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Attracting Birds – and Supporting Biodiversity

                                                                                                                  by Derek & Sarah Solomon                       

While birds are everywhere, they will only set up home in an area that is wildlife-friendly so you need to create an environment that is attractive to a wide variety of wildlife be it birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids and insects. Developing and maintaining this habitat in turn supports and preserves the biodiversity in gardens.

To be attractive to a bird, a garden must provide for the bird’s feeding, drinking, roosting and nesting requirements. An established suburban garden with a wide range of trees and shrubs often has the same resources as a natural woodland. It also generally has a more reliable water supply, and often has year-round greenery and cover, a more varied food supply and can provided artificial feeding.

Providing Food to Attract Birds

1. Food Growing Naturally

It is important to understand the different feeding needs of the birds in your garden. Some are seed eaters, others are fruit or insect eaters and others are nectar feeders or a combination of some, or all, of the above!

Firstly, grow as wide a range as possible of plants that are native to your immediate surroundings. Indigenous plants have evolved in partnership with the local wildlife and, for example, provide nectar for local pollinators like sunbirds, bees, butterflies, moths, and bats from your specific part of the world.

Birds use many parts of an indigenous plant as a food source – feeding on a wide variety of parts including seeds, fruit, nectar, flower buds or even young leaves. As we shall see below they also use plants they are familiar with for nesting materials, nesting sites and places to hide or as vantage points.

Gardens are generally poor habitats for seed-eating birds unless seed is specifically put out for them. This is because gardeners generally do not encourage plants which produce large amounts of seed, many of which are regarded as ‘weeds’. Don’t be too tidy in a bird-attracting garden. Leave some old flower heads, especially sunflowers or similar, to go to seed.

 Create a wild corner where natural grasses that produce large amounts of seed can grow freely so that birds can perch on grass stems and feast on the seeds. Natural grasses which are ideal for this purpose are Panicum maximum, Setaria megaphylla, Urochloa mossambicense and Brachiaria spp. Sorghum is a decorative plant which is also good for floral art and could be planted in the middle of a bed.

Nearly every organism in the food web eats insects or eats someone who eats them – or benefits from the pollination services that insects provide. Insects form a vast food supply and large numbers of birds capitalize on this supply. Most insect-eating birds are arboreal or tree dwelling, and many glean insects from the surfaces of the trees and the leaves. Some species such as woodpeckers and woodhoopoes are adapted to foraging in crevices or under bark. On the other hand, cuckoos specialise in hairy caterpillars. Many kinds of bird such as thrushes, starlings and babblers forage on the ground, running or hopping after insects. Others feed in the air by means of a swoop out from a perch to catch insects on the wing (a method of feeding known as hawking). Ground feeding birds such as thrushes will often eat slugs and snails.

Mulching with leaves and garden clippings not only conserves moisture in the soil and discourages weeds, but it also provides a ‘pantry’ of insects for robins and thrushes.

Many plants produce nectar that attracts insects and birds to serve as the pollinators of the plant. Most bird-pollinated plants have brightly coloured flowers, generally red, orange, pink or yellow. This helps to attract the birds by making the flowers easier for potential pollinators to find. (Because nectar is low in protein, nectar-feeders must supplement their diet with insects.) In catering for nectar-feeder it is a good idea to select species which will flower at different times of the year. The various aloe species are an obvious choice.

Many birds eat fruits and can easily be encouraged by planting shrubs and trees that produce fleshy fruits, though few of these birds depend solely on fruit as a food source. Like nectar, fruit is too low in protein to fully satisfy the bird’s requirements. Fruit-eating tends to be highly seasonal, peaking in the dry season when many indigenous plants produce their fruit. Among these, the figs are ideal because they are fast growing and attract the widest spectrum of birds. Those species producing small fruits such as Ficus thonningii or Ficus burkei are particularly suitable. The shrub Halleria luctda also attracts many species including some that seldom otherwise eat fruit.

2. Food Provided Artificially

Scattered on the ground

The simplest method of feeding seed-eaters is to scatter breadcrumbs, seed, crushed maize or millet on the ground or lawn. It is best to scatter this food in an open space where the birds can easily fly away from predators such as cats. (Remember that mixed bird seed can germinate and grow through your lawn whereas crushed grain will not do so.)  In order to cater for ground feeders it is essential that the food be placed down where they normally feed. The Kurrichane Thrush taking breadcrumbs from the ground will not fly up to a feeding table in order to feed. Doves too prefer to feed on the ground (watch them under natural conditions) and scattering food on the ground keeps most of them away from the feeding tables and allows the smaller birds to feed there undisturbed.

