Indigenous landscaping & garden design
in Johannesburg & Pretoria, South Africa

How to create a bird-friendly garden

  • How to create a bird-friendly garden

    Bird-friendly gardens are specifically designed to attract birds. Here we unpack some of the important aspects of creating a bird-friendly garden

    A bird-friendly garden is one that attracts and supports the local birdlife, through the use of indigenous plant material, and by using elements that provide perching, nesting, drinking, and foraging opportunities. Although creating a locally indigenous garden will naturally attract birds, bird gardens can be enhanced by adding a few out-of-range plant species, as well as nesting logs, bird baths and water features.

    Note that a bird garden differs from putting seed or fruit out on a bird tray. Although seed and fruit will certainly attract birds, these are artificial food sources, and often the birds attracted to them become noisy and messy, sometimes bullying other birds and taking over your tray. A bird-friendly garden on the other hand aims to replicate the natural environment, by using plant species that produce fruit or seed, and thus attract different birds. This creates a more harmonious environment for the birds in your garden, along with a healthier source of food. Additionally, many plants are also hosts for various insects, so adding these to your garden will help insectivorous birds find food, as well as helping their nestlings, many of which rely on protein in the form of insects for their growth and development.

    Seed-eaters such as this juvenile Yellow-fronted Canary favour indigenous grasses over store-bought seed

    To help you get started in creating a bird-friendly garden, let's go through some of the steps you can take to enhance your garden, followed by a starter list of plants.

    Steps to creating a bird-friendly garden

    Reduce the size of your lawn

    Reducing the size of your lawn is probably the first thing to consider when creating a bird-friendly garden. Lawn is usually a monoculture, and one which you need to mow, weed, and water. It also usually takes up a lot of space, space that could be better utilised for plants that naturally attract birds and increase biodiversity. Reducing the size of your lawn and planting indigenous species not only provides additional food, but also creates more habitat for birds, which means more perching, nesting and foraging opportunities.

    A lawn-free garden liberates you from mowing, weeding and watering a lawn. Most importantly, one has more space for habitat and food sources for birds.

    Add water sources for birds to drink and bath

    Birds need to drink, so adding a water source or two to your garden is a great way to help them. Additionally, birds love to bath, so depending on the water source some birds might use the water for bathing. A water source does not need to be large, and can be a grinding stone, a natural rock with cavities to hold water, or an artificial water feature. Some birds also prefer drinking from specific water features - perhaps for safety - so adding multiple water sources is beneficial.

    In this small garden, Jameson's Firefinches prefer drinking from a natural rock embedded in the ground

    Add rocks and logs

    Along with your shrubs and trees, rocks and logs create perching opportunities for birds, and enhance the aesthetics of your garden

    A Jameson's Firefinch female, having just had a drink, moves on to an elevated perch (a rock) in the garden
    Logs and branches help birds such as this Southern Grey-headed Sparrow with perching opportunities

    Add nesting logs

    Nesting logs are made from Sisal (Agave sisalana), and usually come with a pilot hole which birds excavate to create a tunnel and nesting chamber inside the log. Nesting logs can be added to most gardens (they can even be mounted on walls) and easily allow cavity-nesting birds to take up residence. You might be surprised how quickly birds start using them, and we have seen barbets occupy a nesting log within a few hours after being installed. Birds that use nesting logs include Barbets, Woodpeckers, Wrynecks, Starlings and Woodhoopoes.

    A Crested Barbet excavating a new nesting log

    Leave a patch of soil for a dust bath

    Many birds love to have a dust bath, as it helps them maintain healthy feathers. So along with water sources, leave a patch of open sand in your garden for birds to take a dust bath.

    Laughing Dove having just finished a dust bath

    Add pathways and seating areas (for yourself!)

    You might be creating a bird-friendly garden, but you will still want to access it, especially if you want to photograph birds, so add pathways and seating areas so you can relax and enjoy the company of your avian visitors.

    A seating area amongst the shrubs and trees of this small, forest-themed, bird-friendly garden

    Plants for a bird-friendly garden

    Now that we've discussed the ways you can enhance your garden to make it bird-friendly, it's time to design the garden, specifically the plants you can include. As mentioned, creating a locally indigenous garden will naturally attract birds, but by adding a few out-of-range plant species you can enhance the appeal for birds. Keep in mind that you're not only trying to attract fruit and seed-eaters, but also insectivorous birds, as well as providing nesting material and nesting sites. A well-planned bird garden therefore covers all of these aspects, so choosing your plants appropriately will help you achieve this goal.

    Herewith is a starter list of plants which are ideal for bird gardens, and which can be grown on the highveld:

    Metarungia longistrobus (Sunbird Bush)

    As the name suggests, this medium to large shrub attracts sunbirds to your garden. The flowers are irresistible to them, and once the birds have found it you will find them visiting the plant on a regular basis, often multiple times a day. On the highveld, regular visitors include White-bellied Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird, and Greater Double-collared Sunbird.

