Workshop tips on giving nature a home in your garden

Photos by Dave Vallis

17 January, Scout Hall

PLANT’s monthly gardening workshop for January was on the topic “Caring for birds in your garden” and was presented by Lauren from RSPB and Andrew Widd, PLANT’s own Growing Coordinator.

Flanked by an impressive display of manmade animal and insect “homes”, Lauren reminded us that being around nature enriches the lives of us human beings, and then gave us tips on how we can literally bring it right to our own doorsteps (RSPB website has lots of advice on how to ‘Give nature a home’ in your garden here).

Birds, insects and hedgehogs have the same basic needs as us – food, shelter and water – and we can provide all of these in our gardens.

While we can gain from having these creatures around us, they have now become dependant on our help for their very survival. There are a few bird species which have recently increased in numbers, for example, mute swans, Canada geese and wood pigeon, on the other hand very many are in serious decline. House martins have suffered a 69% reduction in population and starlings over 50%. The most shocking statistic is that of the poor little house sparrow, which has reduced over the last 30 years from 33 million breeding pairs to 1 million.  To view the survey results and get more detailed information about specific bird species, head to the BTO website.

So why is this happening? There are many factors. Relatively recent changes to farming practises have deprived wildlife of both food and shelter, and overly efficient maintenance of human homes leaves less nooks and crannies for nests. You can see more about all that in 2013 State of Nature Report here (PDF).

Added to all that, we now have climate change beginning to make an impact and many bird species are expected to decline to extinction.

So what can we do to help?  Gardens now take up quite a large proportion of potential habitat for some bird species. We can provide food, shelter and water for birds and other wildlife.

Food

There are many outlets for buying birdfood and birdfeeders. If you are worried about adding to your carbon footprint, you may opt for the local providers. A quick web search found several in England which looked like they were particularly careful about minimising carbon emissions and environmental impacts:

If you know of a Scottish supplier, we would like to hear about it!

Different species feed in different ways and it is good to provide a variety of methods. While tits and finches will happily feed from hanging feeders, blackbirds will prefer a table and many birds will only eat from the ground (for more details see the RSBP page on feeding).

For the safety of your feathered friends, choose a site for your feeding station which is in the open, two meters away from bushes, to reduce risk from ambushing felines. Also  make sure everything is kept scrupulously clean as birds are very susceptible to disease from bacteria and moulds.

So what can we give?   Different species eat different types of food at different times of year, and this can even vary from region to region. In general, give high fat food in winter, e.g. suet-based treats or fat balls (always remove nets as claws can become trapped), and peanuts (always give peanuts from a feeder). These can all be bought, as can seed mixes, sunflower seed, niger seed and meal worms. The worms are particularly delicious and nutritious, and especially loved by robins and pied wagtails. You can buy them dried, or even better, live. You can even grow your own!

Household scraps are also good if carefully chosen.  Cooked rice, porridge oats, (dried, not cooked) raisins, suet, cheese are all good.

Do not give fat from meat. As well as potentially causing food poisoning, the fat can get into feathers and cause damage. Also do not give bread or peanuts in summer as young birds could choke. Salted nuts are also a no no and never give milk or desiccated coconut.

If you do start feeding birds in your garden it is most important to maintain the supply. Birds return to the same places to feed, often from some distance away, and a lot of energy could be wasted if a little bird flies a long way to find the feeders empty.

Many birds are mainly insect feeders and we can feed those indirectly by ensuring a healthy buglife in our gardens. Growing flowers, which supply insects with nectar is a good idea. Have a look at the tips on which plants to chose here.

Finally, providing shelter for insects, can make a huge difference. “Messy areas” with piles of leaves and logs, could be home to many little creatures and you can even make your own bug hotel. Wild about Gardens have instructions for a veritable bug mansion here.

Or for something simpler, roll up some corrugated paper and place inside a plastic bottle. Different insects need different sizes of holes but they all need a bit of protection from rain. Be creative and invent your own. As well as feeding your garden birds, these tiny but very important beings will reward you by eating your aphids and pollinating your fruit and flowers.

Many garden plants will provide berries and seeds for your birds as well as shelter. Ivy, pyracantha, scabious, lavender, sunflowers are a few favourites. Blackbirds love to nest in berberis, which is dense enough to keep out cats. For more ideas see here.

