Nine tips: how to turn your garden into a paradise for birds

Sira Huwiler-Flamm

Many birds in Switzerland are endangered or threatened with extinction. The good news is that every garden owner can do something to counteract this. The first thing to do is to install a bird house, but that’s not all. We’ve put together a list of what you can do to turn your green oasis into a paradise for birds. An expert from BirdLife Switzerland provides tips.

There is fog hanging over a meadow on a cold autumn morning. Two colorful birdhouses stand in a garden, ready for wild birds.
© Getty Images / iStockphoto

In this article

1. Set up a bird feeder and bird bath

A small step that requires little effort for garden owners, but that can be a real blessing for birds in the cold season, is to install a bird feeder. When fields and bushes are covered with snow, food from humans can save birds’ lives. “Make sure you use wild bird seed blends with native grains,” advises Stefan Bachmann, press spokesman from BirdLife Switzerland. “Other common mixtures, which often contain peanuts, for example, can even harm small birds because of the size of the grains and fat content.” Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or hemp seeds, on the other hand, are harmless.

Providing a bird bath with unfrozen fresh water is also an extremely good way to help birds. According to the expert, the same principle applies to both: “Keep everything clean so that no pathogens spread from animal to animal.” Leaves, algae and moss should be removed from the bird bath regularly. You should also change the water at the same time. The bird feeder should be covered to protect the food from moisture. “You should also wipe it out regularly before replenishing the food,” the expert advises.

Some important advice for the end of winter: from March at the latest, when the breeding season begins, fat balls and bird rings should no longer be offered as food, as the high fat content is harmful to younger animals. Salty foods, such as leftover boiled potatoes, bacon or even bread are generally taboo for birds.

2. Opt for local plants

According to BirdLife Switzerland, only about 40 species of breeding bird live in each large Swiss city – and the tendency is decreasing. The population of insectivorous cultivated land birds has decreased by 60 percent in the past 26 years alone, and many have disappeared completely in the Swiss Plateau area. 40 percent of the birds registered in Switzerland are endangered or threatened with extinction. “The numbers are shocking,” says Bachmann. But there is some good news: “Every garden owner can help ensure greater biodiversity in simple ways.”

The most important thing is to grow native plants. “Only two of the 100 most common bird species in Switzerland can live exclusively on grains,” explains the expert. “The rest need insects to feed on, or at least to give to their chicks.” And insects are dependent on native plants – as both feeding and sleeping places. Pussy willow, for example, provides food for around 300 insect species, while blackthorn feeds around 200 species and a native cherry tree serves as a restaurant for thousands of animals. More exotic plants such as thuja, cherry laurel or Japanese cherry, on the other hand, are worthless for most animals in Switzerland.

When choosing plants, you should pay special attention to the blacklist of invasive neophytes, which spread their seeds everywhere and displace native species. You can find out whether a plant you have shortlisted for your garden is actually indigenous on the website of the Swiss association for the promotion of biodiversity, Floretia. If you enter a plant and the planned location, you can see all the relevant botanical information about it, such as its name and origin. If there is any doubt about a plant’s suitability, the site will suggest Swiss alternatives which promote biodiversity. If a plant is identified as an invasive neophyte, the page will also display the warning: “Not recommended.”

3. Create nesting aids

Each bird species has its favorite place for building nests: some birds, like the goldfinch and the serin, breed high up in deciduous or coniferous trees or deep in dense hedges. Thorn bushes such as dog rose or blackthorn are just as popular breeding places as old ivy plants, which are frequently chosen by blackbirds or redstarts.

Other birds such as starlings, tits or pied flycatchers prefer to build their nests in tree hollows or nesting boxes. This is where bird-friendly garden owners can help, by hanging up nesting boxes for the next breeding season in the late fall: “Since tits are less endangered than starlings or pied flycatchers, we recommend choosing nesting boxes with larger holes,” says the BirdLife Switzerland expert. Blue tits prefer holes of 28 millimeters, great tits and pied flycatchers like 32 millimeters, and endangered species such as the starling even favor holes as big as 45 to 50 millimeters. There are also boxes with two oval holes, which are suitable for birds like the garden redstart.

Birds that nest on buildings such as swifts or house martins can also be assisted during the breeding season. “Given that construction methods have changed considerably over the past few decades, these birds have difficulty finding places to build their nests nowadays,” explains the expert. “Nesting aids can be placed under the eaves of any building.” The following rule applies, however: check carefully beforehand whether there are any swifts or house martins in the vicinity. “Since birds that nest on buildings are very loyal to their location, it will be difficult to convince them to move to a new home that is not close to the old one,” says Bachmann. If in doubt, the local nature conservation association will know which birds are present in each municipality.

A blackbird can be seen sitting on its nest in the middle of a dense ivy hedge.

A popular nesting site: bird species like blackbirds like to breed in old ivy vines.

