Environment is King

Here in England May is the month in which wild bird fledglings leave their nests en-masse and flock to our gardens. Once there, they chirp all day-long to be fed by their harassed parents. Through late spring and early summer busy adults fill the airspace, flitting to and fro from dawn until dusk.

Despite its cold and wet start, this month has been no exception. Accordingly, during the past week or so it’s been difficult to keep pace with demand and our stock of seeds, nuts, suet and ‘flutter-butter’ is now rapidly dwindling. Furthermore, as several of our garden bird species generally have two to three broods in a season, this activity is set to continue through to July, or even into August.

An old log, a few pieces of dowling, some holes and a hook … voila! – a ‘flutter-butter’ feeder.

A firm favourite with many of our birds.

There are some who consider it wrong to continue to feed wild birds during the breeding season. This view is based on the belief that young chicks will receive the wrong diet and suffer as a result. That hasn’t been my experience. I consider that adult birds – in fact much of our wildlife (if not all) have far more nous than we may imagine.

During this busy period our garden feeding stations become fast food joints for harried adults. Sure, some of the offered food will be taken back to the nest, but this will supplement natural foods rather than replace it. For example, our resident robins will visit a feeder, beaks already crammed with insects, and manage to squeeze in a piece of mealworm-suet before zipping off to feed their brood.

From my own observations over the years, adult birds will generally stop for a breather and wolf down a beak-full of what’s on offer, before returning to their hunting, foraging and feeding duties. As May 2021 has been unseasonably cold and wet, the availability of these high-energy snacks will have been helpful.

Some time ago an acquaintance asked me how he could attract birds to his garden. It transpired he’d bought an expensive bird-feeder, stocked it with the appropriate goodies and was perplexed at the lack of interest by the native population.

His question and predicament caused me to reflect on an earlier conversation I’d had with a tropical fish enthusiast. He took the view that he didn’t keep fish, as they kept themselves. He declared that what he actually kept was the water his fish inhabited. By maintaining the water at the right quality and temperature his fish remained happy, healthy and independent.

Due to my own experience of keeping reptiles, I was able to fully endorse his sentiment. Here again, to suggest I kept them wasn’t strictly true. What I kept was their food supply of locusts, crickets, roaches and others. Healthy food meant healthy reptiles. As with the fish enthusiast, however, I was also responsible for the animals’ environment. It’s all about environment.

For example, Roddy our Bearded Dragon occupied a large enclosure in which there was plenty of room for him to exercise, along with an area to bask, a space where he could cool down and a sanctuary for sleep. This, together with the right food made for a healthy and happy ‘beardy’.

Similarly, our Crested and Gargoyle Geckos had all of the above – and more. They also required a humid environment.

Their vivariums were therefore equipped with ‘foggers’ – devices which periodically generated a fine mist, thereby creating an ideal ‘rain forest-like environment. Like Roddy, they too thrived as their environment suited their needs.

Another ‘needy’ reptile was our Chameleon, Bruno. Unlike cresties, chameleons require well-ventilated conditions. His enclosure was therefore a large, purpose-built one having mesh walls for maximum air-flow.

He also needed his own specific environs – one in which to bask, another to regulate his body temperature and a separate secluded spot in which to sleep. Having been provided with these he was in tip-top condition – not that he ever showed gratitude. Bruno’s mood tended toward aggression rather than appreciation. But that’s chameleons for you.

Chameleon ‘Bruno’ – beautiful but belligerent

Appreciative or not, Bruno and the others knew that environment is king. Get that right and ‘wildlife’ will thrive.

I explained all this to my acquaintance. I also gave him some pointers on how he might attract birds to his garden – tips based on those things I and my wife had done here to create our own wildlife-friendly garden.

When moving to our Lincolnshire home nineteen years ago, we committed ourselves from day one to keeping our garden poison-free. Consequently, we’ve never used insecticides or weed-killers … not even a single slug pellet.

