Garden birds and garden pests

Posted: Friday 9 March 2012
by Kate Bradbury

Now's a great time to make sure your garden has adequate natural, as well as supplementary, food for this spring's nesting birds.

Long tailed tit with insects in its mouth. Photo taken by John Bridges, courtesy of the RSPB

Last weekend I finally broke my winter gardening fast, clearing the borders, cutting down old stems, dividing and replanting. Curled up on the soil surface I found several caterpillars. These had presumably been overwintering under a nice blanket of dead foliage, until I came along and cleared it all away. (I popped them in the leaf pile to settle back down.)

All this caterpillar action reminded me that the great tits will soon return. For the last two years, a pair has nested in the railway arches across the road, and used my garden as a one-stop shop for insects and sunflower seeds. Before they started nesting last year, I caught them doing a recce of my plot – perhaps making sure it was still there and had plenty to forage. Then the male started visiting several times a day, presumably to feed the female while she brooded eggs. Within two weeks both frantic, frazzled parents were visiting; taking caterpillars and aphids for their young, and briefly boosting their own energy levels via the sunflower seed feeders.

To breed successfully, garden birds need a steady supply of natural food. The parents don't tend to take peanuts, fat balls and sunflower seeds from garden bird feeders back to the nests for their young. Instead, they forage for caterpillars, aphids and other grubs and insects, which are high in protein, soft and easier for the nestlings to digest. In particularly wet, or very dry springs, there can be a lack of natural food available for young birds. Young blue tits, for example, need up to 100 caterpillars each, a day. If they don't get this supply of natural food, they can die.

Last year I watched a great tit take every aphid off an infested clematis stem, and the year before I saw one eyeing up a clump of forget-me-not, where I had previously seen a plump caterpillar. The bird hovered above the plant for a few seconds, before diving into it. It was like a cartoon sequence – both bird and caterpillar were concealed by the forget-me-not, which shook dramatically, before the bird departed swiftly, caterpillar in beak. Fantastic.

Now's a great time to make sure your garden has adequate natural, as well as supplementary, food for this spring's nesting birds. If you’re doing any clearing this weekend, check foliage for caterpillars and other insect life, and pop them back under cover in a separate, undisturbed corner (there’s little point letting them spend the winter in your garden if they’ll just end up in the compost heap in spring). Create log and leaf piles for insects to shelter and breed in, and let an area of your grass grow long to encourage butterflies and moths to lay eggs. It's also important to avoid using bug sprays at the first sign of aphids, as this can dramatically reduce the amount of insect food available to nestlings. Let the birds (and ladybirds) have their pick of them first. You may find you don't need to control these 'pests' after all.

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Talkback: Garden birds and garden pests
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oldchippy 10/03/2012 at 18:08

Hello Kate,I made a new bird box today and fixed it to the largest tree we have,It has already had alot of interest,I covered the hole with the lid off a tin of beans(I drilled a hole first)to stop our local squirrell from getting in.The birds have been picking up all the dogs fur so they will have nice warm nests.

Dave Oldchippy.

Dragonflyblue 10/03/2012 at 21:35

Lovely picture of the Longtailed Tit above. I usually get some in my garden over the winter, it seems the colder the winter the more visits I get, unlike all the other varieties of bird that come all the time. They tend to swoop down En-masse onto the large fat balls there can be 16+ at times on 1 ball, with all those tails sticking up the ball looks like a pom-pom or feather duster, its so funny to see, I never have the camera nearby though when this happens...
Today I have had a pair of Greater spotted Woodpeckers in,one of each sex, so I am presuming that they have paired up to produce the next generation, so am looking forward to them bring the youngester in when it arrives. Is it true that woodpeckers only have one egg at a time?

Pipstrelle 10/03/2012 at 22:14

Apparently Greater Spotted woodpeckers lay 5-6 eggs, and given that they will happily clear out a nest of tits, for example, in one sitting, they must have more than one chick to feed! 11/03/2012 at 20:58

Hi Kate,
You mention that your great tits will soon be back. Mine never went - is this common (West Sussex) and will the long-tailed tits go?

Joybell 13/03/2012 at 20:48

Hi Kate,

Yesterday while checking the pond to see if the newts were back they are,spotted about 6 males and females.Then something caught my eye a Jenny Wren with a beak full of moss going into an old brick wall,as some of the bricks were missing I covered the holes with a piece of wood with a hole drilled in, ideal for nesting and it's worked. There is also a blue tit looking at another hole, all within a very small area in the garden.

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