The Secret Life Of Garden Birds (And How To Interfere In It!)

“Woodnotes” is one of those beautiful words that encapsulates so well what it means; in this case, natural musical sounds like the song of a wild bird. Not many people don’t find birdsong soothing and so inviting more birds into your garden might be one of your gardening goals.

But what if those feathered friends turn into feathered fiends by unleashing their appetites on your newly-sprouted seedlings? Or how about when they snack on the figs you were patiently watching grow for so many months and very much looking forward to harvesting in a few weeks?

Investigating and better understanding the seemingly problematic behaviour of birds can help you manage their impact on your garden. Bird management is basically about understanding what birds want and how you can provide it to them in a way that suits both you and the bird. As gardeners, to some extent we do have licence to practice a bit of bird management, because gardening, after all, is about choreographing the moves you want nature to make on the stage that is your own little patch of land.

Even if you don’t have a large garden, you can still quite effectively keep birds from desecrating your produce by directing their attention to designated spots in your garden. There are lots of tried and tested ways of scaring birds away from certain patches of garden, like reflecting objects, travelling scarecrows and owl statues and hanging objects that clang in the wind.

But if dangling CD’s are not part of your gardening aesthetics, and you are of the opinion that surely there must be a better way of managing bird activity in your garden apart from scaring these sensitive creatures, then we’ve got you. Here are some insights into the lives of birds and how that can help you manage the way they interact with your garden.

Birds have needs

Not unlike humans, birds also like to go for a fast food option due to the instant gratification it provides. The (not so proverbial in this case) low-hanging fruit that is your figs, for instance. Very little effort required!

Birds move around a lot, so they need to eat. The vegetarian types prefer mostly nectar, berries, fruits and seeds. Lure these birds to the parts of your garden that you want them to visit - and away from your fig tree - by providing plants that cater for their sustenance needs or human-made items such as well-maintained feeders and water stations. There are many tutorials on the internet for how to make your own bird feeders from recycled materials.

In terms of plants, seed-eating birds will for example feast on sunflowers, so be sure to sow them where you want to concentrate the bird activity. Also, leave your maturing sunflowers in the ground until all their seeds have been eaten by the birds. Some birds also like smaller seeds, like those from the stunning candy stripe zinnia(pictured below).

If you attract insects to designated parts of your garden, the insectivorous birds will follow. Plants that are attractors of birds themselves or the insects that some birds eat, like bees, caterpillars and butterflies, include lemon balm, Italian large leaf basil, and borage. How great that these plants are all useful to humans too.

Life is not always easy for a bird …

Not all birds are birds of prey, some of them are the prey. Just think Sylvester and Tweety. Every bird faces many challenges in their everyday life, from finding food, water and shelter, to staying out of the claws of predators and protecting their unborn chicks from egg-snatchers. That’s why it is important to responsibly place feeding and watering stations for birds in locations where they would be as safe as possible against predators.

Some trees provide birds with both food as well as safety. If birds can build a nest high up in the delicate branches of a tree and that tree provides something for them to snack on, then that’s more value to them and to you.

One such example is the wild olive tree (Olea europaea ssp africana), the fruit of which is popular among Rameron pigeons, African green pigeons, red-winged and pied starlings, as well as loeries and Cape parrots.

Another example is the coral tree (Erythrina lysistemon), a rather fast-growing tree with beautifully rouge-coloured flowers. This specimen provides not only perching and nesting potential, but also nectar to birds like Cape parrots and various types of sunbirds, flower food to the grey go-away bird and unripe seeds to the brown-headed parrot. Find your complete coral tree growing kit here.


Other examples of trees offering shelter as well as food to certain birds include the kei apple (Dovyalis caffra), the elderberry fruit tree (Sambucus nigra) and the wild peach tree (Kiggelaria africana).

Some birds have a sweet tooth

As noted earlier, some birds feed on flower nectar and also seem to be attracted to the warm tones of nectar-rich flowers, so include aloes and red hot pokers in your garden to lure these birds in.

South Africa has many different species of nectar-loving birds, like Gurney's sugarbird and the Cape sugarbird, as well as the white-bellied, malachite and amethyst sunbirds. Give your avian visitors a taste of la dolce vita with a special plant like the Natal wild banana.

The flower of this eye-catching plant itself is reminiscent of a bird, which is why strelitzias are also known as bird of paradise flowers. Birds of course can help to pollinate these flowers as they help themselves to the nectar. Some epic symbiosis going on there!

Also have a look at the whimsical annual bird’s eye flower which not only attracts nectar-eating birds and bees, but is appreciated by chocoholic humans too because of its chocolatey smell.

Birds practice selfcare

Now, it is time to round off your bird management plan by complementing the bird section in your garden with a bird bath. Most everyone has seen the happy splashing of a bird in a bit of water. Bathing helps keep their feathers clear of nasties that carry parasites and can kill them or damage their wings. Washing up a bit can also cool them off in hot weather.

Place your bird bath in the designated area where you are planting your bird-attracting plants and placing your bird feeder. Make sure your bird bath is deep enough for the birds to bathe but not so deep that they can drown. They should also be able to easily get in and out of their bath. Keep the bird bath clean (this goes for bird feeders too) and change the water regularly.

The above guidelines are certainly not foolproof - having wings gives birds options, after all, and the saying “free as a bird” did not come out of nowhere. These natural bird management guidelines will, however, go a long way in bettering the situation.

Do a bit of research about the specific birds in your area and what they like to eat, then see how you can provide that to them in terms of plants suited to your area or other means, especially in winter when their food sources are not as abundant. Let us know on our social media pages how you interact with the birds that frequent your garden. What bird-friendly tips and tricks do you have for your fellow gardeners to manage garden birds? Do share!

About the author

Chanél Boshoff has a master's degree in journalism and is an avid amateur gardener with a passion for the environment. She writes about sustainable and creative living.