The Garden Bird Survey

Date Posted: 10.01.2013

To further enhance the comfort of living in your own home, we thought these tips from Birdwatch Ireland about how to attract birds into your garden, would be nice for Spring.


⇒ How can I encourage birds to nest in my garden?    

In the long term you can do this by planting native hedges, trees, and climbers to provide suitable sites. More immediately, you can encourage Blackbirds and thrushes by providing a platform in a sheltered position, such as behind a bush against a wall or a bunch of twigs tied around a tree trunk. Robins will choose all sorts of strange nesting places: try placing an old kettle, with the spout pointing downwards for drainage, in sheltered place.


⇒ Do I have to turn my garden into a wilderness to make it good for birds?


Not at all. A garden can easily be made to be attractive both to people and to wildlife, especially if you choose plants to provide natural foods and plenty of cover for roosting and nesting.


A lawn is a good worm-hunting ground for Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, and Starlings will happily devour pests such as leatherjackets. Even paved paths and edgings have a use: Song Thrushes may use them as ‘anvils’ to smash open snails. If you do not have suitable paving, provide a brick or flint: the thrushes will repay you by devouring your garden snails!


⇒ Which are the best trees to plant for birds?


The best trees are the ones that produce berries or seeds, as these will provide natural foods for them in autumn and winter, as well as shelter and shade all year round. If you have a large garden you can have a mix of trees, such as maples, and most conifers, and native species. If you have a small garden with only room for one tree, consider a rowan, crab apple, small weeping birch, or native hawthorn.


⇒ Which are the best shrubs to plant for the birds?


The best shrubs to provide berries for birds are pyracanthas (not the yellow-berried varieties), berberis, elder, ivy, and female varieties of holly.


⇒ Is it ok to feed birds during the summer?


While winter is the most important time to provide food for birds, it is not a problem to feed them throughout the rest of the year too, if you wish. If you do, make sure that you never leave out whole nuts, as baby birds often choke on these: always use a fine wire mesh feeder that has been designed to allow birds to feed on peanuts safely.


⇒ What is the best type of food to provide for garden birds?


Many birds will happily eat a whole range of different foods. Amongst the very best are sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, sultanas, raisins, currants, grated cheese, cooked potato in any form, melon seeds, stale cakes, tinned cat or dog food, chopped bacon rind, fresh coconut, suet, uncooked pastry and meal worms. If feeding peanuts, be sure only to put them in a fine wire mesh container so that large pieces cannot be taken. Never feed the birds salted peanuts; it is safest to buy only nuts with the Birdfood Standard motif. Never use desiccated coconut as this may swell up inside the bird’s stomach. Be sure to moisten very dry bread. Birds also need water, even in winter, for drinking and bathing, to keep their feathers in good condition to insulate themselves during the long, cold winter nights, so be sure to provide this for them too.


⇒ How can I stop my bird bath from freezing over?


There are several ways of keeping water free of ice:


Line the bath with plastic so that the ice can easily be lifted out.
If the bath is made of metal, place a night-light underneath.
Place a light rubber ball in the water: it should move about enough to keep the area immediately around it ice-free.
Use hot water to melt the ice. Never use chemicals.


⇒ How can I stop squirrels taking all the food from my bird table?


It is virtually impossible to keep Grey Squirrels out of gardens, but it is possible to protect a bird table from their raids if it is on a post. Cut a hole in a biscuit tin and place it, upside down, on the post a little below the table, then cut a length of plastic drainpipe and fit it over the post below the tin; the squirrel will not be able to get enough grip to get past the biscuit tin and on to the table. Note, however, that if the squirrels can leap to the table from a nearby tree or wall then this method will not work.


⇒ How can I stop my cat climbing up to my nestbox?


It is the nature of the cat to hunt and they kill huge numbers of birds in Irish gardens each year. If you have a cat, we would encourage you to keep it indoors as much as possible during the breeding season, particularly during the early morning and late evening. A good way to stop cats climbing up into nestboxes is to place barbed wire around the tree or post below the box, before the nesting season to prevent disturbance to the birds. Another deterrent is, of course a dog.

⇒ I would like nestboxes in my garden. How should I go about it?


When putting up nestboxes it is important to think about your options first:

• When and how to put the box up


• What design of box you are going to use


It is important to put the nestbox up well before nesting season, as many birds begin their search for nest sites in February. Make sure to position your box well: ideally, fix it two to five metres high on a wall, fence, or tree trunk, where predators (including cuts and squirrels) can’t reach it. Do not nail the box to a tree, but use wire or a strap. Unless the site is very sheltered, the box should face between north and south-east to avoid hot sun and the west winds.


⇒ What design of box are available?


