‘April is the cruellest month’ according to the poet T.S. Eliot; it tantalises us with the promise of summer and then unexpectedly punishes us with bitterly cold winds and late frosts. In recent years, however, we have witnessed heat waves at this season, only to be followed by lack-lustre summer months. People often wonder if plants are as confused as we humans are by these dramatic weather changes, but plants are on the whole much more adaptable than we are. Not so our garden birds, which suffer from the extremes of our new climate, and we can do something to address this, and help to ensure their survival.
The breeding season for birds lasts from early March to late July, and it’s important to keep feeding birds during this period, not just in the winter months. Birds time their breeding according to what they eat naturally: earthworms for blackbirds and song thrushes; caterpillars for tits and chaffinches. If the weather is extremely hot and dry it is much harder for ground-feeding birds to find earthworms in the hard soil; if there is a cold spell in spring or summer insect food will be in short supply. Temporary food shortages can occur at any time of the year, and you can make a big difference to the survival of fledgling birds by keeping your bird feeder topped up year-round. Put away any winter food including peanuts and fat balls, which are not good for chicks, but keep feeding sunflower seeds, which are high in protein and loved by most birds.
If you are thinking of adding some plants to your garden this spring, keep the birds in mind! Native plants are a rich source of food for birds, including the common Hawthorn, on which hundreds of species of insect are known to feed. Its thorny habit protects birds and mammals, and the berries are a rich food source in autumn, as are the bright berries of Cotoneaster and Pyracantha. Roses are also a wonderful source of food for many insects; of course they also attract aphids – a nuisance to gardeners, but an important component in the diet of many birds and insects. For an ornamental border, or for large pots on your terrace, bronze millet offers a dramatic backdrop for a display of dahlias, coreopsis, marigolds… and is a very good food source for house sparrows. Even if you only have a window box you can encourage beneficial insects by including Alyssum in your planting scheme: a readily available, inexpensive, drought resistant plant, attractive to bees, moths, butterflies and hoverflies. For more inspiration, go to the RSPB site which offers an A-Z of plants for a wildlife garden: www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/wildlifegarden/plants