Water

Have a constant supply of fresh water in your garden. It’s a special sight to see an enthusiastic  bird  bathing, and essential for feathers so they can fluff up and keep the bird cosy. Ornamental bird baths are available but any shallow vessel will do, for example an upturned dustbinlid.

Empty and clean regularly and keep ice-free by floating a Ping-Pong ball in it. This will blow around and prevent the water from freezing over completely. Birds need to drink and have been known to drown in water barrels when water is scarce, so keep a safe supply at all times.

For more on providing water see RSBP’s advice here.

Shelter

Bird boxes are popular for nesting and Andrew showed us that they can be cheap and easy to make (PDF). In true Blue Peter style he had “one he made earlier” and the pre-cut bits of wood. With a power screw driver it takes no time at all to put together!

The 2 sides are made from one piece of wood, cut diagonally. The back has 2 screw holes to attach the box to a fence or tree. The front has an entrance hole, size depending on the type of bird you want to attract. There should be some ventilation on the base and some waterproofing on the top on the join between the lid and the back.

To do it on the “cheep”, you could use an old pallet and fix an old bicycle inner tube to waterproof the top join. You could also use duct tape or a metal hinge.

Andrew gave us some advice on siting the box. Never facing south as the young birds will cook in the sun. Avoid facing a cold prevailing wind. Not too high up and out of reach of cats, and not too close to your feeding station. You can reinforce the hole with metal if there are squirrels or woodpeckers around.

The top half of the front can be open instead of a hole for robins and wrens. The hole can be low in the front for flycatchers but for most birds it will be near the top. Optimum sizes of hole are

  • 1 inch for tits
  • 1+1/4 inch for great tit
  • 1+1/2 for sparrow and nuthatch
  • 1+3/4 inch for starling and blackbird

The box is nailed or screwed together and the wood can be treated on the outside only.

You can make a much bigger box in the same way for owls.

Aim to put the box up in Autumn to give the birds time to check it out before the breeding season.

Clean it out at the end of the season.

For RSPB advice on everything there is to know about birdboxes, including instructions on how to make one, head to their website here.

Hedgehogs

If you are lucky enough to have hedgehogs in your area you can also provide them with shelter. Hedgehog hotels can be bought and can also be made. Andrew showed us how to make one in exactly the same way as the bird box but much wider. Or this one, which is just as simple.

These adorable creatures really do need our help, even to find a mate!  Fences and walls between gardens are not so easy to get through as hedges and the hedgehog can become isolated.

Hedgehog street online is a resource to help you get together with neighbours to help hedgehogs, suggesting hedgehog tunnels to other gardens and many other ideas.

Tentsmuit sea eagles

We ended the session with an update from Lauren on the Tayport sea eagles who have successfully fledged one chick who is now old enough that the parents are trying to evict him. A lovely RSPB success story.

Then it was time for tea and cakes. Thanks to the wonderful volunteers for supplying the tasty sweet treats – we had a couple of cakes using local root vegetables: dairy-free carrot cake from Donna Hay’s recipe and Catherine Berwick’s maple syrup and parsnip cake.

RSBP Big Garden Birdwatch 30-31 January – get involved!

Lauren is leading a family event in Dundee Botanic Gardens on Saturday 30 January between 11 am and 3 pm. This is in conjunction with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch Day which is the world’s largest wildlife survey. You will be given lots of information on identifying birds and will get the chance to make and take home a bird box and bird feeders.

Or, if you can’t make it to Dundee, you can take part in the survey from your own garden. It just takes one hour of watching and counting your birds anytime over 30 and 31st January. Here are the instructions. If you do this in Tayport, we would like to hear what you’ve seen – just email your results to plant@tayportct.org. We will combine the Tayport results, including those from the volunteer observations at the Community Garden site, and report back here. We are planning to run the observations at the Community Garden next year and look for any differences.

Our next month’s workshop covers Pests and Diseases on Sunday, 21st of February, 2:30-4:30 pm at the Scout Hut, 34 Elizabeth Street, Tayport. Hope to see you there! Workshop schedule, links to all the past workshop summaries and seasonal cake recipes can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

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