Gardeners have appreciated
the value of encouraging birds to their plots probably since
gardening began. We only have to watch as a robin repeatedly
visits newly turned ground, or spend a little time observing a
small flock of blue and great tits foraging amongst to our
roses, to appreciate the huge numbers of insects that these
birds take, reducing, or even eliminating, the need for some
other form of pest control. Add to these benefits the
pleasure of getting to know your local birds and the joy that
many people feel when observing wildlife and there is every
reason to invite birds into our gardens and allotments. We
may have to cover soft fruit or tolerate a little pilfering by
blackbird or starling, but to my mind the benefits of a bird
friendly garden far outweigh any disadvantages.
A well-designed and
effective wildlife garden will always make provision for its
wildlife visitors by incorporating plants with natural food.
Feeding the birds with seed mixes and peanuts, which more than
thirty percent of us do in one form or another, is a very
important aspect of wildlife-friendly gardening and nowadays
contributes to the conservation and survival of many species.
However, there will always be times when what nature provides
is best. In springtime young birds in the nest need the
protein-rich diet supplied by insects and other invertebrates,
and at the beginning of winter, seeds and berries provide the
nutrients birds need to see them through the cold weather
ahead. There was a time when this natural harvest in the
countryside, together with spilt grain and weed seeds from
fields of stubble, provided good pickings and a vital food
supply for all manner of bird species. Sadly this is no
longer the case. More and more birds need to rely on our
gardens as a source of food at all times of year. This month,
as well as visiting our feeders, some birds will be seeking a
supply of fruits and berries.
What to plant
Thick shrubs, both
native and non native, will always provide a good habitat for
birds, not just to shelter and possibly find a nesting site,
but also to search for insect food. Choosing flowering shrubs
that set edible fruit is the best of all possible worlds. A
native such as hawthorn will attract many insects to its
nectar and pollen, protect a vulnerable nest with its thorns
and dense foliage, and provide nutritious berries from
September through the winter. But if we would like more
variety in the garden, how can we be sure that a non-native
shrub will have edible berries? One very general guide is
that as a rule, red or orange berries attract more birds than
yellow or white. Many shrubs, including holly, Pyracantha and
Berberis have been bred with berries of paler colours to
please the gardener rather than garden wildlife. These
berries are often left completely untouched. The breeding and
selection process singles out plants with berries that ripen
slowly or not at all, so many never develop their final
berry colour, and stay hard and inedible. Shrubs like these
will provide colour in the garden throughout the winter but
are best planted with a selection that will also provide food
for birds. Those than ripen only slowly may be useful, as
berries left until the very end of the cold weather will be
welcomed by a large number of species, especially thrushes and
blackbirds, and over-wintering warblers such as blackcaps.
So where non-natives are
concerned, red is best, but some shrubs have black or dark
purple berries. By and large these seem to be palatable but
it can be a rather hit and miss affair. It is not uncommon to
find that a berried shrub that attracts masses of birds one
year will be devoid of avian visitors the next winter. This
can be the result of weather conditions which may affect the
palatability of berries, or there may be a surplus of food
elsewhere. The key is to plant as large a variety of berried
shrubs and climbers as you can and hedge your bets.
Which birds can you
wide range of species will feed on berries and fruits when the
weather is harsh but winter migrants are especially vulnerable
to lack of food. Having made the long journey from colder
climates, especially the Scandinavian countries, they have
expended large amounts of energy to get here and of course
have the long journey back to contend with. In recent times
their primary food sources - berries from hawthorn hedges and
excess fruit from our once abundant apple orchards have
dwindled, and even shy migrants such as redwings and
fieldfares have now resorted to visiting gardens and staking a
claim on a Cotoneaster or Pyracantha. Here they may have the
local song or mistle thrush to contend with, the latter being
particularly territorial! A good food source is worth
fighting for though, and energy spent chasing off a rival is
energy well spent.
Many birds have their
favourite food sources, although when the weather gets really
cold, they will take whatever is available. Robins are
especially fond of spindle berries and if you are fortunate
enough to have a mistletoe plant in an old apple tree, you may
well be graced with an over-wintering blackcap. This species
is also fond of ivy berries, and will share these with
thrushes and wood pigeons. All the thrush species are partial
to apples and bramblings and some other finches will eat the
In winter our birds have
to take their chances and find food wherever they can. By
planting some good berry bearing shrubs for them, you could be
supplying that vital ingredient that keeps them alive until
Add to your bird
Autumn and winter are good
times to add to your bird friendly shrubs, trees and climbers.
Prepare the ground well, add plenty of compost to the planting
hole and stake trees where necessary. The new plants
should be kept well watered throughout their first year.
As well as the best bird-attracting berries and fruits below you could also try elder, yew, bird
cherry and blackberry, all of which will attract thrushes,
blackbirds, starlings, finches, and even the odd waxwing in a
good year. Mistletoe can be planted by pushing berries into
crevices on an apple bough.
Of the non-natives,
snowberrry, honeysuckle, and roses that bear hips will all
provide food, and soft fruits such as raspberries and
gooseberries will attract some birds earlier in the year.
Top Five Natives for
Berries and Fruits
Hawthorn The best
native hedging shrub. Attracts thrushes, including redwings
and fieldfares, waxwings and finches.
Rowan An excellent
small native tree for a garden. Attracts blackbirds,
Elder A good shrub if
you have space but it can become invasive. Attracts many
species especially starlings, finches and thrushes.
Holly A good general
wildlife shrub for food and nesting for many species.
Spindle Provides a
very late food supply. Loved by robins.
Ivy A brilliant all
round wildlife plant. The berries set very late and provide a
vital food source for pigeons, doves, thrushes and blackbirds
Top Five Non-Natives
for Berries and Fruits
Pyracantha - A good food
source and nesting shrub for many species.
Berberis Red berried
varieties are best for redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds.
black-berried Viburnum tinus attracts smaller birds to its
fruit, especially finches and robins.
Herringbone Cotoneaster (C. horizontalis) is a must, but other
red berried forms are also good.
Apple Leave windfalls
for thrushes, blackbirds, starlings, finches and many other