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Growing Stuff  Articles:   4. Birds in the Garden
4. Birds in the Garden

Wise gardeners are concerned for looking after the birds. We might say look out for all the wildlife that visits your garden but for the moment we’ll limit it to birds. We’ll consider wildlife in general at some other time. A simple and perhaps obvious question which rarely seems to be asked is ‘why bother with the birds?’ I actually looked on the Internet and no one seems to have much of a say about that. I did come across rather wishy washy site that attempted an answer but not very well, I thought. Even such a committed body such as the RSPB don’t come up with practical reasons for preserving birds beyond the fact that people like watching birds. Further down the page you’ll see an answer we did get from a good web-site.

An answer, surely, has got to be practical and aesthetic. Practically, I believe, if we had no birds we would a surfeit of bugs and they would cause havoc. Birds help maintain the balance that is there in nature. Birds clean up gardens and generally help the wellbeing of gardens. If you can point me in the direction of some more specific writing on this matter I would appreciate it. Yes, aesthetically, it is nice to have birds around. For the person with eyes to see, the life and antics of a whole range of garden birds can bring immense pleasure. Spotting the different colours of the different birds, their activities in Spring, pairing up and building nests and watching for the new arrivals, listening to the different birds calls at different times of day, all of these things have the ability to bring a new level of awareness to the world that is your garden. And you can increase it!

If you don’t put food out or provide water, don’t b e surprised at the lack of birds in your garden; it simply means they have gone to someone who does provide for them.  Put in its simplest form, birds need:

· Somewhere to breed and shelter
· somewhere to forage and feed
· and an environment that is friendly.
If you have cats, dogs and young children you will struggle with the last of those three things and you want to go and read something else. For the first one, if you have a small garden, then a bird box tucked out of main sight of the house may encourage a pair of birds to take up residence with you. Trees, bushes and shrubs are the obvious natural means of provision of shelter for birds. Even if you have a small garden you may be able to have at least one tree or one decent size bushy shrub to help bird life feel good about your garden.

Feeding and foraging makes us think of growing plants with berries or leaving seed heads to be cleared by the birds. That is the natural end of feeding. The formal end of feeding is providing bird feeders but this does mean buying seeds or nuts which may lead you into squirrel watching!  
If you are serious about developing habitats to encourage birds, then think about:

· a water feature of some kind for drinking and bathing (with different depths of water) ,
·  an old log pile that will encourage insects on which the birds will feed,
· mulching flower beds with leaf litter or well rotted compost will encourage worms and provide shelter for spiders and other insects on which the birds will feed,
·  leave rotten boughs on trees (if not above a path!) that will encourage woodpeckers,
· have different levels of grass on the lawn – short grass will encourage the birds that are ground feeders to look for grubs and long grass encourages caterpillars which will attract other birds.

Here is an excellent answer from Songbird Revival who we e-mailed to see if they had an answer to our question about the ‘purpose of birds’ (

Thank you for your email.  Yes a good question!

Other than we all like birds and they are pleasing to see and hear there are sound and hard reasons why we need birds.  Mainly that they are part of a delicate food chain; which includes humans.

This is a very simplified version of some very complicated science:
It seems strange but without predators we would end up with no prey species*.  This applies to small birds being predated by larger birds and mammals too. We need all levels of the food chain to sustain each other.  This includes large predators such as birds of prey and corvids, mammalian predators like rats etc.  We need all of them.
Without these the smaller creatures do not need to reproduce as much and therefore their populations go down (this has happened historically.)
The same applies to the smaller predators (such as songbirds) on insects - the less predation on insects the less insects need to reproduce to survive the loss to predation. (Having larger numbers of young to cope with more predators is called ‘Compensation’).
The less insects there are then less pollination of plants take place.
Subsequently plants stop reproducing and we no longer have enough food for the herbivores (normally mammals and including farm animals and humans.)
At this point humans no longer have bread or meat to eat.
Therefore the Government include the population of birds as a 'Quality of Life Indicator' to see how well our countryside is supporting the human population and whether it can sustain it.
Some people use this same argument to say that larger predators such as Corvids will be limited by the number of prey that is available therefore we do not need to interfere with them.
BUT, corvids etc do not ONLY eat small birds - they will eat anything, including the masses of rubbish and road kill etc that humans leave lying around.
This has caused an imbalance in the number of predators such as crows and magpies that need even more food over the breeding season to feed their ever increasing numbers of young.
This is the reason that we have the General Licence 6 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 - this allows authorised people to 'kill or take, damage or destroy the nests or eggs' of certain listed species known to have a negative effect on other flora and fauna.
This includes most corvids, especially crows and magpies as their numbers are so numerous and their hunting of small birds, their eggs and fledglings is so active and successful.
However, there has never been any fully experimental research to prove how bad the predation on small birds is by corvids.  This is why SongBird Survival is doing the research (see attached) – to find out what the proper balance should be.

I hope this is helpful; and I hope I haven’t oversimplified it too much?
Please do ask if you need any further help with anything at all.

Kind regards
Georgina Bradley
Office & Shows Manager
SongBird Survival

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