Incorporate water into your garden design if you want birds to visit, as has been achieved in Charlotte and George van der Watts magnificent garden in Bedford in the Eastern Cape. Picture: Kay Montgomery

Cape Town - Bird are an essential feature of all gardens. They not only provide a pollinating function for many of our flowering plants, but are delightful companions.

Even the rather unfashionable hadedas help to keep the cricket population at a healthy level.

But how do you develop a bird-friendly garden?

Here are a number of basic tips that can be used by any beginner gardener wishing to transform a garden into an ecological paradise:

* Reduce your lawn by substantially widening the beds.

* Plant indigenous trees along a wide corridor around the garden to create a canopy. Below the canopy plant functional wildlife-friendly shrubs and perennials that provide birds with facilities for nesting, resting, feeding or breeding.

* Plant climbers to cover exposed pergolas, thereby attracting nesting birds. Attach trellises to bare walls and plant climbers to cover the walls. By placing wooden blocks between the trellis and the wall you can ensure there is a 5cm to 10cm gap between the trelliswork and the wall that can be used by birds and other garden wildlife for nesting and breeding.

* Sweep dry autumn leaves and garden clippings directly on to the shrub and flower beds as a mulch. Nature will decompose the organic matter as it does in a forest.

* Develop an exclusion area at the bottom of your garden. This is a zone that has been planted with various strata of vegetation – thorn trees at the back, shrubs at a lower level, and groundcovers to cover the soil. Scatter rocks and nesting logs throughout the area.

* Establish a wetland and pond between the lawn and exclusion area. Plant indigenous cyperus, bulrushes or indigenous reeds in a boggy wetland to attract marsh birds. Develop a shallow wading zone in the pond for birds, and a deeper (at least 40cm) zone for fish. The exclusion zone and wetland area will become a major focus of bird activity.

Plants for birds:

Although there are a range of plants that offer materials for feeding and breeding, now is the time to plant the perennial known as lion’s tail or wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus), and the wild peach or umKokoko tree (Kiggelaria africana).

The lion’s tail is an evergreen that grows quickly, tolerates fairly dry conditions, and does best in full sun. Left to its own devices, lion’s tail can become leggy. Frequent pinching out of tip growth and heavy pruning after flowering in autumn will encourage bushiness, and increase the number of flowers, which are a rich source of nectar for sunbirds. Look out for the orange, white and latest “Golden Velvet” flowering cultivars.

The evergreen wild peach is a useful 10-metre-high shade tree and windbreak that provides a wide, protective canopy for many bird species. It is drought-tolerant and grows fairly quickly if planted in good soil and watered regularly until established.

Mousebirds, southern boubou, olive woodpeckers, Cape thrush, Cape robin, Cape white-eye and even the crowned hornbill will come to feast on its glorious orange fruit, which appears from February to July.

The leaves of the wild peach are devoured by the black hairy caterpillar of the common Acraea horta garden butterfly. Established trees quickly recover from this seasonal attack, which is also controlled by the arrival of a host of cuckoos, including the Diederik, red-chested, Klaas, and black cuckoo.

Cuckoos are able to strip the inedible skin off caterpillars of the Acraea horta butterfly. Even more interesting is that the wild peach’s leaves produce hydrocycanic acid, and presumably the caterpillars that feed on them would also be laced with cyanide, yet the Diederik cuckoo chicks in particular come to no harm from feasting on them.

Feeding birds:

Should you be feeding the birds in your garden? The debate is a contentious one and experts disagree about whether feeding the birds increases the population.

The Humane Society of the US believes in the general rule that wild animals should not be fed, as it causes harm. In the case of birds, it maintains there are few situations where harm could be caused to birds and therefore it endorses the feeding of garden birds.

It does, however, advise that you never feed birds unsafe foods.

Chocolate contains theobromine and is toxic to birds, dogs and cats. The Humane Society of the US also advises against feeding birds fresh or stale bread, as it provides no real nutritional value for them. Moreover, mouldy bread can harm birds.

Finally, the society says kitchen scraps are likely to attract more mice and rats than birds.

What does the society suggest you feed the birds?

High on the list are sunflower seeds, wild bird seed, millet, peanuts, peanut butter, baked and crushed eggshells, fruit, and suet cakes. The option of vegetarian suet cakes is becoming increasingly popular.

Avoid placing your bird feeder in high traffic zones. Rather place it on a tall pole or suspend it from a tree in partial or full shade. Birds will thrive in a little protection offered by trees and shrubs.

Remember, however, that you want to be able to see the birds while they are feeding, so place the bird feeder in full view of your windows.

- Weekend Argus