Birds are an integral part of any habitat, whether natural or unnatural and are often the most visible wildlife wherever we go. This is probably why birds and birdwatching are so popular with a great many people. Not only do they add aesthetic value and interest to our gardens and towns, they also play an important role in ecosystems.
Birds are very varied and they can eat anything from fruit to other birds and live anywhere from hedges to church steeples. Species we see around our gardens and in the local area change with the seasons as birds come and go. Spring migration brings in species such as swallows, martins, cuckoos and nightjars that we only see in the summer whilst our estuaries attract internationally important numbers of waders, ducks and geese in the winter. In order to attract birds to our gardens and protect them in the wider countryside we must make sure we cater for different species the whole year round.
Devon is particularly important for birds with species like the cirl bunting and the Dartford warbler scarcely seen anywhere outside the County. The Exe estuary is home to the highest numbers of avocet seen anywhere in the country and Yarner Wood is nationally recognized as an important breeding site for pied flycatchers and wood warblers. Even buzzards, which are almost commonplace here in Devon, are not so widely seen elsewhere.
Many farmland bird species, however, such as the skylark, lapwing, yellowhammer, house sparrow, linnet and bullfinch have experienced steep declines over recent years with new farming practices and habitat loss. Techniques such as spraying pesticides, annual hedge cutting, replacing hay meadows with silage fields and sowing winter cereals instead of spring cereals are all detrimental to both the habitats and the birds they support.
There are many things both individuals and communities can do to help protect birds, and in turn encourage other wildlife.
Individuals can attract birds to the garden by:
- providing bird feeders – especially important over winter when regular filling is essential
- leaving fruit such as apples in the garden either on the lawn or left on the trees will help feed birds such as blackbirds, thrushes and brambling in the winter
- a bird bath – don’t forget birds need to drink as well as feed. It is also important for birds to have shallow unfrozen water in the winter for preening
- nesting material – a bird feeder full of dry hay, moss, wool or feathers can help in the early spring for nest building
- bird boxes; different nestboxes are designed for different birds so have a variety available. Ensure your birds are safe by installing boxes high off the ground to avoid predators such as cats. Putting them on walls rather than trees will help prevent predation of eggs and chicks by squirrels.
Communities can help birds in the local area by:
- encouraging farmers to leave stubble in their fields over winter by planting spring cereals instead of winter cereals; not only does this maintain soil structure and help to prevent soil erosion it also provides an invaluable food supply for farmland birds. Agri-environment grant schemes are available – see Farms
- only cutting hedges every 3 to 5 years instead of annually. Cutting hedges less frequently keeps them from getting too tall but also allows the hedgerow trees to fruit providing valuable food sources as well as providing more dense cover for nesting
- developing sustainably – local developments should take into account the welfare of birds, and other wildlife and habitats. Ensure that habitats remain linked by hedges or waterways and any habitat removed is replaced nearby by active conservation measures
- trying to link habitats, such as wooded areas by providing wildlife corridors and ‘stepping stones’ such as hedgerows and copses; isolated habitats often have low diversity, so make sure they are not cut off from one another. Even birds which are highly mobile will generally stay in one area if it is isolated
- providing areas of long grass in parks and other public spaces such as playing fields and churchyards for insects and seeds which birds can feed on.