Designing for birds brings much pleasure

You can't tend a garden without taking an interest in the bird life it attracts, so when an acquaintance remarked that she was finding greater entertainment in watching their antics than from some of the television offerings, I concurred.

Saturday, 19th January 2019, 14:58 pm
Updated Thursday, 10th January 2019, 13:49 pm
The wrens nest and roosting site is set at eye-level, but is beautifully camouflaged in the conifers. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

Our feathered friends are fascinating to watch, not just in winter, but throughout the year, and that’s part of the payback, if any were needed, for factoring them into garden planning.

Situations vary, but if there’s an element of choice I’d prefer the living hedge to a fence or wall. Annual maintenance aside, evergreen or deciduous, it can be attractive and good for our wellbeing as it changes with the seasons.

It’s an ideal base for birds, offering a temporary escape route from predators, roosting and nesting site, and provider of food.

A 30m stretch of beech hedge in this garden is teeming with life-sustaining food for insectivores in summer. When the annual trim is due in late August, it’s normal to be running the gauntlet of wasps and advisable to don headwear to avoid spiders, insects and dust in your hair.

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Holding on to the faded leaves, as this hedge does throughout winter, keeps the eco-system within ticking over. Leaf litter at the base sustains small vertebrates, and that’s where the hedgehog settles for winter.

Spring bud-burst brings total freshness to the beech, the floppy new leaves influenced by a stiff breeze create a Mexican wave effect.

So dense are the attractive, slow-growing conifers that I’m only able to inspect last year’s nests in the depths of winter. This said, the clues were there as we observed the summer activity from a distance.

A pair of blackbirds frequented the Chamaecyparis Rheingold, first with nesting materials, then food. Similarly, the song thrush carried mud into a C. Filifera Aurea, and we avoided lingering near the Silver Dust conifers that screen the garden waste recycling bins for fear of upsetting the wren that piped so loudly above them every day. Each nest is a work of art, and the wrens’, set at eye-level yet beautifully camouflaged, is still serving as their overcrowded winter roost.

Any dense evergreen is capable of attracting nesting birds. Two climbing ivies (Hedera helix Adam), on a west-facing wall of the house, were planted with this in mind. Both robin and wren have responded, using them continuously over the years.

But it’s not just evergreens that encourage nesting. A Viburnum Dawn hosted a pair of goldfinches in 2017, moving to the same variety but a different tree in a distant border last year. It’s only when the leaves fell that the superb little nest appeared.

Ornamental crab apples encourage goldfinches and chaffinches to nest in their boughs.