Growing a Wildlife Garden

In order to encourage birds and other wildlife to visit your garden, why not try leaving a small section of it to nature and also supply some wild bird food? Here are some ideas.

Goldfinches love teasel. Identified by its pink and purple flowers, spiny heads and prickly stems, teasel flowers in late spring or sometimes slightly earlier. They are bi-annual and easily self-setting once well established.

The famous yellow-flowered dandelion is a favourite. If not devoured by the birds, this hardy little plant will transform into a beautiful silver halo of seeds to be scattered far and wide by the wind.

Greater Plantain
Found commonly at roadsides and paths where the soil is compacted, greater plantain, or rats’ tails, can be recognised by the long spikes on which the seeds grow. Greater plantain is also often seen growing among crops and grasslands.

Apart from their medicinal benefits, these fragrant plants are great for attracting a whole host of different wildlife. Birds eat the seeds they produce, and it was recently discovered that by lining their nests with it, blue tits are able to provide a sterile, bacteria-free environment for their young. As such, the plant has been linked to an increased survival rate for these chicks.

This is a popular climbing plant and, given the right pruning, can become very dense. This makes honeysuckle a perfect nest site and a great place for birds to roost overnight. Honeysuckle flowers are sweet-smelling and attract bees, butterflies and various types of moth. The juicy berries produced are enjoyed by warblers, thrushes and bullfinches.

Attractive to finches, honesty is recognised by its unique oval-shaped, semi-transparent, silvery seed heads.

Evening Primrose
A great choice for nature gardens, evening primrose, or evening star as it is also known, draws bees, butterflies and moths. The yellow flowers open in the evenings only, hence its name.

Groundsel can be found in hedgerows and verges and is loved by sparrows and finches. This plant would make a great addition to any garden to supplement wild bird food and other scraps supplied.

This is a truly lovely plant. The flowers are very colourful and the resulting seeds are popular with tits, sparrows and finches. Unfortunately, there has been a steady decline and it is now considered endangered ? it can be found at just three sites in the UK.

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What to Avoid When Feeding Wild Birds

Leaving food out for birds is very important, especially during cold weather when natural supplies are low. Birds will benefit from a selection of wild bird food, seeds, peanuts, bird cakes and live food. But what should be avoided?

Polyunsaturated Margarines or Vegetable Oils
Birds require a lot of saturated fat to ensure they have sufficient energy to keep warm, especially in the winter months. Polyunsaturated fats are not a suitable alternative. In addition, the soft nature of the fat means birds can very easily get it on their wings, which can negatively affect the insulation and waterproofing of the feathers.

Cooking Fat
Left-over fat is not good for birds. Not only is its soft consistency bad for their feathers, but it is also the perfect bacterial breeding ground. The salt content of cooking fat may also be high, especially if it has been drained from meat and additional salt has been added during the cooking process.

Birds should never be offered milk, as their guts do not contain the necessary enzymes to allow them to digest it. Feeding a bird with milk could cause acute stomach upsets and possibly even kill it.

Once traces of coconut milk have been rinsed from a fresh coconut, it can be hung out in its shell for birds to pick at. However, desiccated coconut is very dangerous for birds as it can expand inside their stomachs, causing death.

Cat and Dog Food
Tinned dog and cat food can be good as an alternative to earthworms when they are difficult to reach during the warm summer months. To bulk up the mixture, wild bird food can be added. However, leaving out dry food is not advisable due to the risk of birds choking.

If you are putting out porridge oats, they should never be offered cooked as they can harden and stick to the beaks of birds. However, dry oats are enjoyed by a variety of species and are fine. As with any dried cereal, put out little and often and always ensure there is a supply of drinking water nearby but not close enough for the cereal to become wet and pulpy.

Stale or Mouldy Food
While the majority of moulds are not considered harmful to birds, a small number are known to trigger respiratory infections. Therefore it is recommended that putting out mouldy food is avoided altogether. Stale food can harbour bacteria such as salmonella, which can be deadly for some birds. Always remove food that has turned stale or mouldy from bird tables quickly.

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House Martins

A few lucky people will already have house martins nesting on their houses. For those who don’t, there are ways to attract them.

In order to successfully breed, house martins need a number of things, including a good nest location, suitable materials to build with and a good supply of food to feed hungry chicks when the time comes.

