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Attracting birds through garden design – Part 1

A key reason why people first set out to design and build a garden is to attract birds, and it's easy to understand why. The playful flight of a small bird around a flower is amusing. The workmanship that goes into a bird's nest can be marvellous. Many people want to see birds at wing in their own backyard. Observable life, be it a singing bird, croaking frog or industrious bee, adds a wonderful dimension to a garden design and anyone's enjoyment of it. 

If you would like to attract local native birdlife to take up residence in your garden, we have good news. By selecting your plant species based on an understanding of birds’ needs, and at the same time making a few well-informed design decisions, you can attract a wide range of bird fauna into any garden.

Birds will be attracted to a garden if they can find food year round, a permanent water source, dense plantings to provide shelter, structure and nesting opportunities and taller plants to provide perches. The use of indigenous plants in any garden design will fulfil meet these needs. So, if we want to understand how to attract wildlife into our gardens, it's important to understand the role that local, indigenous plants play in ecosystems. Indigenous plants can be defined as a flora of a particular area, having evolved over thousands of years to adapt to a particular locality's environmental conditions, such as weather conditions and soil type. 

Of particular interest to us is the way these plants have evolved to fit into the niches of an ecosystem to be used as habitat and food for bird species. Indigenous plants are the sources of food and shelter that native animals have evolved to use over millions of years. The plants are the foundation stones of the local ecosystem. The birds, frogs and other animals we admire are part of a complex network of natural systems, all supported by indigenous plant species specific to the area. 

By using these plants in a garden design we are catering to the needs of these animal species we aim to attract. The way that birds use these plant species is the key to attracting them into your garden, and can be broadly divided into three areas: food, shelter and water

Image: Hakea

Indigenous plants provide a variety of food sources for birds. This includes nectar from flowers, insects, seeds and fruit. Consider the availability of these food sources throughout the year. Gardens that are the most successful at attracting wildlife provide food sources year round. This is achieved by providing indigenous plants that flower at different times of the year, ensuring a constant supply of food. Eucalypts, Banksias and Hakeas are commonly used to attract nectar feeding birds, and have differing flowering times. It is important to consider that urban areas will often be dominated by more aggressive “bully” bird species, to the detriment of smaller bird species. These include Red Wattlebirds and Noisy Miners, who will actually patrol the territory surrounding large nectar-heavy flowers like Banksias, and violently hound any other birds that enter their turf. For this reason it is important to supplement any garden design with plants that have smaller flowers, less likely to be dominated by these larger bully species.

Some species indigenous to Melbourne that you may consider for their nectar include Correa reflexa, Melaleuca lanigerum, Grevillea rosmariniflora, Kennedia prostrata, Acacia implexa and Goodenia ovata. Generally the characteristics of a flower that has evolved to attract birds to feed on nectar include a red colour with a tubed shape to allow for a birds beak.

Birds also rely on insects as a source of protein in their environment. This is especially important in nesting season when they are gathering food for their growing young. Most flowering plants will attract invertebrates to a degree, but some indigenous suggestions particularly suited to garden use include Goodenia ovata, Dianella brevicaulis, Lomandra longifolia, Brunonia australis and Indigofera australis. 

Image: Goodenia ovata

Birds will often also be attracted to seeds and berries as a food source. Grass and sedge species will often profusely bear small, fatty seeds which are particularly attractive to smaller birds and finches. Species to consider for this purpose include Gahnia sieberiana, Microlaena stipoides, Poa labillardieri and Poa sieberiana.

Medium to large birds that we may be more familiar with, such as Rosellas & Lorikeets will take grass seeds, as well as larger fruit. Fruiting indigenous species that are particularly attractive to these birds include Myoporum parvifolium, Melicytus dentatus and Billardiera mutabilis. Wattles like Acacia paradoxa provide a good source of larger seeds.

Large birds like cockatoos will eat most berries and seeds they find, and often seek out tall wattles and eucalypts for their seeds. They will also feed on larger and harder cones from Callitris columellaris and Allocasuarina littoralis.

When designing with these plants, it is best to use groups of the same species planted together to form a clump. This will allow for a concentration of the given resource for the birds (seeds, fruit etc), and the birds will be attracted to the efficiency of a large food source with minimal travel required. 

Similarly, design for a variety of plants, but don't buy only one of each species. To attract birds it is better to plant higher populations of a few species, rather than one or two of lots of different species. Birds will only be attracted if there is enough of a particular resource to warrant a visit, rather than the nectar or seeds simply existing. So, for example, rather than planting 30 different species, plant 5 individuals of 6 different species.

By using some of these species, a garden design can provide a year-round supply of nectar, insects and seed, providing an attractive food resource for bird species.

Patrick Honan, Horticulturalist, Do it on the Roof

Image: Eastern Rosella 

Find out about including shelter and water in garden design for attracting birds, in part 2 of this post next week….

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