On a bird table or feeder

One of the most effective ways of feeding birds is to build or create a feeding table. There are many ways of doing this:

  • You can build or buy an elaborate wooden feeding table with a roof (some of them looking more like dolls houses than bird feeders) but a simple open platform is often more effective. It is, however, a good idea to have some form of raised edge or lip to the platform to prevent seed being blown off by the wind;
  • Firmly attach a wooden or slate platform raised 1 – 2 meters above the ground on a gum pole, a tree stump or large branch which can be imbedded into the ground;
  • A stone column can be made out of large rocks placed one on top of another, perhaps at the edge of a rockery, with the feeding table on top of this.

Alternatively hanging feeders made of wood or paving slate can be suspended from the branch of a tree. Even more simple hanging feeders can be made from metal tins, coconut shells or plastic containers.

In contrast with the ground feeding method mentioned earlier these platform feeders should be placed reasonably close to a tree, shrub or hedge so that the feeding birds can escape into them when alarmed. It is also a good idea to locate your feeding table where you can watch it without disturbing the birds, such as outside a window where you can watch from a comfortable chair.

Bear in mind that many birds are very territorial, particularly during the breeding season, and will often chase other birds away from the feeding table. It is therefore best to have more than one feeding site in a garden. And perhaps provide a large one which allows the more boisterous birds such as sparrows and doves to squabble amongst themselves, and have  others suspended in trees to cater for the shy and retiring species that prefer to eat alone. Yet another feeding site will be needed to cater for the fruit eating birds. Place all over-ripe fruit here and soon you will have birds such as barbets, mouse birds and starlings coming down to feed.

Whatever method of artificial feeding you use, make sure that food is available at all times. If you are going on holiday arrange for the gardener or a friend to continue to place food out for the birds. This is particularly important when birds are breeding and feeding their young. Remember that you have created an artificial environment and probably have an abnormally high population of birds depending on the food you provide every day.

It will often take some time for the birds to get used to being fed so do not expect birds to start arriving in large numbers immediately. It might even take weeks before they start feeding at the places you have provided, but persevere. You won’t be sorry.

Providing Water to Attract Birds

Of course, water is an essential requirement for birds. Most birds are attracted to bird baths to drink and bathe. Water can be provided in a variety of ways, one of the most effective being a simple bird bath or dish placed on a gum pole or pedestal. Make the dish as large as possible.  Asbestos dishes sold at most nurseries are ideal for this purpose. Even an old hubcap makes a suitable bird bath.

The bird bath should be placed near a tree or bush where the birds can sit and preen themselves after bathing. This also gives them some form of protection to fly into if predators such as cats come into the garden. Make sure the water and the container or bath is always clean.

A water feature or pond in a quiet section of the garden is another way to attract birds to the garden. Bulrushes and sedges planted around a fishpond provide nesting material or even a nesting site for birds. A pond attracts frogs and tadpoles which are eaten by many birds, and you might even be lucky enough to attract a kingfisher (at the expense of a few small goldfish). The pond should have a shallow area, not more than a few centimetres deep and preferably with a gentle slope, where the birds can stand and drink or bathe. If this is not possible place a large, flat rock near the edge of the pool so that the birds can stand on this.

Providing Shelter and Natural Nesting Sites to Attract Birds

Each species has a specific requirement for a nesting site and will build a specific type of nest. Many birds build cup-shaped nests which are placed in the fork of a tree. Others build a nest close to or on the ground. Some use hollow tree stumps or cracks or crevices in walls or banks. Many species nest in holes in trees. Rough barked trees, such as Acacia species, not only harbour insects but also make good nesting trees with the thorns offering protection from predators.

Birds also use leaves, twigs, grasses and palms as material for nesting so again a variety of plants is beneficial on many levels. If you plant palms you need to accept (with good grace) they may well be stripped for nesting! Grasses and reeds are used by the birds for nesting material and the feathery tops of pampas grass make an excellent lining for many nests.

Birds generally prefer dense thickets and large trees for nesting, and it will be necessary to create a suitable habitat if you wish to attract large numbers of birds into the garden. Plant shrubs in between the trees in the garden to form spaces in which birds can hide and build their nests. Robins and thrushes like to find their food amongst the decaying leaves below these thickets and will soon be encouraged to breed there as well. Creepers such as honeysuckle and ivy hanging from a wall make ideal nesting sites for small birds. Many species of indigenous trees, although sometimes slow growing, are ideal for this purpose. Weavers like to suspend their nests from the end of branches of trees or in bamboo. If you have a large garden, plant some bamboo at the bottom of the garden to cater for this.

