Nick Baker on watching birds in your garden

Friday 8th October 2010

The beauty of wildlife watching is that you don't have to go far to enjoy it. Here are some tips from Nick Baker, Vice President of The Wildlife Trusts, on watching garden birds.

1. The first and easiest way to watch the birds is to persuade them to come close to you and the way to win over a bird’s confidence is undoubtedly through its stomach. Buy quality seed, nuts and feeders from a recognised wildlife supplier and you will be guaranteed a safe, ethical, quality product.

2. Experiment with food too. It’s almost possible nowadays to bring in different species almost to order depending on the food you put out! Niger seeds may need a separate specialised feeder but are well worth it when they bring in a colourful flock of goldfinches or siskin, while mealworms (alive or freeze dried) make an excellent supplementary food for insectivorous birds.

3. If you provide seed then also put out a source of water – I use a ceramic plant pot drip tray with a stone in it! Make sure you change the water frequently to avoid disease transmission – you could even add a little Citrasan to naturally help them out.

4. So once you’ve provided food and water, the next requirement is shelter. Provide private places, over grown corners, thick shrubs and hedging and of course nest boxes of which there is a huge range available or if you are on a budget you can download plans from the internet for free.

5. When positioning feeders, water and nest boxes obviously they are for the birds but keep in mind your own needs too. Place them where they can be easily seen from the comfort of the house or from a favourite seat in the garden. That way you can get to know individuals. I like to have my feeders where I can watch them from the kitchen sink!

6. Obviously identifying the birds is quite handy and is relatively easy for most common garden species (there are several good books and field guides available as well as a rather good laminated fold out chart by the FSC) keep a pair of binoculars on the kitchen table of on a convenient window sill so they are always available.

7. Don’t be too tidy this autumn – wind fall fruit, Rose-hips, Haws, Ivy berries and seed heads are all sources of food for your garden birds. Fruit left under the bird feeders will be most welcome by Thrushes. Placing some away from the house (at the end of the lawn for example) may well be used by shyer winter species such as Fieldfare and Redwing.

8. Don’t forget to actually watch the birds too. I mean look out for interesting behaviour – what are different species feeding on is a good place to start, but also watch for interactions between birds of the same or different species are some more tolerant of others and who is the more dominant. If you are lucky enough to have nesting birds; how many feeding trips are made and do both birds take part?

9. Our gardens may have definite boundaries but the birds have their own territories which overlap our own. Look, or should I say listen out for territorial birds calling from regular song perches. These are often the territory holders and if you watch the movements of these birds around your garden and plot all the places you see these individuals you can get an idea of territory size and shape.

10. Learning bird song can be a bit daunting for a beginner, especially since as well as song there are also others vocalisations that each species makes; from contact calls between members of the same species, alarm calls and various other practice or sub-songs. So the best place to get to know these is in your own garden. Work on putting a face to the cheep, twitters or warble and you will soon be an expert on your own patch. Then as you move further a field you can take this baseline knowledge with you and start adding to it new species as and when you discover them.

11. You can’t beat actual physical contact between you and a wild bird and with a little patience that bold Robin or plucky Blackbird that follows your spade around the vegetable plot can be trained to come closer and closer using the secret weapon of live mealworms in a small dish! Start feeding just in the dish and bring it progressively closer, then outstretch your arm and hold the dish, before removing the need for a dish completely. Do this gradually and within a week your bird could be feeding from your hand.


Story by RSWT