As house martins eat insects only, it is not possible to get their attention using wild bird seed, as you might with other birds.

However, house martins build their nests using mud, so one thing that might attract them is a big muddy puddle or pond, especially if there has been a spell of dry weather.

Nest boxes also attract house martins. These need to be nest cups, which can be made or purchased from garden and wild bird seed suppliers. Providing a ready-built nest may not always attract house martins or guarantee that they will nest, especially in the first year, but the nest may encourage other birds to build alongside it. As house martins like to nest in colonies, there may eventually be a number of nests to admire and families to watch.

House Martins and Droppings

Nest cups should never be placed above a doorway, as droppings will invariably start to build up beneath them. To avoid problems with droppings, it can be helpful to fix a 25cm removable shelf about two metres underneath the nest cup. This will catch any droppings and enable them to be cleaned up easily.

Unfortunately, house martins frequently host parasites such as feather mites. Although not generally harmful to the house martin or people, if the nest has been built above or near a window, it can become a nuisance.

Applying a small amount of pyrethrum around the nest (not near the entrance hole) will stop any parasites from spreading. Remember never to use insecticide inside the nest.

The Law and House Martins

If you choose to provide a nest for house martins, it is vital the birds are then left to nest peacefully and without interruption or interference.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 fully protects house martins. Therefore it is a criminal offence to take, injure or kill an adult bird, or to damage, destroy or remove eggs or young from a nest. The nest itself is also protected by law and must not be removed or damaged whilst in the process of being built or when it is being used.

An offence of this nature will incur a fine, or possibly even a custodial sentence. A maximum fine of ?5000 for each bird, nest or egg destroyed is payable under the act.

Any repair works needing to be carried out should be organised to take place out of the nesting seasons. Autumn or winter are the best times for maintenance that could potentially interfere with a nest, when they can be legally removed as they are not in use.

As house martins are very particular about their nest location, artificial nest cups must be replaced in exactly the same place as they were originally.

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Taking Up Bird Watching

Many people enjoy leaving wild bird food out and then watching to see which birds pay a visit to their garden. The next step for some is to become a more serious bird watcher, perhaps even recording the different species of birds they have seen.

There are no essential tools required to begin bird watching, and it is a pastime that can be enjoyed by everyone. There are, however, some products bird watchers can buy to make watching birds even easier and more fun.

An A-Z of Birds
There are lots of books and field guides to choose from. It’s a matter of individual choice as to which to buy. Some people find it useful to choose a book which fits into a pocket easily. It may also help to stick to a book featuring only those species found in the United Kingdom to begin with. Although books filled with photographs are beautiful, camera settings and light can cause quite a lot of colour variation, which is often confusing. Instead, many people prefer to have a book with painted illustrations.

A Notebook
It is nice to record which birds have been spotted and when and where. A pocket-size hardback note pad is perfect for this. If conditions are wet, using a pencil will prevent the text becoming illegible. Sometimes it can be slightly harder to identify a bird, and in these circumstances you can jot down as many notes as possible in the notebook about the bird?s appearance, song, location and other distinguishing features. Noting what kind of wild bird food the bird eats can also provide some clues, although this can be hard to spot. Some people even like to do a rough sketch. Recording these details will assist you when attempting to identify the species at a later date. Simply remembering the bird will almost certainly prove unreliable.

Although definitely not essential, binoculars are incredibly useful. There are some very expensive models on the market, but it isn?t necessary to spend a huge amount of money to get a good pair. It is possible to find some decent models for under ?100. Buying a pair of binoculars can be a fantastic investment and many are passed down through the generations ? a very special legacy for those families that enjoy bird watching together. Mini-binoculars are useful if you are on a hike as they are easier to carry in a pocket. However, these do not suit everyone, especially those with bigger hands. Luckily, modern full-size binoculars are getting lighter and less awkward all the time.

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Wild Birds and Trichomonosis

Trichomonosis first became apparent in 2005. The condition mostly affects finches but can also be caught by house sparrows. Research suggests that, when affected, the population of a particular species can be affected adversely. Trichomonosis does not pose a threat to other animals or humans.


