Supporting article T: Practical tips on how to optimize your garden to accommodate natural life
Nature and Wild Life in the garden
How to attract birds to your garden
A few tips that will work in attracting birds to your garden:
• First, do some bird watching armed with binoculars and a bird handbook for identification and feeding habits. All sparrows, finches, waxbills, canaries and doves eat some type of seed, and the standard mixed bird seed generally works. It is best to place the seed near a bushy plant, as this allows the birds to land in the bush to check the area for danger before coming down to feed which makes them feel more secure. Simply scatter the seed on bare ground as this is the way birds naturally feed. It takes just one seed eater to find the food and this will bring out the rest, regardless of species.
• Plants with tubular petals such as aloes and red hot pokers will lure sunbirds. A fruit tree with unpicked fruit will entice mousebirds and bulbuls.
• Avoid any bug or slug spray and allow the insect life to flourish to attract wagtails and various other insectivorous birds.
Anton Backman, Tzaneen
Question: Feeding the birds
I am trying to attract birds into my garden but the birds have not touched the wild bird seed I have placed on a stand near a bird bath. I have a stream that runs on my boundary with numerous trees and a lot bush. Can someone tell me why they are not feeding on the seed and what I can do to get birds to visit the garden?
Vaughan Lundi, Pinetown, Kwa-Zulu Natal.
Answer: Debate over feeding birds versus planting for birds
Your query raises two of the most difficult points in feeding birds at a feeder instead of planting suitable plants to provide food. Many of the birds that visit your garden will be transient visitors, visiting only by chance. But some birds are resident and these need to be educated to use your feeding table and food. Everything depends on whether the bird species coming to your garden are:
1. used to being fed at a feeder, and
2. species which eat the food you are putting out.
With regard to (1): in most urban areas there are people feeding birds and so, in theory, the birds visiting your garden should be used to bird feeders. However, when I moved it took nearly three months for the laughing doves to ‘discover’ my garden feeder. This suggests that in my suburb there are not too many people putting out seed. It took nearly five months for the bulbuls and white-eyes to come to the fruit I put out, and in summer they stopped coming – plenty of food elsewhere, I presume. I await the return of these birds in winter. So please do not be impatient if the birds do not feed immediately.
Is your bird table bird friendly? Can the birds sit comfortably while feeding? Remember that most seed eaters feed on the ground and have to learn to use the hanging seed dispensers favoured by many people to avoid the attention of cats. If the birds have not found your bird table after a month, move it to a more conspicuous position.
With regard to (2): if there are doves and pigeons in your garden, are you putting out seed which they can eat? Doves cannot take coarsely crushed maize, for example. If you are hoping to have waxbills and similar smaller birds, you will need a fine seed. I use a ‘small bird’ seed which they enjoy. However, even they cannot eat the finger millets suppled in many seed mixes, in fact, none of the birds seem to be able to handle it. Try a different bird seed. Try feeding them other things such as bonemeal (from a butcher’s handsaw), fruit such as apples cut in half, bananas opened along one side, maize-meal with some sugar added and placed in a plate of water or milk, and wholewheat bread.
Peter Ginn, bird expert, SA Gardening.
Answer: Why are birds not feeding?
There are two possible reasons why the birds are not feeding at the table:
• The bush and/or garden provide enough food in the form of fruit and seeds. With good rain gardens are productive and birds in some areas have little need for the seed that you are providing. This situation will change towards winter and the birds will be back.
• Something has disturbed the birds at this spot – for example, a cat may be hunting on a regular basis and the birds have decided that the risk of feeding in this spot in the garden is too high.
I am not in favour of feeding next to water, especially if it is a noisy stream. Rather feed away from the water and spread the activities of our feathered friends around the garden. Feed in several places and in different habitats. Feed in the open area to satisfy the bold bird species such as doves and weavers, and feed in the dense bush to keep shy species such as robins and coucals happy. Feed a variety of food types including seed, fruit, suet, mealie-meal and any organic food scraps from the kitchen.
