I meet a bird enthusiast who has gone further than most in his efforts to tempt his feathered friends into the garden – and find out how we can best help our garden birds this autumn…
We all remember that special birthday when we got our very first stereo or a shiny new bicycle – but for wildlife enthusiast Adrian Thomas, his most memorable gift was a pair of binoculars.
“It was my proudest possession,” says Adrian. “That, and my bird book. Living in a village with one bus a day and not much else to do, I’d amuse myself for hours in the garden watching birds. I loved the fact each bird had its own character; that great tits had individual black markings like fingerprints; that starlings (or ‘little stars’) were so called because of their beautiful winter plumage; and in particular that in our own gardens, you could watch birds more intimately than in any other habitat.”
While many children might have shrugged off this ornithological passion as they grew up, Adrian’s interest grew stronger, and as a teenager he continued to bird watch in the woods near his home – even when he grew his own punk rocker ‘Mohican’ hairstyle!
“After art college I thought I’d become an internationally successful artist, but instead I became a bingo caller and got stuck in a windowless building with no daylight,” jokes Adrian. “When I went back to college as a mature student and took a wonderful course in wildlife film-making, it opened my eyes to my love of the natural world and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Today, fulfilling many of his dreams as project manager at the RSPB, Adrian is also embarking on a rather special bird friendly oasis at home in West Sussex.
Birds in paradise
When Adrian bought the house and one-acre garden in Lancing in 2014 it was a tangle of weeds and tall trees, choked by suckering damson and surrounded by Colditz style fencing and towering Leylandii.
“The first thing I did was to cut down some trees,” says Adrian. “While we might associate trees with birds, a closed canopy is not good for wildlife and, in reality, the world’s richest ecological habitats are the ‘edges’ – where meadows meet woods and woods meet ponds. Diversity doesn’t happen in the middle of a wood, it’s on the edges where the sunlight gets in, flowers grow and insects and birds visit.”
Clearing the trees has also allowed Adrian to add one of the most wildlife friendly additions to any garden – a pond – but, at 16m by 11m across, it’s more of a mini-lake.
“While I have the room for a large pond, there’s no reason why you can’t be ambitious in a small urban garden,” says Adrian, author of RSPB Gardening for Wildlife: A Complete Guide to Nature-friendly Gardening. “You just need to stand back and look at your fence or wall or house and see where it can be greened up. Where could you could plant a small patch of wild grass, can you fit a nest box to your house, could you have a bird bath?”
As well as attracting robins, blackbirds and dunnocks, Adrian’s pond – and numerous feeders and nest boxes – are also being visited by little egrets, pied wagtails and kestrels.
“A sparrow hawk comes to bathe daily – and that’s a great example of what an incredible environment a garden can be for wildlife,” says Adrian. “In all my years of bird watching I never saw these birds so up-close and personal.”
But just 18 months into his elaborate five-year plan, Adrian’s is planning to incorporate standing dead wood into the garden, which is a magnet for wood boring insects, create his own topology with an underground and overground log pile (made from his felled trees) and sow many flowers.
“People assume a ‘wildlife garden’ has to be unkempt, and wild and woolly, but I’m passionate about showing you can have garden that’s attractive to you and to the wildlife. It’s not an either/or thing,” he says.
High rise habitats
So why go to all this trouble? With garden birds under threat and the quality of food in the countryside deteriorating, more and more birds are relying on us for food sources – be that hanging feeders, bird tables, berry rich shrubs and trees such as holly, hawthorn and cotoneaster or plants that are home to caterpillars and other tasty insects such as ivy.
“Add up all our gardens and they makes one huge habitat,” says Adrian. “In fact, nature reserves make up just a third of the total area of all our gardens put together, attracting some 8 million birds.”
But helping birds is not just good for them and the planet – it’s also good for us. Recent studies have shown there is a scientifically significant increase in people’s health and happiness when they are regularly connected to nature.
“Watching birds in our gardens places us in the here and now and gets us away from the troubles of the world,” says Adrian. “It’s great to work for a wildlife organisation in the day, but the dream was always to start making a difference in my own garden.
It’s life-affirming being at one with the planet’s wildlife, even in a small way. For me, being serenaded by a bird is like being invited to a personal concert – you feel like applauding.”
Adrian’s guide to attracting garden birds
- Trees can be expensive, so at this time of year go for bare root. Cheap and easy to plant – it’s possible to plant in big pots too – you can create bird friendly corners with crab apples, silver birch, hazel, buckthorn, euonymus or spindle ‘Red Cascade’ and ornamental sorbus, which are home to berries, seeds and insects for the birds to eat.
- Make sure your feeders are high up. While we might think our feeders are miles off the ground, but from a bird’s eye view they’re very low down. In fact, our gardens can often appear like steep sided pits with the birds having to come down into the ‘danger zone’ of humans, cats and other predators to feed.
- Birds are built to banquet in your garden and won’t come in for finger nibbles! Ensure you offer lots of different food in one place, either through feeders or blocks of flowers such as rudbeckia, sunflower or teasel. These plants will not only house tasty insects for the birds to eat but also nutritious seed heads in autumn.
- If you don’t have any trees you can still put up a bird box on the side of a house. November is a great time to do this as the birds will be checking out roosting sites now, ready to set up home in March. Always make sure the box faces north or east, as a south-facing box will get too hot in the summer.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of hygiene. Research shows that disease can be spread from bird table to bird table. Try to clean the table every couple of weeks, sloshing with hot water and spraying on a weak bleach solution before rinsing with cold water.
First published in Vegetarian Living (http://www.vegetarianliving.co.uk/)