Trichomonosis is a parasite that resides in the upper portion of the digestive tract. The throat will gradually become blocked and the bird will be unable to feed properly. Eventually, the bird will starve to death. It is possible to identify birds that are host to the parasite by watching for a variety of signs and symptoms, including:

  • A sluggish appearance – the bird may move around slowly.
  • Plumage that is particularly fluffed up.
  • Laboured breathing.
  • Dribbling or vomiting.
  • Plumage may look uncared for and matted.
  • The face and beak may look wet.
  • Sometimes the neck area may show signs of swelling.

Luckily, the parasite is unable to live for very long once outside of the host. However, the disease can be passed on through regurgitated food or by drinking water contaminated with affected saliva. For this reason, it is especially easy for the parasite to be contracted during the breeding season.

Preventing Trichomonosis

If there are signs that trichomonosis is affecting some of the birds in a particular garden, it is advisable to immediately withdraw all food and water. This may seem a drastic step, but it is important to minimise interaction between the birds and to limit the spread of the parasite.

Practising good hygiene around feeding stations and water containers is essential for the continued well-being of visiting birds. Supplying wild bird food and other suitable scraps can make a big difference to local birds, but what is supplied must be clean and free from disease or infection. Without regular cleaning, containers can grow mould and fungi and food can go off. Regularly remove waste from feeding stations before replenishing supplies. It is also a good idea not to leave wild bird food or other offerings on bird tables overnight as this can attract rodents and other pests. Tube feeders should be washed out about once a week, using a brush and some disinfectant.

Replace the water and clean out bird baths and containers every day to prevent the growth of green algae. About once each week the containers will also require scrubbing with a hard brush to remove any stubborn residue.

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Bird Watching

Bird watching is a fun and exciting past time. Everyone, regardless of age or their knowledge of birds, can enjoy it. Bird watching can take place from the comfort of your home or further afield. Either way, it is extremely satisfying to watch, track and identify birds.

Once people have been watching birds for a while, they may want to start recording what sorts of birds they are seeing and when. There are so many different species of birds in the UK and over 10,000 species to be found throughout the world. A good place to start can be to look through an A-Z book of birds or look online for a similar resource.

Bird watching does not require you to purchase expensive equipment or to have any specialist knowledge. Simply by using your eyes and ears, you will be amazed at what you will learn and discover. To attract birds to your garden, you might like to consider supplying some wild bird seed. Before long, you will have an array of different species to observe.

You will learn how to recognize different birds, increasing your knowledge along the way. The more you practise identifying them, the easier it will become. You may want to visit some of the specialist centres and sanctuaries around the UK, where experts will be able to give advice and you can meet fellow keen bird watchers. They can advise about what wild bird seed to provide if you are setting up a feeding station.

Remember that birds will often look a bit different to the way they are portrayed in bird books and A-Zs. Just like people, all birds are individuals and will have their own little quirks. In addition, books and A-Z resources may provide examples of how a species looks at one or perhaps two times within the year, but will not usually illustrate how they appear when they are in the midst of replacing their feathers, which happens at fairly regular intervals.

When the weather is cold or if they are trying to impress a mate, birds will often use their feathers to insulate themselves, fluffing them out. This can completely change the shape of birds, making them look much more rounded and fatter. Long-necked birds sometimes fold themselves tight into their bodies, which again can dramatically change their appearance and confuse those trying to identify them. Other birds may stretch their necks out further than expected, especially if they are on the alert for predators.

Bird watchers listen very carefully to the sounds birds make, as these offer great clues as to when a bird is nearby and what species it is. Birds such as nightingales have a very distinctive song but often bury themselves deep in the bushes, so a bird watcher may hear rather than see them. Willow warblers and chiffchaffs are incredibly similar to look at but can be differentiated by their songs and calls, which are completely different.

If you see a bird and cannot manage to identify it, don?t worry. Every bird watcher will experience this at some point, especially if the sighting is very fleeting. Put it down to experience rather than viewing it as a failure.

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Looking After the Wildlife in Your Garden

Most people think of gardening as an activity that has a positive impact on the environment. However, although planting is beneficial, many common gardening practices are actually harmful for wildlife and the environment. Consider incorporating some of the following wildlife and environmentally friendly practices into your usual garden routine.

