Gardening for birds

When planning a garden that will attract birds one should always bear in mind that the bird-friendly habitat which you are trying to create should consist of a number of habitats. Some of these habitats will have to be created from scratch while others may be achieved through simple modifications to what you have already. Also, remember that birds have the following requirements if they are to stay in your garden and not only pitch up for the food that you put out for them:

  • Food,
  • Water,
  • Shelter,
  • A place to breed.

Let’s look at each of these requirements and see whether we can provide them naturally.


Food: Each species of bird has its own food requirements. Some are seed eaters and their diets consist mainly of grass seeds. Having a section of the garden where wild grasses can grow and set their seeds will satisfy these birds. Others are insectivorous and require a constant supply of insects on which to survive. There are a large number of plants which attract insects and these should take up a large section of the garden. Leaf litter also shelters large numbers of insects and other invertebrates on which birds will feed. For this reason leaf litter should always be left on the ground and it should never be raked up and carted away.

Yet other birds feed on invertebrates in the form of earthworms, snails, slugs and so on. This is why the dedicated bird gardener does not use pesticides of any description, for in doing so he or she will be killing the birds as well.

Water: This essential requirement is easy to provide and may be as simple as having a small birdbath or pond where the birds can quench their thirst and bathe. On the other hand, the dedicated bird gardener can construct an elaborate water feature consisting of a large pond, wetland area and cascading waterfall. If big enough, this will attract a few waterfowl and birds that are attracted to wetland and marsh habitats.

Shelter: All birds require shelter where they can retreat from danger, build their nests and where they can roost for the night. A variety of trees, shrubs, reeds and tall grasses can provide this requirement.

A place to breed: Bird breeding and nesting requirements differ from species to species. Some, such as the doves only require a branch on which to balance a few twigs. Others, such as the weavers require drooping branches from which they can hang their nests. Yet others require reeds or tall grasses on which to tie their nests, while some are ground-nesting and require a piece of open ground.
We will now consider how our garden can incorporate all of these features. This is easy to accomplish in a large garden but, it can also be achieved in some degree in a small suburban garden.

Open areas: Most gardens have some open areas in the form of wide open lawns without trees, tall shrubs or other features. These are an important part of the bird garden and will be used by:

  • large birds, such as the Grey Heron, which require a “runway” to take off;
  • nervous species that like to have a clear view around them, like the Hadeda Ibis;
  • ground-loving birds that feed and nest at this level, such as guineafowl, francolins and plovers.

When choosing a lawn cover preference should be given to indigenous species which are drought resistant such as Cynodon species. Wild grasses also make good lawn covers and a strip next to the short, mown area can be very attractive and will attract seed-eating birds when they set their seeds. They also provide cover and nesting areas. Wild grasses can be difficult to sow from seed and it is easier to dig out clumps in the veld and transplant them into the garden.

The open areas should not consist solely of grasses. Low growing groundcovers and shrubs will relieve the monotony of a single species of grass.

Exclusion areas: Exclusion areas are probably the most important part of a bird garden. These are areas where there the least disturbance is likely to take place and where the children, dogs and gardeners (to their delight) should be kept out. This area should not be an island but, it should be a generous bed around the perimeter of the property or garden. It is an area that is designed to accommodate all the shy and furtive bird species that are active in densely growing bush. Here you will find the Olive Thrush, Burchell’s Coucal and the other species that like to nest in dense areas.

When designing the exclusion area, avoid the standard spacing of plants that is recommended in the normal gardening manuals. Here you should plant the trees and shrubs as close together as your pocket will allow. This is the way that nature works and your aim should be to emulate nature as closely as possible.

Canopy habitat: This is the area that is occupied by the tall trees, and to a lesser extent, by the tall shrubs. This is an essential habitat for the birds, providing food, nesting facilities, roosting spots, as well as areas for vocalising and territorial displays.

Wetland area: Wetlands are the richest and most rewarding spots in any bird garden. It is not only the birds that they attract, but also the large numbers of other species that are attracted to this productive biome. A small wetland is easy to construct and need not cost a lot of money.

The wetland area should combine aspects of exclusion area with those of the open area. It should therefore incorporate dense vegetation in the form of reeds and bullrushes, and uncluttered areas with low-growing groundcovers and grasses. For this reason the wetland should be located where an open approach is possible and where it backs into the exclusion area.

Local plants which can be used in the bird garden:

Open Areas:

Cynodon dactylon (Couch Grass) A good indigenous fine lawn grass.

Panicum maximum (Guinea Grass) Use around the edges of the open area. Can also be used where a “meadow” bed is wanted.

Leonotis leonurus (Wild Dagga) A showy plant which produces copious nectar to attract Sunbirds.

Melinis repens (Natal Red Top) Use  around the edges of the lawn area. The seed heads are sometimes used in flower arrangements.

Pennisetum setaceum (Fountain Grass) A fairly tall tufted grass. It grows on disturbed, dry rocky slopes. It is an attractive plant for the edge of the mown lawn area.

Setaria sphacelata var. torta (Creeping Bristle Grass) A creeping grass that is ideal where a lawn is required that does not require frequent mowing. A good transition grass between the short lawn and the taller grasses.

