Set up a bird sanctuary at home

When planning your new garden or changing the existing one, consider planting for the birds as well as yourself. They sing for you, they keep down insect pests, and they are fun to watch.

Despite the concrete tsunami that is engulfing our cities, an amazing number of birds still survive, not only in the big parks but in nearly every little patch of green. They are not rare or endangered yet. But for that very reason each of us can help prevent their becoming so. Whether you have a large space or just an apartment balcony, you can, with a little thought and care, create a lovely garden that will also be a sanctuary for these birds, many of which like to nest surprisingly close to human habitation.

My husband and I little knew we had the beginnings of such a sanctuary when we planted a sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) to shade the hot concrete paving around our government quarters in Delhi. The vine soon covered the wire net trellis and we were not the only ones who loved its shade and streamers of sky-blue flowers; the bulbuls loved them too, nesting year after year in the densest part of the creeper, singing sweetly all day and affording us many hours of effortless bird-watching pleasure. As our garden grew, so did the bird population, so we began consciously choosing flowers and shrubs to attract them. Here is some of what we learned.

Bulbuls will nest in dense-growing vines like the sky vine. They like the black berries of Lantana, and will often nest in a lantana hedge. Because it grows wild everywhere, it’s considered a nuisance, but actually, the bright orange or pink flowers are really very pretty.

There are also dwarf and trailing varieties in a range of colours, bred especially for gardens. They are drought-resistant and grow even in poor soil. However, the ornamental garden varieties often don’t produce berries, so grow at least one or two of the wild kind. Asparagus species (A. racemosus, A. plumosus,) trained up a trellis, make a cool and pretty screen on a balcony. The delicate, fern-like leaves are good for flower arrangements and bulbuls love the bright red berries.

Easy to grow

Sunbirds are tiny birds with curved beaks with which they suck honey from flowers. An easy-to-grow shrub that attracts sunbirds is Hamelia patens, also called firebush or scarlet bush, which has coppery-tinged leaves and bunches of tubular orange flowers filled with honey. You can see it planted widely along the road medians in Bengaluru. The parasol flower (Holmskioldia sanguinea ), whose long, drooping branches are strung with orange-red flowers (it can easily be mistaken for a bougainvillea), is another favourite with sunbirds. Both these shrubs are available in nurseries, will grow in ordinary garden soil, and don’t need much water. Plant them in the ground if you can, or else in large tubs, in full sun.

Other good choices that will attract sunbirds and that can be grown either in large tubs or in the ground are lime, lemon, mandarin orange, or any citrus plant. The birds get the honey; you get the fragrance of the flowers and the fruit.

Sunbirds like to hang their teardrop-shaped nests from any creeper close to the house. Grow a jasmine or a Rangoon creeper or a Bignonia up your wall or close by. Perhaps one day you will see the drab olive female sunbird work for about ten days to shape and camouflage her nest while the gorgeous blue-black male watches from a branch nearby and critically inspects his wife’s work now and then! In fact, with a dense-growing creeper, such as sky vine, you might get both bulbuls and sunbirds nesting in it, as we did for several years.

Tailor birds are so called because they actually stitch together two leaves or one broad leaf folded over to make a cone-shaped nest, which is then lined with cotton and other soft material. If you have room for a tree, you could plant a poplar or a phalsa or a mulberry. But any broad-leaved plant such as a Canna, Philodendron, or Dieffenbachia also tempts tailor birds to nest close to the house.

Hoopoes, mynahs, babblers will all come to peck for food in the lawn. To attract these birds, grow even a small square of grass or any other ground cover. Keep the soil moist. Lovely green parakeets will flock shrieking and screeching to a fruit tree such as a guava. A cherry tree (Barbados or Singapore cherry) will draw cuckoos announcing the rain and barbets, whose throaty ku-kurr-kurr brings with it (to me) the smell of dry leaves and dust — and final exams! All birds need a water source in the garden. An ordinary earthen bowl will do. Change the water twice or thrice a week or you may get mosquitoes. Happy bird gardening!

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 1:10:18 AM |

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