of an eye.

Hollows and havens
Larger trees often have good hollows in which birds can nest or lots of branches where birds such as robins can build their elaborate nests. Spiky bushes provide sanctuary for birds such as blue wrens. Having nesting birds in the garden is a satisfying experience and we have just witnessed a grey thrush raise three babies in her nest that she built in the twisted branches of an ornamental grapevine at a relative’s home.

If you really are keen, try buying (or perhaps building) some nesting boxes. These can be hung in garden trees or under pergolas or eaves for your local birds to hide away safely and raise chicks.

Just a word of caution, though. There are several introduced and non-native species of birds that have become well adapted to the Australian environment. Heading this Most Wanted list is the very territorial common myna (often called the Indian myna), closely followed by the lice-riddled starling. You can get information from your local council or national parks office if you think you have these nuisances in your yard.

Nuisance species aside, birdlife will bring joy to any garden. We love to hear the calls from lyrebirds deep in the gully in front of our home or the squabbling of parrots. And we love watching a pair of wedgetail eagles soar on warm air currents or our little blue wrens hopping around in the grass, happily chirping.

Get yourself a pair of binoculars to observe the birds that appear in your garden and buy a good bird-identifying book; you might even want to join the Australian Museums bird-watch program. Observing birds can be both fascinating and relaxing, and if you create a safe haven for native species, you can enjoy your new pastime as a “twitcher”, secure in the knowledge you have also done your bit for the environment.

About the author: Diane Norris is a nature photographer, writer and environmentalist.

Read all about it!
If you are interested in creating a safe haven for native birds, animals and insects in your own backyard, Habitat Garden by Peter Grant (ABC Books, rrp $27.95) should be a boon. Habitat Garden guides you through the basics of designing and creating a garden replete with Australian native plants that will attract and then sustain all kinds of wildlife, including birds. Habitat gardening helps you establish a connection with the environment and this comprehensive book provides information for all types of garden, from coastal to alpine. Included is invaluable advice on how to select and propagate native plants, manage weeds and pests and build a multipurpose pond.