May 17, 2024
Gardens

Bring back the birds

Apart from their beauty, birds are a sentinel indicator of a visible and viable ecosystem. Here are some expert tips for bringing more chirp to your garden.

A raucous squawking sulphur crested cockatoo is attracted to frolic in a backyard thanks to tall tree branches.

Take a walk outside in the morning, close your eyes and listen. Above the drone of nearby traffic and a distant mower, there should be other, more familiar noises punctuating the air – sounds of chirps, warbles, caws and trills.

In Adelaide, a city that is looking to grow a healthy future and improve liveability, connection with nature is a cornerstone, and birds play a vital role in it. With Adelaide having recently been awarded National Park City status, our avian friends are an important barometer for a cooler, greener, wilder and climate-resilient capital.

In South Australia, the volunteer organisation Birds SA knows the value of birds. Established 125 years ago and boasting 1000 members, this group is a rich bird resource.

President, Steven Langley, hails from the United Kingdom, where bird-watching is a national pastime and he has continued that passion among our native species. “Growing up in the 1960s around Lincolnshire, this rural area had a phenomenal number of bird types, so observing and learning about them was something I loved and continue to do so here,” he says.

The turn of the 20th century in South Australia saw interest in ornithological pursuits peak as more and more people looked to identify and study the state’s diverse range of bird species. That scientific element continues at Birds SA today, where funding is provided for both post graduate research and in-house science journal writing.

A New Holland honeyeater flutters near a flower as it feeds on sweet nectar.

 

Birds SA also has another two other strands: one being bird-watching and the other being conservation advocacy. For bird-watching, there are three field trips a month and a few camp-outs each year, allowing members ample opportunity to visit and share time with our state’s fascinating birdlife.

For conservation advocacy, Birds SA both supports and runs campaigns to improve environs for birds and other wildlife.

Steven says the importance of birds is wide-ranging: “Apart from their beauty, birds are a sentinel indicator of a visible and viable ecosystem. When there is sufficient habitat, water, flowers and insects, birds of all different types flourish.

“Good birdlife in your backyard indicates you and your locale are happy and healthy. It’s also the basis of a healthy environment for all fauna, not just birds.”

Bird diets are varied, some exclusively eat pollen or prefer insects, and others a mix of these and more. Therefore, providing food sources in your home garden is critical in encouraging them to visit and importantly, stay.

Nectar-eating birds such as honeyeaters have developed a tongue with side spikes allowing it to probe, brush, and capture pollen very effectively. Grevilleas, callistemons, eucalypts and other Australian native plants become beacons for hungry birds.

Rainbow lorikeets preening each other on a log.

Nectar-rich, these plants’ flowers are accompanied by a squawking and chattering chorus. Anyone with a South Australian blue gum in full bloom will attest to the noise emanating from its foliage.

Native plants not only produce pollen, they also provide habitat for insects, which in turn brings insectivorous bird varieties into the yard.

Adding native plants to back or front yards will do amazing things. Over time, as the garden matures, your yard becomes an oasis and haven for a wide range of species. “Many Birds SA members talk about the connection they experience with birds living in their gardens beginning to trust them,” Steven says. “It is incredible how close these trustful birds will come and spend time around them.”

It is also surprising how localised some birds can be. Regular bird banding trips by Birds SA members over the past 30 years have shown some species rarely move more than a few hundred metres their entire life.

A neat garden is not always a bird-rich one. Let some plants go a little wild, especially over winter. This helps insect populations build up in that shaggy foliage and become a welcome food source. Accepting a little scruffiness in the yard, even a small corner, will be greatly beneficial.

Members of Birds SA on a field trip to the Telowie Gorge in the southern Flinders Ranges.

Apart from food, water is a major bird attractant. As Steven explains: “Whether bathing, playing or drinking, birds love water, especially over summer. It is important to place a bird bath near a shrub or bush that can provide a safe place to fly to quickly.”

Sadly, Birds SA data has shown bird numbers and diversity in Adelaide backyards have shrunk dramatically over the past 50 years. Urban infill and land clearing has all contributed to this reduction.

A number of birds have adapted due to habitat destruction, note the ibis: land drainage and changes to their feeding and breeding grounds have seen this once-country bird migrate to the city where its scavenging has earned it the nickname “bin chicken”. Although the overall number of ibis across SA have in fact dropped, the species is simply more obvious in its urban environment.

Similarly, is the rainbow lorikeet. Abundant, colourful and raucous, rainbow lorikeets were rarely seen in Adelaide decades ago. Instead, the smaller musk lorikeet was dominant. However, a change in the rainbow lorikeets’ breeding pattern to year-round, as opposed to the musk lorikeets’ seasonal mating, saw competition for nesting hollows won out by the more aggressive species.

The Eastern spinebill perches itself on a twig. It is one of the less common birds you’ll be able to spot.

Protecting birds from predators is important. Cats are wonderful pets, but they don’t mix well with our birdlife. Keeping your feline friend indoors or within an enclosure ensures the two can comfortably coexist.

The State Government’s recent interim report on “The Urban Forest Inquiry” highlighted the Conservation Council of SA’s estimate that Greater Adelaide is losing 75,000 trees a year due to development and general clearing; the loss of trees has obvious impacts on our birds.

There is much homeowners can do to help: Plant native trees, along with shrubs, to provide habitat in both upper and lower storeys; add a vital water source; join Birds SA (birdssa.asn.au).

The more we ensure birds increase in diversity and numbers, the better we retain their happy chirps, warbles, caws and trills as the soundtrack to our day.

 

 

Common birds
Some of the native species you can see in many Adelaide backyards:

New Holland honeyeater
Gregarious and interesting, mostly black and white, with a large yellow wing patch and yellow sides on the tail. Its long, slender beak probes for nectar in the deep flowers of banksias and grevilleas. Enjoying a varied diet, their beaks can be heard snapping when grabbing insects in air.

Red wattlebirds
The size of a slim pigeon, they have grey-brown bodies with white streaks, a yellow belly and pale face with a fleshy reddish wattle on the side of their neck. They also can be identified by their raucous call.

Willy wagtail
A pocket rocket always on the move, this largely insect-eater, is black with a white chest. The long fantail moves constantly from side to side. It sings through the night over summer. Happy to live in urban spaces, you often find nests in carports and pergolas.

Rainbow lorikeet
Well-established in the Adelaide tree line, the bright red beak and colourful plumage make them a spectacular sight as loud and fast-moving flocks gather and feed.

 

Less common birds
Keep an eye out for these:

Boobook owl
Dark brown with spots of white and grey and often bright yellow eyes, they are the smallest of the Australian owl species.

The peregrine falcon
The fastest bird in the world. If you live or work high up in the city keep an eye out for one resting on your window sill, watching out for prey below.

The Eastern spinebill
A very long, downturned beak. Males have a grey-black crown, black breast lines and white chest and throat, while females have less distinctive markings. Tend to be sighted in winter.

Spotted pardalote
Only a tiny 10 centimetres long, they can be hard to spot. They have a dark head with a distinct yellow and white eye stripe, a bright yellow throat and grey/black wings with a white stripe. They nest in holes and can be found nesting in Stobie Pole transformers.

 

 

This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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