There are two main designs for nestboxes:


1. The ‘tit box’: a rectangular design with a small hole in the front to allow entry to hole-nesting species such as Coal, Blue and Great Tits, House and Tree Sparrows and Starlings, depending on the size of the entrance hole.


2. The open-fronted box: a similar design, but with a large rectangular opening at the front, suitable for species such as Robin, Pied Wagtail and Spotted Flycatcher.


More specialised nestboxes can also be made, including those for specialised nesters such as House Martin or Treecreeper, or large birds such as Kestrel or Barn Owl.


A wide range of nextboxes is available from the BirdWatch Ireland shop.


If you would prefer to make your nestboxes rather then buy one you can get plans for a simple tit boxes design from BirdWatch Ireland. If you want to explore more ambitious nestbox designs the BTO publish an excellent guide: Nestboxes, available from Wings Shop.


⇒ The birds seem to ignore my nestbox, what should I do?


Birds can be very choosy when it comes to nestboxes, so putting the nestbox is very important. The basic rules for sitting a nestbox are:


Try to have the box in place during the late autumn or early winter, to allow the birds enough time to get used to it.
Fix the box onto something solid, such as a sturdy garden fence wall or post, between 2 and 5 metres above the ground.
Avoid positioning the box where it will receive direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day. In practice, its best to position the box so that the entrance hole faces any direction between north-east and south-east, or in an area well shaded by foliage.
Try to strike a balance between a site to which the birds can gain easy access, using suitable perches, and one which predators such as cats cannot reach.
Once the box is in place, you need to sit back and be patient, resisting the temptation to inspect the box constantly, as this may disturb the nesting birds and make them desert.


⇒ How close together can nestboxes be sited?


There is no hard and fast rule, because it all depends on the surroundings, but for Blue and Great Tits a density of 2-4 boxes per acre would generally be enough. On the other hand, two nestboxes quite close together are sometimes occupied at the same time if they are both at edge of a territory.


⇒ How can I look after the nestbox?


Check the box in October or November, removing the nest and any unhatched eggs. It is wise to clean the box with boiling water to kill any parasites (do not use insecticide or flea powder). Once dry, a small handful of clean hay or wood shavings might attract other birds or small mammals to seek winter shelter in the box.


⇒ What can I do if my nestbox becomes infested by earwigs?


This happens quite often, but does not appear to cause any harm to the birds. As earwigs hide during the day in narrow crevices, cracks in the nestbox could be filled in with plastic wood which should make it less attractive to earwigs.


⇒ What can I do to stop sparrows pecking on my nestbox and frightening the tits away?


In case of interference with any desired tenant or prospective tenant by rivals for the same nestbox, the interfering bird may be driven away by a mechanical “bouncer”. One end of a stout cord is attached at some point below the nestbox. To this cord a rag or a piece of waxed paper about a foot square is tied as conspicuously as possible at a distance from the fastened end of the cord equal to the height of the nestbox. The free end of the cord is then carried through a window of your own house from which there is a convenient view of the nestbox. The end of you cord is fastened inside the window where it can where it can be easily reached and jerked. If the unwanted birds appear on or close to the nestbox the cord is given a sharp pull which will cause the rag to jerk upwards and frighten the intruder away.


⇒ Why do tits hammer away at the entrance hole of the box?


This is probably partly an instinctive action in natural sites where the entrance of the nest hole may need enlarging, and the behaviour may be carried over to nestboxes even though it is not necessary. It could also be part of the tits’ constant search for small insects.


⇒ How can I encourage House Martins to nest on my house?


Because House Martins feed entirely on insects caught in flight, you cannot attract them by feeding. Providing a muddy pond or puddle where the birds can collect mud for the nest building might be an incentive, especially in a dry spring, or you could try providing artificial nests. While these are not always used, they may encourage birds to build their own nests along side them; they can be purchased from the BirdWatch Ireland shop.


⇒ House Martins are nesting on my house and their droppings are making a mess. What can I do?


It is illegal to remove the nests while they are in use or to prevent the parents reaching their eggs or young. Anyway, if you remove the nest before this stage the House Martins will almost certainly build another. The simplest solution, therefore, is to fix a removable wooden shelf 250mm wide about two metres below the nest. This should catch most of the droppings.


⇒ Should the old nest be removed when the nesting season is over?


Yes. The reason is that the nest material will possibly be infested by fleas, the larvae of which can over-winter and cause a serious infestation of the following year’s brood. Wear rubber gloves when removing the nest material, then pour boiling water into the box to kill any hidden parasites that may remain. Pyrethrum powder is probably the safest insecticide but should not be used unless thought absolutely necessary, in extreme cases. Birds will often use the nestbox for roosting outside the breeding season, so it is a good idea to clean out old nest material at the end of summer.


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