21-day lockdown – Day 8 – Creating a bird-friendly garden – Part 2

21-day lockdown – Day 8 – Creating a bird-friendly garden – Part 2

Following on from yesterday’s article on how to create a bird-friendly garden, today we’ll discuss the plants you can add to your garden to naturally attract birds. Note that most indigenous plants have some appeal to birds, whether it be for food, nesting materials, nesting opportunities, or refuge, so just by converting your garden to an indigenous, wildlife-friendly space – regardless of the plant species – you will automatically be making your garden more attractive to birds. In our view the best gardens are those that mimic nearby nature reserves, since the garden in effect extends the green-belt of your area, thereby encouraging birds to travel out of these greenbelts and into surrounding gardens. So whilst these might be our favourite bird-attracting plants on the highveld, there will be many others that are specific to your region that might be better suited to your garden (e.g. the Protea family for the Cape). Keep to the basic principle of planting locally indigenous species, and you will be well on your way to attracting locally common birds to your garden.

With that said, herewith are our favourite bird-friendly plants:

Metarungia longistrobus (Sunbird Bush)

Sunbird Bush

As the name suggests, this medium to large shrub naturally attracts sunbirds to your garden. The flowers are simply irresistible to them, and once the birds have found it you will find them visiting on a regular basis, often multiple times in a day, just to get their fill of nectar. We’ve been fortunate to have three different sunbird species visiting this plant (White-bellied, Amethyst, and Greater Double-collared) and it is always a pleasure to have them in the garden.

White-bellied Sunbird on a Sunbird Bush, Metarungia longistrobus

For very small gardens you might only have space to plant one of these shrubs, but perhaps you can encourage your neighbours to also plant one, or donate one to your complex or neighbourhood. This will encourage more sunbirds to visit the area, and the birds will end up doing circuits around the neighbourhood to the various plants, before returning to your garden. Flowering time is usually January to May, with our ‘sunbird-peak’ usually in March/April.

Setaria megaphylla (Broad-leaved Bristle-grass)

Setaria megaphylla is a striking and versatile filler shrub that works in both sun and shade

This indigenous grass is arguably one of the best species to plant if you want to attract seed-eaters – specifically canaries – to your garden. We’ve had three different canary species feed off the seeds on one plant on the same day, along with other birds such as weavers.

canaries such as this Yellow-fronted can’t resist Setaria megaphylla

juvenile Yellow-fronted Canary

Southern Masked-weavers feeding on the seeds of Setaria megaphylla

It is a robust and hardy species, that works just as well in the shade as it does in the sun, so may be ideal for those difficult shady areas of the garden that require a filler. The plants can look quite innocuous in a small 4l nursery bag, but don’t be fooled. Size-wise Setaria can grow very big (a bit like an enormous Dietes), and can reach 3 metres in width and height, so if you are going to add it to your small garden you will probably only need one specimen. Additionally the plant has a tendency to self-seed, so look out for the seedlings when they appear in your garden, and remove them before they start to take over the space. The plant can be cut back after it has flowered, down to about one third, which will encourage fresh growth for the forthcoming season.

Halleria lucida (Tree Fuchsia)

it’s not only bees that are attracted to Halleria lucida – birds love the nectar-filled flowers too!

fruit of Halleria lucida

The Tree Fuchsia is one of the most common species in our kloofs and nature reserves, most frequently along water courses. It is one of the most unique flowering species, with the flowers growing from the branches beneath the foliage, making them quite inconspicuous from afar. But from a bird point of view, the flowers are visited by all manner of nectar-feeding birds, making this a must-have for the bird-friendly garden. Additionally, the resulting fruits are loved by fruit-eating birds, so this is one of those plants that will attract both nectar and fruit-eating birds to your garden.

Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach)

Garden Acraea butterfly on its host plant Kiggelaria africana

We’ve often said to clients that if they want to attract butterflies to their gardens, then this is the tree to plant. We’re quite sure that a few of them have laughed this theory off, until a few months later when we get a message from them to say they have worms on their tree, and what can they do about it?! We, of course, tell them to leave the worms in place – they are afterall the larvae of the Garden Acraea butterfly, and a few weeks later our clients are pleasantly surprised to have orange butterflies flying round their gardens!

larvae of Garden Acraea butterfly

But there is another reason to plant the Kiggelaria, and that is to attract birds. The acraea larvae are toxic to most birds, but there is one group that can feed on them – the cuckoos. Diederik, Red-chested, and Black Cuckoos are all regular visitors to Kiggelaria africana, specifically to feed off the Garden Acraea larvae, and once they have found the tree in your garden they will often visit it on a regular basis (obviously only during summer when they are in the country).

A Diederik Cuckoo feeding on the larvae of the Garden Acraea butterfly

In addition to cuckoos, the fruits of this tree are also irresistible to fruit-eating birds, many of whom will take the orange flesh-covered seeds before you’ve even have a chance to see them! You will need a female tree in order to get fruit, but we’d advise that you plant both a male and a female tree in your garden (provided you have the space) to allow easy pollination of the female tree to take place.

Combine all of this together, and the Wild Peach must surely rank as one of the country’s top wildlife-friendly plants.

Cassinopsis ilicifolia (Lemon Thorn)

a Dark-capped Bulbul eating Lemon Thorn berries

The Lemon Thorn is a common species of our kloofs and nature reserves, and is an excellent screening plant for heights between 2-3 meters. As the name suggests, it is has small spines, which may make it useful as an informal security barrier. It can also be trimmed into a hedge, provided it is placed in a sunny position (like many plants it tends to grow a bit scraggly in the shade). But the Lemon Thorn is also an excellent bird-attracting plant, as the fruits are much loved by fruit-eating birds, especially mousebirds, bulbuls and thrushes. In fruiting season (usually September to April), the birds will visit on a regular basis for food, making it a valuable addition to the bird garden. On top of this the leaves have a beautiful, glossy-green colour, which contrasts with the bright orange fruits. One doesn’t only need flowers to brighten up your garden!

Rhamnus prinoides (Dogwood)

a Cape White-eye feeding on a Dogwood berry

Another glossy-leaved species that is common in our kloofs and nature reserves. Like the Lemon Thorn, the fruits of the dogwood are irresistible to birds, and because they are slightly smaller they are favoured by smaller species, including white-eyes. Plant the dogwood as a screening plant, or in an area where you have some space for it to bush out to 3-5 metres.

Melinis repens (Natal Red-Top)

A Streaky-headed Seed-eater reaches down for the fluffy seeds of Melinis repens

This indigenous, pioneer grass is a common and well known species from our roadsides, and is beautiful when in flower. It can be used to great effect in a garden or landscape setting, adding a soft, flowing foliage texture that contrasts with surrounding plants. But Melinis is also a great addition to the bird garden as it is used by birds for both seed and nesting material. Plant it in a sunny position, and keep an eye out for young seedlings as the plant readily self-seeds in the garden.

Leonotis leonurus (Wild Dagga)

Greater double-collared Sunbird on Leonotis leonurus

Another species much loved by nectar-feeding birds, especially sunbirds. The Wild Dagga is an unusual shrub that can be used as a filler species for additional colour in larger spaces in the garden. Plant it in a different part of the garden to your other nectar-shrubs, which will encourage nectar-feeders to fly through your garden to feed on the different plant species.

Aloe sp.

a Cape Weaver reaches down to feed off the nectar of an Aloe ferox

Aloes are one of our most loved garden plants, and are frequently used as focal plants in a landscape. The benefit for birds, specifically nectar-feeders, is that aloes flower predominantly in winter, so by planting them you will be able to provide nectar throughout the winter period.

Plectranthus sp.

Cape Robin-chat chicks in their nest in Plectranthus madagascariensis

Plectranthus species are a common indigenous species in our forests, and are beautiful fillers for semi-shade areas of the garden. The plants are excellent for attracting insects, and thus insect-eating birds, but for us the real benefit is for the cover they provide for skulking birds, as well as nesting opportunities. They are also fairly hardy plants, and can be used successfully in place of exotics such as Hydrangeas or Azaleas if you have struggled to grow these species.