Gardening: Plot to please birds

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Feathered friends usually get plenty of food in our gardens, but what about shelter? Anna Pavord finds out how to plant for a sanctuary

Being nice to birds must be part of our national psyche. The RSPB has more members - just over a million - than any other wildlife conservation group in Europe. In fact we seem to be a great deal nicer to birds than they are to each other. Every day some battle rages outside my window: a mob of small birds attack a hawk, sparrows brawl in the driveway, a magpie raids a nest.

They need us to be nice to them, says Robert Burton, author of the recently published Birdfeeder Garden. It is some compensation for what is happening to their natural habitats. Gardens, and there are about 38 million of them in Britain, are important for food and nesting.

Mr Burton came to our garden last week to sort out what was lurking there in the bird line and to tell me what I could do to help them. The obvious ones - blackbirds, thrushes, robins, wrens, woodpeckers, magpies, house sparrows, jackdaws, rooks, pigeons, collared doves, blue tits - are not difficult to spot. The problem (for me at least) lies with the other brown streaks and blurs that occasionally flash, unrecognised, through the undergrowth.

It is rather shameful, un-neighbourly, to have shared a patch all these years with creatures you can't put a name to. The problem with birds, though, is that they won't stand still. There is only the briefest of moments to decide whether the blur has the red bit under the wing or the white bit under the throat that makes all the difference to identification. Binoculars are not usually to hand when you are gardening. Even when I am not, I find that by the time I have got the things to my eyes and adjusted the focus, the bird has moved on half a mile, and I am left casting around in the sky like a mad astronomer.

I learned to recognise goldcrests, which was a step forward. They had probably been attracted by the yew trees in our garden, said Mr Burton. Goldcrests like yews (and other conifers such as spruce) and sling their nests from the branches. A pair of them were working purposefully through a big pear tree, clearing out insects. That made me feel well disposed towards goldcrests. I'd prefer they did the job than me, with tar oil wash dripping all over my hair.

At the moment the garden is swarming with wrens. Or perhaps the same wren, extremely nifty on its feet. The crazy thing about the wren is the amount of noise it can make. It has all the attributes of a sergeant major bursting out of the body of a fairy. Wrens like holes in walls, piles of brushwood, nothing too far off the ground, for their nesting sites. I have sometimes found their nests - balls of moss mostly - wedged behind ivy on a retaining wall.

Nesting sites in a garden are as important as food, said Robert Burton. A bird-table attracts birds but, for them, it is like a meal in a restaurant. A home implies more complex requirements. "Privacy, air, shelter from direct sun and a nice orderly disorder" are what they are looking for.

Disorder they have in quantity. I am glad that something is benefiting from the unraked leaves, the piles of unspread farmyard manure and stacks of uncut firewood that punctuate the garden. All these places are bliss for insects and provide breakfast, lunch and tea for many of the birds. Ants, which create havoc on the lawn in summer, were probably the magnet for the pair of green woodpeckers that are feeding there, said Mr Burton.

In terms of food, the greatest asset to a garden, as far as birds are concerned, is a wide variety of plants. This does not necessarily mean abandoning garden plants and going native. Mr Burton pointed out how quickly birds adapt to the potential of introduced plants - even something as strange as the crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). "I've seen tits and blackcaps going in for the nectar, almost as though they were hummingbirds," he said. But the ubiquitous Leyland provides nothing by way of food, though it gives some cover for birds. If you can, advised Mr Burton, use a mixture of field maple, hazel, holly and hawthorn instead.

Anything that fruits (such as holly and hawthorn) is good for birds. In a small garden, a crab apple, an elder or a rowan would be my first choice. None of them takes up much room, and all make a double contribution to the garden with their blossom and fruit before eventually providing food for birds in winter.

Some cotoneasters, although not native, also attract birds. The fishbone cotoneaster, C. horizontalis, is one of the best and is a handsome, neat- leaved shrub. The variegated version is even prettier, but unfortunately never seems to set fruit. Honeysuckle is useful. Although we scarcely notice the berries, they provide food for warblers, thrushes and bullfinches. Thrushes also like the berries of ivy, which fill a food gap in late winter. Robins and blackcaps feed on them, too, and the flowers attract a staggering number of insects, which in turn pull in different birds.

As for the rooks, my favourite birds, there is little you can do to attract them, said Mr Burton. They come and go as they please. Now there are no elms, they live in beeches and sycamores. They are by far the most entertaining of the birds in our garden.

Birdfeeder Garden by Robert Burton, is published by Dorling Kindersley at pounds 14.99. If there isn't enough natural food in your garden to attract birds, Robert Burton recommends a bird-table and menus to order from CJ Wild Bird Foods Ltd, The Rea, Upton Magna, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY4 4UB (01743 709545). RSPB is at The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL (01767 80551).

TOp 10 garden visitors

The Big Garden Birdwatch, organised by the junior members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, aims to provide a snapshot of birds visiting British gardens. This year's survey took place in January and shows that the top 10 most common birds to visit gardens across the country are (in descending order): the starling, house sparrow, blue tit, blackbird, chaffinch, greenfinch, great tit, robin, collared dove and magpie.