Put the tweet back into your garden

by Xanthe White / 10 January, 2013
Plantings that encourage birdlife and insects will reap benefits in your neighbourhood.
Tui sitting on a flax plant
A tui sitting on a flax plant, photo/Thinkstock

Two years ago, my husband and I had a crack at trapping the possums that were regularly raiding our garden. Each evening at about midnight, the trap went snap. But it was hard to continue playing God, especially when we saw a joey curled against its mother, killed by the cold night air.

Now my eyes settle on our sleek and healthy cats, who don’t care whether their prey is rodent or native bird as long as it provides them with a chase. I’d like to think the number of decapitated rodents they deliver makes up for the occasional wing beneath the lemon tree, but I doubt this would hold up as a defence in a court of law.

Then I look at the volcanic cone that rises from our garden, the wattles that creep in from the local quarry and the privet that grows unchecked, and I push the guilt aside. Although I may not be quite ready to take drastic measures against our beloved felines, and not strong-willed enough to collect possum fur to furnish the house, I can possibly start by digging my way out of the guilt.

Up on the hill, where moreporks and tui are among the resident bird population, there are lots of opportunities to replace aggressive exotics with native species rich in food for birds. Gardens are a wonderful way to support urban corridors of green that allow birds to move from their main habitat into suburban areas, especially during winter when food is scarce.


Our native flaxes, Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum, are some of the best and easiest plants to grow if you want to provide birds with nectar in a garden. The nectar also attracts a range of insects, which birds enjoy, too. The most notable difference between the two varieties is flower colour and size, with the red-flowered P tenax growing to 2m-plus and the yellow-flowered P cookianum reaching about 1.4m.

Other great nectar-providing natives include: Sophora spp (kowhai), Clianthus puniceus (kaka beak), Fuchsia excorticata (tree fuchsia), Metrosideros carminea (rata) and Cordyline australis (cabbage tree).


Common large trees, such as Vitex lucens (puriri), Dacrycarpus dacrydioides (kahikatea) and Corynocarpus laevigatus (karaka), are rich in berries, but so are smaller garden shrubs such as Coprosma spp. Other great fruiting trees include Aristotelia serrata or wineberry (makomako), Pseudowintera colorata (horopito) and Rhopalostylis sapida (nikau). Even easily overlooked groundcovers, such as Fuchsia procumbens (totera), offer plenty for insects and birds if cats are not a problem.


Kowhai blossom
Kowhai blossom, photo/Thinkstock

If you want more birds in your garden, encourage insects. Bellbirds, tui, fantails, moreporks, kereru, kaka and kingfishers depend on insects as much as they do on nectar for a balanced diet. To achieve an insect-rich garden, take the approach of live and let live. If you are a bit squeamish about creepy crawlies, keep areas close to the house tidy and free of spider webs, but create “wild zones” in places you can afford to avoid. Here, you can let the birds and bees get on with what they do best.

One overseas trend is to build insect hotels – boxes placed on their sides and filled with sticks and debris. This is a great idea for schools, as the hotels allow pupils to observe insect populations, but generally all that’s required is areas where grass has been allowed to grow long or where sticks and decaying leaves are left undisturbed.

Other great natives with insect appeal are Muehlenbeckia spp, Corokia spp, Hebe spp, Olearia spp, Pittosporum spp and Pseudopanax spp.


If you have cats, their killing tendencies can be limited by keeping them inside at night when most hunting occurs. Hanging a bell on a cat’s collar can also be an effective alarm. To give birds safe feeding places away from cats’ clutches, plant tall-growing climbers, such as rata and native clematis, and trees such as Podocarpus totara (totara), Vitex lucens (puriri), Dacrycarpus dacrydioides (kahikatea) and Corynocarpus laevigatus (karaka) if you have room.


Many exotic plants also attract native birds and can be helpful in sustaining good populations. However, remember that birds are the main way that the seeds of exotic species are carried into the native bush. If possible, plant locally appropriate native species that will provide the best source of nutrition for birds and at the same time ensure that the seed they distribute will not cause harm when dropped in conservation areas.


In winter, when food supplies are scarce, use a bird feeder to top up supplies. Position the platform out of the reach of cats, but make sure it is still accessible to humans, so you can keep it topped up. A metal collar around the base of the tree will stop most cats, but you’ll also need to ensure there’s no alternative route for feline hunters via a fence or nearby tree.

The feeding platform needs to provide a safe perching place where the birds can feed uninterrupted. It may take a while to become popular, so don’t be disheartened if you are not immediately overrun with grateful feathered friends.

Suitable foods include fat, seeds, grainy bread scraps and honey. To make a feeding solution, dissolve sugar in water, then pour it into a one-litre milk bottle. Pierce small holes in the bottom and sit the bottle in a saucer. This will give the birds a constant supply.

One day I will have to deal with the local possums, because if we are to create corridors for birds to venture from the conservation estate into the suburbs, we have to remember these corridors are also providing thoroughfares for possums and rodents. But meanwhile, as I summon the courage to attack the possums head-on, I’m going to start with a little affirmative action in my own backyard and offer the birds something better to eat.
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