Birds in the garden

As I was getting the washing in earlier this week, there was much loud twittering of birds. Mark, who was passing commented on the consternation (it did remind me of that early horror story “The Birds”) and suggested that our ginger killing machine might be at large. In fact the ginger killing machine (aka the cat) is rather more a ginger sleeping lump these days but I wandered behind the garage to see if she was entertaining herself by inflicting a spot of terror.

No. It was a snoozing morepork. I managed to get within a metre of it, roosting in a tree in the bush. There was a small and hyperactive fantail dancing around the branch with much agitation telling it to move on while the other birds kept a safer distance away as they gave it it’s pedigree. A bit of a pariah in the ornithological world, the morepork, but I was enchanted to see one close up. For some time we had one resident in a very large blue conifer outside our bedroom window and it would swoop in to catch the moths attracted to the lights. But it always moved so fast that I never caught more than the tap on the window and a glimpse of it flapping away.

And we have a visiting native falcon. This bird is less welcome, now that the novelty of this endangered species has worn off. Mark keeps a few pigeons to entertain himself and visiting children and the falcon has certainly proved very adept at preventing a population explosion. A little too adept in fact, as the only reason we have managed to keep a stable population is that somebody keeps giving us her surplus pigeons and at times we have felt that it is simply a larder for the falcon. While there has been passing talk of dealing to the falcon (especially as we see the distress the poor pidgies feel under threat), Mark could never bring himself to deal to it once and for all. It is a protected bird and so rare around here that he was positively excited when it first showed up. The excitement has long since worn off, especially when it is being particularly persistent and Mark has had days when he is out at sunrise and again as the sun starts to go down (prime times for attacks), patrolling to protect his pigeons. The Jack Duckworth of Tikorangi, really.

The Australians have the spectacular birds with exotic plumage and features. But clearly nature wanted to stop them from getting too cocky so endowed most of them with horrendous squawking voices. More modest New Zealand gained feathered inhabitants of sombre hue but with songs to delight. However the Australian rosella parrot has moved in to our area and it is certainly picturesque, even if its arrival is not overly welcome. It competes with the tui for food and will also take apart fruit to get to the pips and seeds.

I have been writing garden descriptions recently for our own and other people’s gardens and it struck me that we all claim birdsong as an additional feature. In large mixed gardens which are our speciality in provincial New Zealand, there is likely to be sufficient food to attract the birds without having to take special measures. If you favour the modern simple garden designs with a heavy focus on sanseverias, yuccas and other spiky and succulent features, you will be sacrificing the delight of resident birds. Similarly the Melbourne look of clipped buxus with standard Iceberg roses and blue pansies won’t provide fodder for feathered friends. Nor indeed will mulches of gravel, stones or (worse) weedmat. Mind you, if you favour that formal and tidy style of gardening, you probably dislike the mess the birds make anyway. They scratch up organic mulch and rake around in litter. And when I look out of one of our upper story windows to a lawn below, I can see the multitudinous little holes where some determined birds have been fishing out the grass grubs. This is likely to be starlings. It is good organic control as long as you don’t mind the mini earthworks. We find the lawnmower smoothes them out again.

Birdfeeders are worth a try if you have the time and inclination and especially if you have younger children at home. I have friends who have managed to keep a high resident tui population in their town section by a combination of the right sort of garden and having a constant supply of sugar water for them. Set close to the house on a tree branch, the tuis are their constant companions and they know them all individually.

Setting seeds in fat in a mesh onion bag will attract a different range of birds but to be honest I don’t think I have done this since my Playcentre days in the dim and distant past.

While we could have done without the blackbirds and sparrows our forbears introduced (although I think it a shame we never got Robin Redbreast but that is only me being sentimental), bird friendly gardens add an extra dimension of interest and pleasure to the outdoors. Good gardening, as I keep advocating, is a matter of working with nature, not against it.