4. Cut branches at the right time

Especially in the fall, lots of amateur gardeners get itchy fingers. That’s when hedges, bushes and trees need to be cut back. Gardening guides always specify the ideal season as being late fall (October or November) or spring (March or April). But the bird expert warns: “The breeding season begins in early March, so you should make sure you’ve finished pruning by then!”

Also, branches that fall from trees during the fall should not be removed immediately. Bachmann recommends: “Make one or more piles of branches that can stay lying on the ground for the winter.” This offers small animals such as insects an ideal hiding place and a cozy mating area during the cold months. The heaps should be left untouched as much as possible so as not to disturb the animals.

5. Follow the principle: less is more

“Generally, in a bird-friendly garden, less is more,” says the bird expert. “If you abandon the idea of having a perfect garden, you will be rewarded with satisfied wild animals and birds.” In general, in a near-natural green oasis you should avoid pruning too often and shouldn’t cut back all your trees and bushes at once. Leave perennials and grasses alone over the winter so that insects and small animals can hide inside.

By consciously planting a variety of native plants, you can ensure that there will be a plentiful supply of flowers and berries until well into the fall. Pruning and lawn mowing should always be done after the seeds have been sown – if the plants are to have any chance of reproducing at all.

You have to be prepared to accept some untidiness in your garden. Rather than clearing leaves away with a leaf blower, you should either simply leave them lying around or sweep them up to form large piles in which insects and small animals can hibernate. Nettles are the only food plants that exist for the caterpillars of the peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies – for their sake, you can also let these alleged weeds continue to grow. And even if you discover aphids, you shouldn’t resort to pesticides. Ladybugs and birds take can care of them and enjoy a tasty treat. Sparrows, tits or warblers also like to eat the small creepy crawlies.

6. Create wellness oases

Fall is also garden planning time – the right moment to set up a few wellness spots for birds. Some bird species, such as house sparrows, love taking baths in the sand. “That’s how they clean their feathers and remove parasites,” explains Stefan Bachmann. Simply place fine bird or quartz sand in a large coaster at ground level – obviously you should choose somewhere that is reasonably safe from cats – and the sand bath is ready.

A small garden pond or water trough is another way to encourage bird life: birds love taking cleansing baths in shallow water. And on top of this, ponds represent breeding and feeding grounds for numerous insect species in addition to amphibians and water plants. Some bird species, such as the spotted flycatcher, catch their feeding insects directly in the air – a waterhole offers the ideal conditions for flying insects.

A large, lushly overgrown swimming pond can be seen in a garden. A fountain is shooting out water over the top.

A pond, trough or natural swimming pool also contributes to biodiversity in the garden.

7. Recognize and avoid dangers

Even if an amateur gardener does without pesticides and leaf blowers that are harmful to animals and plants, unsuspected dangers for birds still lurk in every garden. Cats are certainly among the most feared. That’s why it’s particularly important to set up nesting aids, drinking troughs and feeders in places that are inaccessible to cats. During the breeding season, some cat owners also equip their pets with little bells on their collars to give birds early warning of their approach.

There is also a way to stop cats from jumping down on birds from trees. “You can attach tree cuffs to the trunks, which prevent cats or ferrets from climbing up them,” says Stefan Bachmann. If you have enough thorny hedges and bushes in your garden, you can breathe a sigh of relief, because they form excellent protection from the neighbor’s cat.

Large, reflecting windows or entire glass facades on houses, conservatories and seating areas represent another danger. According to BirdLife, “tinted windows or graphic patterns irradiated in the window, with lines that are no more than 12 centimeters apart,” are an effective remedy to make sure no birds fall victim to the glass. Bird silhouettes or adhesive stripes in bright colors can also help.

But light can also spoil the bird paradise. Constant light from streetlamps or home lighting magically attracts insects, which circle around the light source until they finally die, exhausted. It’s better to install lights with motion sensors that are tilted towards the ground, and that automatically turn off again.

8. Make compost openly accessible

A compost heap is not only practical because it saves on waste fees. “An open compost heap is ideal for biodiversity,” says Stefan Bachmann. If the compost is not hermetically sealed, it provides a home and food for numerous insects – and they are also more readily available to birds.

Especially in the winter, an open compost heap is a good thing for nature: blindworms and the larvae of the rare rose beetle spend the winter in the compost, and fruit and vegetable remnants also serve as additional food sources for wild animals.

9. Don’t forget the balcony

Even if you only have a balcony rather than a large garden, you can still contribute to the diversity of species in Switzerland. Similar principles apply: native perennials and flower mixtures provide insects with food and safe havens.

Bird feeders on balconies also attract many wild birds. “And even nesting boxes are recommended,” says Bachmann. “But once the chicks have hatched, you should stay clear of the balcony – for the sake of the birds.”

Conclusion: small tips, big success

It’s quite easy to do something good for local birdlife and biodiversity. And it doesn’t matter whether you have a huge garden or just a small balcony. Native plants and the “courage to be imperfect”, as Stefan Bachmann calls it, are little tips that will help you to achieve the greatest success – and who knows, perhaps your first visitors will come whistling and fluttering through your garden next spring.

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