Monday, September 19, 2011

The garden bird rant

A great tit on the feeder outside my study window

The concept of a garden as an "outdoor living space" has a lot to answer for. At the weekend, I was talking to someone who complained that all the birds seemed to have abandoned their garden.
The garden used to be full of birds, they said, but now - despite putting out bird feeders and suet balls and so on - there was not so much as a chirp. Did I think this was the result of global warming, or some sort of bird epidemic?
Further enquiry elicited the information that they had lived in their garden flat for about 18 months. The first year had been spent doing up the flat and it was only this summer that they got around to tidying up the garden.
Yup, you've guessed it. They have ripped out all the "messy" ivy and removed all the overgrown shrubs. Their garden is now an "outdoor living space", complete with painted fence, paving, and a few plants in containers.
Colleagues or friends of friends tell me stories like this quite often. One couple I know cut down the conifers in front of their house because they thought it would give them more light. (The conifers weren't Leylandii, and they weren't that close to the house.) Then they wondered why the "cute little birds" (a colony of goldcrests) had disappeared.
Because you've cut down the trees, I said. But we've put out a bird feeder, they said, and we've got an apple tree in a pot...
The stories are always the same, and the question is always the same. "Is the disappearance of the birds due to climate change?"
I always want to answer (but of course am far too polite to do so): "No, it's the result of Stupid Human Syndrome!"
The irony is that the same people will probably get quite exercised about the disappearance of the rainforests or the pollution engendered by the attempts of countries like China and India to make a decent living for themselves. They just can't make the connection between habitat loss and their own backyards.
This is depressing, because it seems as if I have read thousands of articles about how our gardens provide a vital refuge for songbirds. The RHS and the RSPB do a fantastic job in trying to educate the public about gardening for wildlife.
The trouble is, most of the time they are preaching to the converted. What we need is a really hard-hitting campaign that has a far greater popular impact. If only Pixar would make a film about a group of garden birds coping with a shrinking habitat (Bird Story) or Disney would come up with a plot involving birds in an alien environment (BIRD-E).
In the meantime, I shall go on patiently telling people that birds like cover, and that it doesn't matter how attractive your garden furniture is, or how much your paving cost, they won't come down to a feeder if there is not a single shrub or tree in the vicinity.


Anne Wareham said...

The one way people seem to know to evaluate a garden is still how 'tidy' it is. This needs to change..

And deadheading? Do birds like seeds or what???

We have a long way to go...


patientgardener said...

my bird population has vanished but thats due to my new cat being a real hunter and all the assurances I was given about getting a car not impacting on birds visiting garden not being true:(

Liz said...


Nicely said; all too often BOP's, Corvids and Cats are blamed for the demise of song birds when in fact humans are by far the biggest thread to our common garden birds. So although yes Sparrowhawks and cats do catch birds, it's stupidity such as you describe that's the problem.

petoskystone said...

am so with you on this one! some spend so much energy creating the perfect space just to destroy what they wanted to achieve in the first place. 'outdoor living spaces' have to be some of the most unwelcoming places birdsong, no rustling grasses, no cooling ivies.

onebeanrow said...

Oh yes, yes, yes! It's so hard to get the idea across to some people that the wiped-clean, but "beautiful" garden is hell for birds. I'm all worn out trying to tactfully tell people that they have just gone and created a completely sterile habitat with their proud makeover (although the rats might like the nice dry area under the decking).

Lucy said...


Gardeningbren said...

Amen to that!

Stupid Human that very much ;-)

Disney needs to take you up on your great idea by the way.

organicgardendreams said...

Completely agreed!

Harriet Rycroft said...

Oh don't get me started. I blame popular "garden design" in the media of the last 10-20 yrs - let's turn the garden into another room, all tidy, with telly, lights, music... so that we can pretend we're not actually outside at all. Lots of lovely hard surfaces we can paint and sweep and four "architectural" plants as a witty reference to all the natural stuff that would have been here...Grrrrrr

flightplot said...

I don't have a garden as I live in a flat where the communal grounds are just grass, shrubs and trees which are tended on a minimum basis.
I scatter bird food out the front and see a variety of birds including chaffinches, blue tits, robins, blackbirds and sparrows all of which tend to flit in and out of the shrubbery.
I'm thankful that the grounds aren't manicured as I'm sure that I wouldn't see many of these birds if they were. Flighty

Fairegarden said...

All we gardeners know the truth, a wildlife friendly garden is messy, for wildlife likes their gardens to be wild, not neat and tidy. This is a banner worth carrying forward, Victoria. Stupid Humans, indeed. It's all about habitat.


Dobby said...

Unfortunately I have a huge flock of Jackdaws. Noisy, destructive and a pain in the backside! I don't put feeders out as I don't want to encourage them. So I built a wildlife pond instead!

Owen said...

Hey Victoria,
I think there was a study recently by the RSPB that showed that cat predation actually hasnt had any effect on small bird numbers here in the UK- which is good to hear. As mentioned in your blog they believed habitat loss was the major cause.

Helen- when we moved into our old house there were birds all over the place- but as soon as the cats were allowed outside sadly for me(and wisely for the birds) they chose to feed elsewhere- i still feel guilty about that.

Wife, Mother, Gardener said...

My husband groan and gasp at the first thing that seems to happen when a young couple buys a new house in our country: cut down all the "over-sized" (ie mature!) trees and shrubs around their property. Never mind that they would never have paid so much money for the same house had it not had those bushes when they first pulled up to it!!

At least we now have a yard that we can add to in order to balance things out. Last count, we have added over ten trees and over four dozen shrubs! And we live on a relatively small lot.

Dawn/LittleGreenFingers said...

Now I'm feeling really awful as we cut down 30 conifers when we moved into our house - although to be fair, I've put in another 12 trees and plenty of shrubs.

If you want me, I'll be sitting over there on the naughty step.

Hanna at Orchid Care said...

As far as I’m concerned, tidy well manicured gardens are boring even when they display a variety of fauna and a cornucopia of flora. However, I find that the gardens which are allowed to go wild, are much more difficult to tend. I know because I’ve experienced both in two different homes.

I’m not sure how accurate the statements about wildlife really are. I witnessed a variety of birds, butterflies, insects as well as rabbits, possums and raccoons in both my wild and cultured gardens. I don’t think that creatures of the wild really distinguish between the different styles of gardening. They just want to have the plants there in whichever formation presented.

K.E.S. said...

Poor birds. First the deadly dead-headers, then the paint'n'pavers, and now - the latest thing - the (human) urban foragers stripping the parks of anything edible.

Helle (Helen) said...

I used to be rude - or forthright enough - to tell people that what they were doing was the reason for birds, slow worms or hedgehogs disappearing. Might as well talk to the wall, so I've stopped and just try do to do my best in my garden. Here, in Switzerland, the government unfortunately is pushing what they call "concentrated building" to stop the countryside being built over, which means that older houses are being pulled down everywhere and gardens built over. Try persuading anybody that good gardens might actually be more useful for birds and critters than the green "desert" i.e. farmland out, there is an uphill battle.