One downside may be a lawn-full of weeds, but a major benefit is a garden teeming with tiny critters. Turn over any stone, slate, log or piece of bark and you’ll find an area bustling with activity – worms, slugs, snails, other invertebrates and miscellaneous creepy-crawlies. Many of these form the staple diets of our bird population.

However, it isn’t only the birds which thrive on the abundance of lower food-chain species. When turning over the above-mentioned stones etcetera, it’s never long before one of the resident newts is discovered. So far these have exclusively been Great Crested Newts, one of Britain’s protected species.

It was only a few days ago when weeding a patch of ground in front of my shed that I must have disturbed one such newt, which then sought peace and quiet inside my shed where I later found it in the middle of the floor – a magnificent specimen over four inches in length.

Great Crested Newt – a beauty

Another early decision when planning our garden was that we would devote an area to wild grasses – a mini-meadow, if you will. An adjoining area was to be our ‘woodland realm’ of seven trees, associated ground-cover and lower-canopy plants – ferns, forget-me-nots, nettles (white and red) poppies, foxgloves and others.

One vital element in our planning was that all tree species would be native to Britain. Our selection was to include Silver Birch, Whitebeam, Rowan, Crab Apple, Hazel, Hawthorn and Beech.

Why were native species a vital consideration?

One way of explaining would be to consider that, as I live in England I will seek a home that’s representative of the area and which suits the environment. In my case that is a brick and pantile cottage. I wouldn’t be attracted to a mud hut or an igloo, as they’re dwellings for other climates. So it is with our own native insect species.

Studies have shown that native trees and shrubs support a far greater biodiversity than foreign imports. Greater biodiversity means a richer and more varied food-chain – which means more birds.

Woodland to the right, veggies to the left, meadow grasses in between – all home to countless tiny critters

Not only do our selection of trees and hedging plants support the birds’ food, they also provide valuable cover. In my feature article ‘Much ado about Hedgerows’ published by Lincolnshire Life magazine I wrote:

Like all habitats, the hedgerow is a harsh environment where life is a story of eating and being eaten. On the bramble the spider catches the fly, but is eaten by the foraging whitethroat, which itself may fall prey to the sparrowhawk.

‘Much ado about Hedgerows’ – Lincolnshire Life

Many of Britain’s garden birds are built for short, ‘hopping’ flights rather than long-haul journeys.

One provision was therefore governed by their need for a ‘corridor’ of trees, hedgerows and shrubs along which they may travel safely.

Some birds prefer to navigate the upper canopy of trees whilst others – such as dunnnocks and wrens – favour routes closer to ground level.

The needs of our ‘feathered friends’ have been a major consideration in much of our planning. Although our garden isn’t a big one and may be considered to be ‘medium sized’, we have managed to include five separate hedgerows, totalling a hundred and twenty feet. This not only gives the vital cover birds need to feel safe, but contains ample nest sites, too.

Whilst we have tried to cater for ourselves, too, with the inclusion of a few small vegetable plots, we’ve deliberately left several areas untidy or have built high rise developments using bricks or logs for lower food chain critters. We’ve also assigned an area to ‘undesirables’ such as nettles, on which many of our native moths and butterflies prefer to lay their eggs.

‘BUG-ingham Palace’- a few pallets, unwanted bricks, sticks, logs and tiles – stuffed with hay & straw.

Mini-beasts LOVE an untidy area

It is these ingredients – safe surroundings, plenty of cover, suitable nest sites and an ample supply of natural food – that have rewarded us over the years with such a rich and plentiful variety of bird life.

Like my acquaintance, and millions of other bird-lovers, we take pleasure in feeding our resident birds and have added a range of feeding sites to the garden. But I have no doubt that, were we to remove them, our birds would continue to bless us with their presence and with their song. Its all about creating the right environment.

‘He that plants trees loves others besides himself.’

Thomas Fuller

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