Roy Trendler, author and bird expert
Porcupines in the garden
What could be more devastating to a dedicated gardener than to look out at your pretty garden where you had planted over 350 bulbs only to find that pillaging porcupines have plundered your efforts? Upon investigation I discovered that most of my bulbs had been dug up and destroyed, but strangely enough none of the ranunculus bulbs. The same misfortune had befallen my neighbour’s garden. Nature conservation officials will be bringing a trap around and in the meantime I have been told to feed the porcupines old vegatables and fruit, away from my garden, so as to distract them from the lovely fresh, young, green shoots that are popping up.
All gardeners know that you put so much love, time, effort and money into your gardening, and then to have such devastation in one evening is enough to break your ‘gardening heart’. My garden is only 15 months old and my pride and joy, and after watching my ‘babies’ growing so strongly and looking forward to beautiful freesias, anenomes, sparaxis and watsonias for the very first time, I am now left with a couple of ranunculus to brighten my spring days.
Are there any other porcupine stories out there to share?
Nikki and Eric Green, Fish Hoek.
Answer: Living with porcupines
May I put in a word for the porcupine? I study porcupines for my PhD and know very well the havoc they wreak in gardens. One of the things I intend to do is find ways to prevent porcupine damage to precious bulbs in gardens, but I’ve only just started my PhD so I have no quick-fix solutions to offer yet. Some preliminary advice to start with – keep a fence around your beds of bulbs and dig it in to at least 20cm. so the porcupine can’t dig underneath it.
Now, in favour of the porcupine – porcupines in the wild actually promote bulb diversity! Unfortunately in gardens they tend to do the opposite – mainly because so much of the natural vegetation which used to support them has now been taken over by houses and gardens. Also, porcupines are one of the most opportunistic critters out there! They find sparaxis very succulent, watsonias delectable and freesias fulsome with flavour! There are some bulbs they don’t eat, like amaryllis, as they can’t digest the toxins unique to this family of bulbs. However, I understand that you don’t want a garden dominated by slow-growing bulbs so I would further suggest that you spray a mixture of chilli seeds, chilli juice and water around your bed edges – porcupines have very sensitive noses!
Porcupines are a key species in the ecosystem and help to keep endangered bulb species off the extinction lists through their disturbance and foraging activities. These bulbs have become threatened through human and not porcupine activity. I appeal to readers to get to know your porcupine better as lots of people have never even seen one and are thrilled when they do. Feed your marauder a few butternuts, maybe outside your window, and watch it snuffling, and maybe it will even trust you enough to bring its babies. Maybe plant a bed of bulbs (try arums) just for their use – a bed with no fence or chilli or garlic smell. A final warning, don’t let the dog out when the porcupine is near – dogs tend to be too aggressive. Cats are safe – ours have always been friends with our ‘tame’ garden porcupine.
Once I have tested and hit upon some effective porcupine repellent methods I will write to SA Gardening and share them with you.
Christy Bragg, Zoology Department, University of Cape Town.
Buck (Antelopes) on our garden estate
Living on a garden estate is a great pleasure but it can be very frustrating if you are also a gardener! On the estate are buck, ducks, geese, guineafowl, cranes and black swans. There is a steady parade throughout the day and early evening as the animals and birds take turns marching around the estate. A new baby springbok was born under a tree on the grounds and took up residence in the long grass between two properties at night. The mother collects the little one first thing in the morning. Alongside the patio is a vast grassy embankment on which pot plants have been placed. All the plants have been eaten by the resident wildlife, except for a small cordyline. The baby buck has taken a fancy to it – he pulls it out and plays with it, jumping and leaping around. Each evening the plant is retrieved and replaced in the pot, and lo and behold the next day along comes the little springbok and pulls it out again!
The cranes love the newly planted grass sods – they turn them over looking for food. At the end of the day we replace them again. The natural vegetation and trees have been retained on a number of the estate’s plots, whilst we have kept a large stretch of a sandy area open for the guineafowl to take their sand baths.