Attract Birds

This is a really important step to take if you are aiming to make your garden more wildlife-friendly. You can do this by installing a birdbath or a nest box or by setting up a feeding station and supplying wild bird food. Not only does this provide you with a fantastic way to observe some beautiful bird species, but it will also reduce your need to use chemicals and pesticides, as the birds will eat pests and insects for you.

Build a Pond

This is not always physically or practically viable, especially if you have a small garden or very small children. However, if you can install a pond or small water feature, your garden will immediately become a more dynamic space, providing a variety of benefits for wildlife. In time, this mini ecosystem will soon be supporting a host of different creatures.

Rainwater Collection

Collecting rainwater enables you to water and maintain your garden in a more environmentally efficient way. Having a rainwater collection and storage system is particularly useful during warm summers and hosepipe bans. Rainwater for watering can be collected in any clean container, such as a dustbin or barrel. Simply cut a hole in the lid and place it under a downpipe. You can cut another hole and insert a length of hose to direct overflow to go wherever it is most useful.

Raised Planters

Although many people consider raised planters somewhat artificial, they actually leave room for natural growth at ground level, allowing the associated wildlife to thrive. The second tier is then free for you to plant whatever you like, without having a direct impact. This will also provide more space to plant additional seeds and bulbs ? a bonus for the environment.

Wildlife Needs

Many people design their gardens around how they look or what will be useful. In addition to these, it is good to consider as part of the design what the wildlife living in and visiting your garden might need or benefit from. For example, planting flowers that are rich in pollen will have a functional use and look great. Installing a feeding station and supplying wild bird food will provide a helping hand not only to birds but also to hedgehogs, squirrels and other wild animals.

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Feeding Birds

As well as putting up a nest box, many bird-lovers take steps to enhance the diet of birds that visit their garden in the winter by leaving out wild bird seed. In harsh weather, this can not only be a life-saver for many bird species, but also offers many hours of bird-watching pleasure as grateful feathered friends flock to your garden. Attracting birds by using a feeder has other positive effects, as birds coming into a particular garden to use a feeder or bird table will then start to scratch around for other food ? eating greenfly, caterpillars or snails throughout the year.

When to Put Food Out
With many species migrating south to warmer climates during the winter months as the insect population dies out, non-migratory birds then have to compete with arrivals from Scandinavia such as thrushes and blackbirds. Winter is the natural time to start thinking about leaving food out for our feathered friends.

All Year or Just in the Winter?
There are two conflicting schools of thought about putting food out for birds. Some believe that you should gradually reduce the amount as the days start to warm and bird?s natural foods become available again. Others say you should maintain a feeding regime throughout the year, albeit altered slightly as birds may have become dependent on the food you leave out.

Where to Place the Food
There are many factors to consider when putting out a bird feeder or table. Members of the tit family prefer ?hanging? food, so something like a peanut dispenser would be ideal. It should be sited high enough so that cats cannot get at the feeding birds. Another useful suggestion is to place a feeder near roses or other plants that may have a problem with caterpillars or greenfly. They will, as previously mentioned, provide a tasty alternative for the birds in your garden to the food you leave out.

Be wary also for dangers to your feeding bids from above. A feeder sited too high or exposed to the sky could attract sparrow hawks and other unwelcome birds of prey.

A final word on where to site a feeder ? do not place it too near a nest box. The noise of too many birds coming and going will put any resident birds off nesting.

As an alternative to feeders or tables, some species of bird like to eat off the ground and some food can be scattered on the lawn. Keep it well away from shrubs or low trees, where cats can often lie in wait. It is also advisable if putting out food on the ground to keep it to a minimum ? which can always be topped up ? as any food left on the ground overnight will simply attract rodents and other pests.

Woodpeckers, tree creepers and nuthatches can also be attracted to the garden by smearing fats (suet and lard only) and wild bird seed into crevasses and holes in the bark of trees. Additionally, you should make sure to leave out water in a shallow container for birds to drink and bathe in.

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Four Species of Bird You Might Spot in Your Garden

The Magpie

Despite their undeniable beauty, magpies tend to be rather unpopular among bird enthusiasts. The main reason for this is the fact that they are responsible for killing many small animals and songbirds. One of the most easily recognisable garden visitors due to its white and black glossy plumage, the magpie remains in the UK throughout the year. With their love of shiny articles, magpies are also well known for swiping jewellery if it’s left outside or easily accessible on window sills.