    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 'sunbird-peak' usually in March/April.

    Setaria megaphylla (Broad-leaved Bristle-grass)

    This indigenous grass is one of the best species to plant if you want to attract seed-eaters - specifically canaries - to your garden. We've seen three different canary species feed off the seeds on one plant on the same day, along with other birds such as weavers. It is a robust and hardy species that works just as well in the shade as it does in the sun, so is ideal for those difficult, shaded areas that require a filler. The plants can look quite innocuous in a small 4l nursery bag, but don't be fooled. Setaria can grow very large, and can reach 2-3 metres in width and height, so if you are going to add it to a small garden you will probably only need one specimen. Additionally, the plant regularly self-seeds, so look out for 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 a third - which will encourage fresh growth for the forthcoming season.

    Canaries such as this Yellow-fronted can't resist Setaria megaphylla
    Juvenile Yellow-fronted Canary on Setaria megaphylla
    A Southern Masked-weaver feeding on the seeds of Setaria megaphylla
    A streaky-headed seed-eater reaching down between Melinis repens to feed on Setaria megaphylla

    Halleria lucida (Tree Fuchsia)

    The Tree Fuchsia is a common species of 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 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.

    Fruit of Halleria lucida

    Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach)

    If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, then this is one of the best trees you can plant. The reason is that the Kiggelaria is a host plant for the Garden Acraea butterfly, the larvae of which can strip the leaves bare. But the plant soon recovers, and in return you are rewarded with a garden filled with orange butterflies.

    Garden Acraea butterfly on its host plant Kiggelaria africana

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

    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 which will take the orange, flesh-covered seeds before you even have a chance to see them! You will need a female tree in order to get fruit, so if you have space, we'd advise that you plant both a male and female tree in your garden to allow easy pollination of the female tree, and subsequent fruit.

    Cassinopsis ilicifolia (Lemon Thorn)

    The Lemon Thorn is also common species in our kloofs and nature reserves, and is an excellent screening plant for heights between 2-3 meters. As the name suggests, it 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 loved by fruit-eating birds, especially mousebirds, bulbuls and thrushes.

    A Dark-capped Bulbul feeding on Lemon Thorn berries

    In fruiting season (usually September to April), the birds will visit on a regular basis, 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)

    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 small, they are favoured by smaller species, including white-eyes. The Dogwood can be planted as a screening shrub, or in an area where you have some space for it to bush out to 3-5 metres.

    A Cape White-eye feeding on a Dogwood berry

    Melinis repens (Natal Red-Top)

    This indigenous, pioneer grass is a common and well-known species on our roadsides, and is beautiful when in flower. It can be used to great effect in a 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 nesting material. Plant it in a sunny position, and allow the plant to self-seed in areas where you want it to grow.

    Leonotis leonurus (Wild Dagga)

    Another species much loved by nectar-feeding birds, especially sunbirds, is the Wild Dagga (Leonotis leonurus). It is an unusual shrub that can be used as a filler for larger spaces in the garden, and for additional pop of colour. If you have space plant two of them in sunny spots on opposite sides of the garden, which will encourage nectar-feeders to fly through your garden to feed on the different plants. Different colour varieties, including orange and white.

    Amethyst Sunbird on Leonotis leonurus

    Aloe sp.

    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 planting them in your garden will provide nectar-feeders with food through the winter months.

    A Cape Weaver reaches down to feed on the nectar of an Aloe ferox

    Plectranthus sp.

    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 insectivorous birds. But another benefit is for the cover they provide for skulking birds, as well as nesting opportunities. They are fairly hardy plants, and can be used successfully in place of exotics such as Hydrangeas or Azaleas in the shaded areas of your garden.

    Cape Robin-chat chicks in their nest in Plectranthus madagascariensis

    For more information on plants and the birdlife that they attract, visit our plantbook website

    2 comments on “How to create a bird-friendly garden”

    1. Thank you for an inspiring article Glenice. I have been transforming our Jhb garden into an indigenous one and although it is time consuming removing alien trees and replacing with indigenous trees and shrubs, it is most rewarding. I loved your pictures and suggestions and seeing your combination of plant material. My mind is brimming with new ideas - so exciting.
      Kind regards
      Caroline

      1. Hi Caroline

        Thanks for visiting our site and your valuable feedback.

        Wishing you all the best watching your transformation take shape and bringing you joy. Please pop in occasionally to share some of your lessons learnt, observations and plant experiences.

        Flourish!
        Glenice

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    Grounded Landscaping is an award-winning landscaping company specialising in indigenous, wildlife-friendly gardens. We are based in the Cradle of Humankind, a world heritage site and part of the grassland biome of Southern Africa. We service most areas of Gauteng, including Johannesburg, Centurion and Pretoria.
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