What you can do to your garden to bring in more birds – updated

posted in: Miscellaneous, Plants | 10

“I was surprised recently to see that our good Webmaster had exhumed some notes that we had exchanged almost four years ago and put them together into an article which he published on this website LINK. Upon being queried, he implied that I should well understand the problem of not having enough material.

“Yes, I used to work in the local Mainstream Media. And I remember the desperate evenings when no politician had said anything the whole day, no world leader threatened another, and no socialite slapped any one of her husband’s many mistresses. The editor, without fear of being featured in a sexual harassment suit, would shout: “We have got to get something in!” and we would scurry to call our friends in fire stations, police stations and the emergency rooms of various hospitals to find a good(???) disaster to fill our pages.

“Well, to give our Webmaster some temporary relief to fill his pages, I went through my old photographs and put together this update on what you can do in your garden to bring in more birds.

“Simply, you need to supply water, the right kinds of plants, and food, food, glorious food. Let’s go through the steps. And view the pictures of the birds that show up.

“No, you do not need large ponds. Fibreglass or PVC tubs about 1.5 to 2 metres in length and holding about 200 litres will do well enough. They cost below Singapore Dollars $100 apiece and have lasted for years. I have half a dozen of these, sunk into the ground and planted with water lilies, in various parts of my garden. They also contain other plants that snails will eat. I stocked them liberally with water snails and free-breeding fishes such as croaking gouramis (Trichopsis vittatus) platies (Poecilia maculata) and mosquito fish (Gambusia affinnis), all of which you can obtain for feeding larger fish from most large aquarium supply shops.

“A White Throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) took up the invitation to make himself at home (above). Too much at home.

“He parks himself on the porch and not only helps himself from the ponds where the fish are stocked for his meals, but also often tries to see if the more valuable fish in my aquarium taste any better (above).

“That is a close-up of him in the upper corner among the hanging orchids (above).

“Sometimes, a Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) also sneaks in (above). But not too often, because all kingfishers are highly territorial, and the resident squatter does not hesitate to tell off other freeloaders.

“A serious fisherman is this heron (above). I am not exactly sure of the species.

The ponds in the garden are where the Waterhens (Amauornis phoenicurus) hang out (above). In the seven years that I have been living in this house, many, many clutches of chicks have been hatched, and have been brought by their parents to splash and forage for snails in the ponds.

“Of course, the water also brings birds that want nothing more than a drink or a bath. I do get Oriental Magpie-robins (Copysychus saularis) though they are sadly becoming increasingly rare, probably due to poachers, who trap these easily saleable songbirds (above).

“Asian Glossy Starlings (Aplonis panayensis) are regular visitors (above).

“When I moved in, there was already a mature Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina) by the front gate. When it fruits, which it does about twice a year, all kinds of birds come to feast. These include orioles, bulbuls, starlings, mynas and many others.

“What I added to the garden were rather conventional plants, selected primarily to be attractive, though, all things being equal, when deciding between two types of plants, the preference would always be given to the one that attract birds and butterflies.

“For fragrance I have Wrightia religiosa and Murraya paniculata. They are visited regularly by sunbirds.

“For colour, I added Hibiscus and Straits Rhododendron (Melastoma malabarthricum) The latter deserves mention. Its fruits are favoured by many types of birds, among them both flowerpeckers (above) and sunbirds (below). And since this plant is not too tall, it can be planted close to the house so that birds can easily be observed through the windows.

“The sunbirds have really made themselves at home, and used to nest regularly under my eaves (above).

“Yellow-vented Bulbuls also breed regularly in my garden (above). I see their nests in orchid pots, among ferns, and in the palms.

“I must mention a not particularly attractive plant that brings hordes of birds. Australian Mulberries (Pipturus argenteus) sprout all over the place in this area. I transplanted one to my backyard. In less than four years it has grown into a small tree which attracts green-pigeons (above), starlings, bulbuls, and even the occasional hornbill (below).

“Of course it helps to have a neighbour who not only puts up with birds, but also likes gardening. Her Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) Chiku (Sapodilla) and Noni trees abut the fence between our two houses and attract their fair share of birds. Regular visitors when the fruits are in season are Rose-breasted Parakeets (Psittacula alexandri) (below) and Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) (also below).

“I will mention what I will NOT have in my next garden. Frangipani (Plumeria) and Bougainvillea will be left out. The Frangipani that I have are free-flowering and fragrant. But they are ecologically sterile. They have neither nectar nor fruit to attract anything. Bougainvillea are just too much trouble. They not only do not attract no wildlife, but they need to be pruned regularly, a painful job, given their many thorns.

“I also bought a Chempaka Kuning (Magnolia champaca) bush which is now a fair-sized tree. When it was in a pot in the nursery, the scent of the flowers was heavenly. That was years ago and also the last time I saw any flowers on it.

“Finally, let’s talk about food. The quantity of wildlife that a place can sustain depends upon the food available. While not wanting to go into the moral issues of feeding wildlife, I like to think that I have built up a higher than normal density in my immediate neighbourhood through sustained feeding over the past six years.

“The wild birds here go through about five kilograms each of birdseed and chicken feed per week, plus about half a kilo of mealworms. Feeding is done three times per day, shortly after dawn, at lunchtime, and in the evenings. The birds have grown used to the regular feeding times. When both my wife and I are not in town, our nephews will happily take over the catering.

“I have huge numbers of Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) in my garden, far more than you would see in any other area (above). I would love to see Zebra Doves (Geopelia striata) and they do come, but they cannot compete with the more dominant Spotted Doves.

“Also, I have to chase away any domestic pigeons that show up, since the Singapore authorities discourage people from feeding them.