Sorghum bicolor (Common Wild Sorghum) A tall grass that grows in damp places. Its seeds attract birds and it is a useful grass next to the wetland.

Chloris gayana (Rhodes Grass) A perennial tufted grass that is highly palatable to animals. It makes a fair lawn if mown.

The Exclusion Areas:

Trees:

Acacia caffra (Common Hook Thorn) A shrub or small spreading deciduous tree that grows to 3 - 6m. These trees are favoured by nesting birds. They are fairly slow growing.

Acacia karroo (Sweet Thorn) A small to medium tree that grows to 4 - 7m and up to 20m if conditions are ideal. The yellow flowers attract insects, which in turn attract birds.

Acacia robusta (Splendid Thorn) A large tree that grows up to 20m tall in a well-watered garden.  The creamy-white flowers attract insects, which in turn attract birds.

Acacia sieberiana (Paperbark Thorn) A medium sized deciduous, flat-topped tree. The flowers are visited by beetles, bees, wasps, butterflies. Favoured for nesting holes by Pied and Crested Barbets. Insectivoroys bird probe under the flaking bark for insects.

Acacia tortilis (Umbrella Thorn) A distinctive flat-crowned tree that grows to 5 - 15m. Fairly slow-growing from seed.

Coddia rudis (Small Bone-apple)  Small shrub which can be grown in a sunny location on the edge of the exclusion zone.

Dombeya cymosa (Natal Wild Pear) Shrub to showy small tree which can be grown in a sunny location on the edge of the exclusion area.

Ehretia rigida (Puzzle Bush) A shrub or small, deciduous tree from 2 - 6m. The flowers attract bees, flies, beetles, wasps and butterflies. The sweet-tasting fruit is eaten by people, birds and numerous animal species. Quick growing from seed in full sun.

Maytenus heterophylla (Common Spike Thorn) A multi-stemmed shrub or small tree (2 - 6m). Often assiciated with termite mounds. Flowers attract fleis, which attract insecitorous birds. The fruit is eaten by birds and game browse the leaves. These trees are often colonized by the orchid, Mystacidium capense.

Ochna serrulata (Small-leaved Plane) Shrub to small tree with attractive flowers and fruit.

Pavetta lanceolata (Weeping Bride's Bush)  A tree or shrub up to 7m high which makes an attractive show when in flower.  It attracts birds, insects, and moths.

Plumbago auriculata (Cape Leadwort)  A dense shrub that gives a beautiful display of blue flowers in spring and summer.

Rhamnus prinoides (Dogwood) A small tree with shiny leaves and black berries which attract fruitivorous birds.

Zanthoxylum capense (Small Knobwood). Small to medium sized deciduous tree (2 – 15m). Best grown from seedlings found beneath the tree

Ziziphus macronata (Buffalo Thorn) A medium-sized tree growing to 20m but more usually, 10m. Flowers attract a number of insects for the insectivorous birds. The fruit is eaten by birds, people and rats which hoard them for winter food. Easily grown from seed.

The understorey:

Ehrharta erecta (Shade Ehrharta). A sparse tufted grass up to 1m tall. It is host to the Brown Butterflies

Peristrophe cernua (False Buckwheat)  A slender, sprawling perennial shrub that grows up to 1m. They are heavily browsed by game and the flowers are visited by sunbirds, bees and butterflies.

The Canopy Habitat:

Almost any tall indigenous trees will do for this area.  Highly recommended trees are:

Ziziphus macronata (Buffalo Thorn) A medium-sized tree growing to 20m but more usually, 10m. Flowers attract a number of insects for the insectivorous birds. The fruit is eaten by birds, people and rats which hoard them for winter food. Easily grown from seed.

Acacia tortilis (Umbrella Thorn) A distinctive flat-crowned tree that grows to 5 - 15m. Fairly slow-growing from seed.

Acacia robusta (Splendid Thorn) A large tree that grows up to 20m tall in a well-watered garden.  The creamy-white flowers attract insects, which in turn attract birds.

Acacia sieberiana (Paperbark Thorn) A medium sized deciduous, flat-topped tree. The flowers are visited by beetles, bees, wasps, butterflies. Favoured for nesting holes by Pied and Crested Barbets. Insectivoroys bird probe under the flaking bark for insects.

Celtis africana (White Stinkwood)  A deciduous tree that grows up to 30m.  The fruit is eaten by birds such as Thick-billed Weavers, Barbets, Mousebirds and Monkeys.  It is fast growing from seed (1 - 2m per year).

Ptaeroxylon obliquum (Sneezewood)  A medium to tall tree (7 - 20m).  Swallowtail butterflies breed on this tree.  It is medium fast growing near the coast.

Spirostachys africana (Tamboti)  A fairly tall tree (approx. 18m).  Slow growing but worth the wait.

Wetland Areas:

Here you will need plants that can survive in the water or in very wet conditions.  Suitable plants are:

Crinum bulbispurmum (Orange River Lilly)  A showy lilly that grows in damp places.

Typha capensis (Bulrush)  A perennial in large clumps that grows to 2,5m tall.

Cyperus sp. (Sedges)  There are a large number of suitable species that will grow in the water’s edge.