As our gardens, orchards and hedges are filled with more bird songs there is a sense that Spring is almost here! The territorial songs are beginning to be heard and the battle songs of birds seeking to find a mate are becoming more frequent.
On the outskirts of Edinburgh, I’ve recently heard the melancholic notes of a mistle thrush, whose song sounds to me a bit like a bubbling kettle on the boil. Some refer to the mistle thrush as a ‘boring blackbird’, due to its song and its use of minor notes. It is also known as a ’storm cock’ and can be found singing on the tops of trees, assessing the weather, or establishing its breeding territory.
Also active in my garden have been the sounds of a party of long tailed tits, delighting with their cheery rattle and high pitched call. Collectively, they are known as a ‘volery’ and these acrobatic flying lolly pops can unfortunately suffer from high mortality during a cold winter, which is why they often roost together to minimise heat loss. Below is a long tailed tit nest I found in my berberis shrub, a cylindrical nest lined with moss and feathers.
The warmer temperatures in towns and cities create attractive winter roosts for birds, and our urban green spaces, including orchards, are a vital lifeline.
What can we do to best encourage and support our feathered friends to towns and cities?
- Establish a water source such a bird bath or even a basin or sink sunk into the ground.
- Hedging can provide shelter or a nest site for birds. If you want to install a nest box, the Royal Society Protection of Birds (RSPB) has useful instructions for how to build one. When considering the number of boxes, it’s worthwhile thinking about size of your garden/orchard and how many breeding pairs could be sustained from the nearby food sources. If you are lucky to have a nesting pair, you may wish to log the record with British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and their nesting neighbours monitoring programme.
- Adding a feeder in an orchard can be a quick way of attracting and supporting birds in the colder winter period and is especially useful when food sources can be harder to find. It is also worth considering which birds your feed mixes will attract. House sparrows, for example, will typically be quite happy with mixed birdseed, while goldfinches are more partial to sunflower hearts and niger seeds. Also, it is important to consider cleaning your birdfeeder regularly with warm soapy water to prevent transfer of disease.
Orchards can also be an important place to encourage birds through additional planting. For example, a wildflower area under trees can be a great way to encourage them in. See this recent excellent post by Tom Staton, highlighting the importance and benefit of wildflowers in an orchard.
When thinking about types of hedging plant to grow in an orchard, it’s important to consider the multi-uses of shrubs. Not only could they be a shelter to retreat to, or for nesting, but also a source of possible fruit for birds and humans or to improve the soil.
Some useful berry-bearing plants that will certainly encourage more birds to your orchard:
- Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) can provide a vital food source for blackcaps, finches, song thrushes and waxwings.
- Elder (Sambuccus nigra) – elderflowers are great for insects, also the berries are relished by blackcaps and thrushes.
- Ivy (Hedera helix) are very long lasting and an important winter food source for redwings, bull finches and blackbirds. They also provide places for shelter and nesting.
- Dogwood (Cornus sp.) – the black fruits appear in autumn and are favoured by finches and thrushes. Its foliage can also act as a colourful wind break screen.
Some top plants that you might want to consider for a supply of bird seed:
- Field scabious (Knautia arvenis)
- Sunflower (Helianthus annus)
- Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) – this plant can attract goldfinches.
This weekend (26-28 January) is the RSPB Big Garden Watch, why not celebrate by holding a count at your local community orchard?
By Chris Macefield, Project Manager Edinburgh and The Lothians
Photo credits: Mistle thrush: David Fairclough/Flickr, Blackbird, Joe Cleere, Flickr