Some birds, notably barbets and woodpeckers, excavate their own holes in trees to create nests but many other birds wait for such holes to become available before they can start breeding. Competition for these holes is fierce particularly as suitable holes are hard to come by.

One method of attracting hole-nesting birds to breed in the garden is to provide artificial nest boxes. There are many ways of doing this. The most obvious is to collect a dead branch which has already been used by barbets or woodpeckers and place this in your garden. (Dead and dying trees have a useful afterlife; as a lookout perch for a raptor, a food source for insects, who, in turn, feed the masses, and lichen, fungi and mosses may grow on them, providing food and shelter.)  It is a good idea to patch up any cracks with cement or clay before hanging up a hollow log. Preferably place it 2 to 3 meters above the ground in a suitable tree, or even wire it securely to a wooden telephone pole if there is one in your garden. This could attract another pair of barbets, but in large gardens particularly in the rural areas, it might also encourage species such as the African Hoopoe or Red-billed Wood-hoopoe, Glossy Starlings, Kingfishers, or, if the hole is big enough, a Lilac-breasted Roller.

It will probably be necessary to place several nest boxes in your garden and then wait to see which ones the birds select.

Many large gardens around the country have a pair of resident owls, in many cases either a Barn Owl or a Spotted Eagle Owl. The Barn Owl can be recognised by its blood curdling screech as it flies around the garden looking for mice. The Spotted Eagle Owl is a large grey bird with ear tufts. Both species consume huge quantities of rats and mice and are most beneficial to a garden.

The Barn Owl often nests in the roof of a house but can also be tempted to breed in nesting box made on the lines of a small dog kennel. Make the ‘kennel’ about 40 – 50cm long and 30 – 40cm wide, and give it a sloping roof to ensure that water does not accumulate in it. The entrance to the ‘kennel’ should be a hole about 10cm in diameter. This ‘kennel’ must be placed very high in a suitable tree, i.e. 5m to 6m, and well hidden by the foliage.

The Spotted Eagle Owl can be tempted with an open box, once again place high up in a tree and securely nailed to a large branch and hidden by the foliage. A box 100 x 50cm and 30cm deep is an ideal size.

Note on Young Birds in The Garden

During the breeding season it is not uncommon to find young birds or nestlings on the lawn or in the road outside the house. This often happens when these young birds take their first flight and land on the ground. Having made this first flight, the nestling will remain on the lawn or side of the road waiting for its parents to come and feed it. Pigeons and doves are among the most common birds to do this, as they often leave their nests before they can fly properly. Young owls often leave their nests and sit on the ground, where they are fed by their parents.

Well-meaning people then pick them up thinking that they are injured or lost or abandoned by their parents. If you see a young bird, apparently abandoned, PLEASE LEAVE IT ALONE. Rather keep well away so that its parents can return and feed it and move it to a safe place. If there is the danger of cats or other predators in the area, move the bird to the top of a wall or into a tree, or even back into the nest if the site is known, and leave the rest to the parents. Handling the chick briefly will not cause its parents to abandon it.

Young birds are very difficult to hand-rear, and even more difficult to introduce back into the wild. More often than not they will die because the artificial food they are receiving is not correct, or deficient in many nutrients. Not only do these chicks require the right type of food, but they also need to be fed very regularly through the day, as often as every half hour. Many people do not have the time or patience for this and the little bird eventually dies.


Sprawling urbanisation, monoculture agriculture, deforestation, the demands of the transport system – all of these are gobbling up the natural habitat of many birds and forcing them into hostile environments. The northern suburbs of many southern and central African cities support low-density housing with big gardens and large trees. Increasing numbers of species are being found in these gardens as they have been squeezed out of their natural habitat. If you can make your garden a haven for as many types of small wildlife as possible, including birds, you will be making a serious contribution to maintaining biodiversity.


Highly recommended reading is Attracting wildlife to your Garden by Roy Trendler and Peter Chadwick, published by Struik Publishers in Cape Town ISBN1 77007 064


Biodiversity cannot be sustained in the presence of pesticides – see the article Maintaining Bio-Diversity by Avoiding Artificial Pesticides on natural ways to discourage insects (that will not threaten the wildlife in your garden.)

Sarah and Derek Solomon

Experienced tour and safari operators in South/Central Africa, writing about birds and now recording sounds of African wildlife.

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