Does anyone have any idea what plants will not be eaten by buck? So far they have enjoyed the eugenias, succulents (not the aloes), lavender flowers and some of the impatiens.
Gail Frylinck, Western Cape
Answer: What to plant for buck in your garden
Herbivores are always attracted by smell and taste. Game food preference is generally influenced by what is available it their environment, nipping off the young green shoots as they forage. So, for everyone fortunate enough to live on an estate with wild animals, I appeal to you to do some research and plant an abundance of the correct high energy, nutrient filled plants that the animals would normally eat in their natural habitat.
Sadly, with the encroachment of urbanisation, our precious wild animals are being forced to move away or to live in restricted areas which limits the quantity and variety of food they eat. They repeatedly eat from the same shrubs and trees, and the plant’s natural defence mechanism is to increase phenol combinations like tannin in order to prevent the game from stripping them completely. The more the plant is browsed, the higher the tannin levels become and eventually it will become toxic to the animal, which then rapidly looses condition. They do not automatically eat what is non-toxic and generally good for them. I had a bushbuck that persisted in eating every new shoot of flame lily (Gloriosa superba) that appeared in my garden, to his detriment. Each time he would end up with severe diarrhoea causing rapid dehydration, resulting in him having to be caught and treated which was stressful to both of us. This drama continued until I managed to find and dig up every single poisonous plant.
I would like to suggest that you plant your pretty exotic plants in a courtyard where they cannot be eaten. To game and dassies, roses and hibiscus flowers are like ice-cream and chocolate sauce is to us, not the ideal food but delicious!
A springbok’s natural diet will consist of 50percent trees, shrubs, fruit and fallen leaves, 20percent grass and 20percent herbaceous plants. Some desirable shrubs and trees are Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis), Shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca) and Velvet raisin (Grewia flava). Some palatable grasses are Guinea grass (Panicum maximum), sweet Buffalo grass (Panicum schinzii), common Wild Sorgham (Sorghum bicolor subsp. arundinaceum) and Fan grass (Eustachys paspaloides).
The joy of watching wild game foraging in your garden far outweighs the disappointment of having your prize blooms disappear secretly when your back is turned.
Mike and Lesley Bentley, Empisini Nature Reserve & Animal Survival Sanctuary, Umkomaas Tel: +27-(0)39-973-0093
Cats kill garden creatures
How can I stop the neighbour’s cat from killing all the creatures in my garden? It has killed all my wonderful little lizards and is now killing the praying mantis. It is also using my vegetable patch as a littler box and is digging up the seeds and destroying the small plants.
Louise Harper, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Answer: Living with cats
One suggestion is that you can dry out either tea or coffee bags and then sprinkle eucalyptus oil on them. Place them in various places where the cat likes to either dig or rest. This will deter the cat as they hate the smell.
Kay Montgomery, Editor-in-Chief, SA Gardening magazine.
Forty peacocks creating a problem
Our neighbours started with a pair of peacocks – they have subsequently left the area and our five-acre Gauteng property is now the regular home to around forty of these birds. We have had to erect netting over our herb and vegetable gardens to stop them eating our produce, and recently they’ve started eating flowers, destroying 150 anemones as soon as they appeared, and are now sampling pansies, fuchsias and primroses. They have become quite bold and are scarcely bothered by our rottweiler! Can anyone help solve our problem?
Sarah Werth, Tel: +27-(0)11-963-1169, Cell:+27-(0)82-453-7958
Answer: What to do about peacocks
I fear that this is a major problem. As far as I know, there is no simple method of getting rid of these birds. The fact that the peafowl are breeding successfully means that there are no predators to keep their numbers down, and the added fact that they are destroying the garden means that there are now so many of them that they are short of food. There is really no action that a private person can take, despite the fact that they are feral birds. I can only suggest that you try to arrange for them all to be trapped and translocated to another place.