“Other seed eaters that drop in include Baya Weavers (Ploceus philippinus) (above) and the common Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) (below). Various munias do show up, but are discouraged from staying by the larger birds.

“The regular feeding encourages the waterhens to breed, and they do so almost continuously (below). We find their antics, and also those of the very cute chicks extremely amusing.

“One noisy fellow who considers himself the life of the party is a White Crested Laughingthrush (Garrulax leucolophus) (below). This North Asian species has been introduced to Singapore through the songbird trade. There is now a small but established wild population on the other side of the island from where I stay. A solitary specimen found its way into my neighbourhood. This demanding fellow shamelessly solicits handouts every time he sees me. Sometimes, he bangs on doors and windows if he knows that we are at home and not attending to his needs quickly enough.

“Are you sure that you want lots of birds in your garden? I have to mention the downsides, chief of all being that you have to make sure your car is well covered. Bird droppings are extremely corrosive to automobile paintwork and should be washed off as soon as possible.

“And you have to watch your step because of bird poop on the pavement.

“Also, you have to stay on good terms with your neighbours. Fortunately, mine is the last house on the street, with no other buildings in front or behind. There is only one neighbour, and she quite likes birds. But not all neighbours do.”

Lee Chiu San
4th April 2018

10 Responses

  1. Kimosabe

    You forgot to mention birds (especially Pigeons & Javan Mynas) poop on flat-dwellers nicely washed laundry drying in the sun. What would you do with these nuisance birds….? Please, your advice…?

  2. Lee Chiu San

    Dear Kimosabe. I don’t know what to do about birds that poop on flat-dwellers nicely-washed laundry because I live near an airport and there are no high-rise apartments anywhere within sight.

  3. Kimosabe

    Thank you very much for your reply, Chiu San. As you have left this bird poop problem out of your excellent article’s downside, I thought I should ask you. Not all Singaporeans are fortunate enough to live in a house with a big garden and yet they would like to attract birds to their HDB apartment
    windows/corridors gardens. As the problem with bird poop sprayed on newly-washed laundry drying in the sun often happens, I felt I ought to raise this question with you.
    Some time ago the Town Council(?) of my area put up a large banner advising residents not to feed birds & they also distributed leaflets to every household. Yet the feeding continues. Maybe you could advise the Housing Authorities what to do about this…?

  4. Lee Chiu San

    Dear Kimosabe,
    For as long as I can remember, there were pet birds in the extended family home where I grew up in. That said, I have always been cautious about the neighbours’ feelings ever since I started keeping birds myself. And sorry to say, free-living Javan Mynahs and Rock Pigeons are not welcome by everybody.
    I understand where the authorities are coming from in discouraging the feeding of such birds in densely populated housing estates.
    My attitude towards this problem is the same as mine towards stray cats. If you feel sorry for them, take them home, and care for them in your own house/apartment. My last three cats (including the present one) have been adopted strays. Don’t make a mess by feeding them in public.
    By the way, I have also had Rock Pigeons and Javan Mynahs as personal house pets.
    As far as other species are concerned, they are wild birds and protected Native species. Under normal circumstances they would not get close enough to human habitation to make nuisances of themselves. So feeding them in my own garden, as well as providing enough facilities for them to forage naturally, would not cause problems for anyone.

  5. Kimosabe

    Thank you! Good answer! I guess the dilemma of bird nuisance is for the Housing Authorities to resolve. It is their problem. It is not for the bird experts to offer a solution…!

  6. Jack Leong

    Thank you for sharing a very useful article for those who have the desire to attract free living birds to their gardens. I have learn a lot from you through this article although the extend of what I can do for the birds will not be as large a scale as you are able to do. Thank you again.

  7. Hamesha

    Dear Lee Chiu, Thank you for a wonderful article and pictures.

    We must make space for wildlife and learn to live side by side with them, to the extent we can.

    Urban spaces are becoming a very important refuge for wildlife, scientists have found ! Without links with the natural world which provides human beings so many services, civilization would not survive.

    Also, the companionship afforded by wild birds to children and the elderly who are often home, is very valuable.. when your partner is gone, children at work, and friends busy or far away, the only companionship easily available is that of wild birds. It can make the difference between living a depressed life vs. a fulfilling one.

  8. Hamesha

    Incidentally, bougainvillea in Rajasthan, India, where I am offers excellent refuge for birds. Some 30 sparrows, 2 water hens and 2 partridges live in our bushes spread over a boundary wall some 45 feet long.

  9. Lee Chiu San

    Dear Hamesha,
    Glad to hear from someone in Rajasthan. A most impressive place. I was there a few years ago and posted an account of the birds I saw on this website under the title “Passage to India.” You can locate the four-part account through this website’s Search function.
    About Bougainvillea, they seem to do very well in your country, which has a distinct dry season that this plant likes. Yes, birds can use this plant as a hiding place, but Bougainvillea does not provide a lot of things for them to eat. So I prefer other plants that provide more food.
    Lantana is one. Lots of butterflies come for the nectar, and some birds eat the berries. I know that Lantana may not be favoured in your country, because when I went to some of your Nature Reserves, the guides informed me that Lantana was an invasive pest.
    I don’t know how well Hibiscus would do in your climate. The temperature should be OK, but it will require frequent watering. Anyway, you should ask experienced gardeners in your area what plants they would recommend that produce fruits frequently or have lots of flowers with nectar.
    The rules for prioritizing plant selection which we follow in a government-linked Environmental Conservation Group in which I participate are:
    1. Can we eat it? If so, birds and animals can too, and it will attract them.
    2. If we can’t eat it, can other birds and animals do so?
    3. Is it fragrant?
    We plant based on the above criteria.

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