They prefer to nest in high bushes or trees and will use mud and sticks to build a dome-shaped nest with a special entrance hole to the side. Magpies will usually lay somewhere in the region of five to eight eggs, which can be identified by their pale blue-green and brown speckled colour. Eggs typically hatch in April or May.

The Robin

Robins have long been associated with winter and Christmas time. However, they are actually around in Britain all year. Part of the thrush family, robins can often be spotted in parks, gardens and woodland areas and they love lurking in the undergrowth. They are recognisable as adults by their famous red breasts, but young robins do not have this marking. Unfortunately, robins do not enjoy a particularly long life, only living for about a year or two.

Robins are quite sociable birds and seem to enjoy spending time near people, often sitting somewhere nearby singing. They are ground feeders and will be found at the bird table or underneath bird feeders searching for treats and taking advantage of any wild bird feed supplied.

The Chaffinch

The chaffinch is a lovely bird. Resident to the UK, they are one of the most familiar British birds. They enjoy berries, buds, beech mast and wild bird seed. Their pink-orange chest and cheeks and blue-grey crown can identify the male of the species.

Chaffinches are very resourceful and will use all sorts of material to build pretty circular nests, including lichen, hair, wool, moss and feathers. They frequently choose to build in tree forks and bushes and will produce between four and six eggs at a time. These are grey with a slight pink tinge and irregular brown spots.

Chaffinches love to visit garden feeding stations and can be really quite brave. Offer them some wild bird seed and they will often allow you to stay nearby and observe them feeding. Chaffinches can live for an amazing 14 years.

The Bullfinch

Bullfinches are plump and colourful and most often found in small groups or pairs but known to congregate in flocks of fifty or more in the spring. Unfortunately, the bullfinch is steadily becoming rarer across the British Isles.

They frequent larger gardens, orchards, parks and farmland, preferring thickets over taller trees, but will rarely be spotted at ground level. They usually eat seeds and berries. When these are less readily available in spring, they will feast on fruit tree buds, often to the detriment of subsequent fruit crops.

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Identifying Birds

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish one species of bird from another. However, there are some specific features to look out for which can help with identification.

Comparing the size of a bird with others that you can positively identify may help to determine the species. Alternatively, if there are no other birds around, think about how it compares with some of the more common one. Is it the size of a pigeon, for example, or smaller, like a robin?

Take care when estimating how big a bird is when it’s in flight or when the light is poor, as this can prove unreliable.

When attempting to identify an unfamiliar bird, making a note of its colouring can be very helpful. Note as many details as you can, including the colour of under parts, wings, back, tail and the head. Any bright patches are important indicators, as are distinctive markings such as stripes and their location on the bird?s body. Also look for variations in colour depth. For example, are the wings lighter at the tip?

Always keep in mind that variations in light can alter the appearance of the bird, as can wet or damp feathers. Plumage can vary between seasons and it can also depend on the age of the bird.

Another major feature to look out for is the shape of the bird. Think about which other species have a similar shape and pay particular attention to the bill and legs.

Look to see if the bird has webbed feet or talons, as well as noting how long and what colour the legs are.

The shape and length of the bird?s bill will provide a further clue. Small birds with short, stout beaks, such as sparrows or finches, will usually be attracted by wild bird seed. Those that are slightly larger, with hooked-shaped bills, are likely to be birds of prey.

Other Ways to Make Identification Easier

Record sightings in a notebook, providing as much detail as possible.

Listen carefully to the bird?s call. Often these are very distinctive and will differentiate one type of bird from another similar-looking one.

Before visiting a site, do some research. Which species have been observed there in the past? This will give you some idea as to what you might see.

Consider working with a mentor who can offer advice and share knowledge and experiences with you.

Learn the specific names for the various parts of a bird. This is not only useful for writing detailed descriptions, but will also help you to accurately describe what you have seen to fellow enthusiasts. They may then be able to offer some idea as to what you have seen.

Become familiar with local birds. Put out some wild bird seed to attract them to your garden, where you can observe them and their behaviour. You can then take this knowledge with you on a local bird-watching adventure. Less common birds in the area will be easier to spot if you are already aware of the common ones.

Finally, be patient. Bird watching requires a good deal of practice but the more skills you can master, the more pleasure you will get out of it.

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