How to have a bird-friendly garden – just ask Declan
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF WENT TO ENNISKERRY TO TALK TO BIRD EXPERT AND AUTHOR DECLAN MURPHY
NO DOUBT there are gardeners who believe that a garden is merely for plants.
But a recent full house in Enniskerry library for a talk by Declan Murphy suggested that many gardeners also wish to attract birds to their green spaces.
Not magpies, obviously. Not crows either, because crows are seen as the enemy. And opinion is divided on starlings, which tend to arrive in overwhelming numbers.
Finches and tits on the other hand are on the welcomed in most back yards, providing extra life among all the flowers and shrubs.
So when Declan came to the library with a promise that he would pass on a few tips about luring in our feathered friends, it was a case of standing room only.
The speaker, a slim man, light on his feet, sped around greeting his audience as they arrived, handing out posters illustrating ‘Wicklow’s Garden Wildlife’ with pictures of sparrows and dunnocks.
He has come to national attention in recent times as author of ‘A Life In The Trees: A Personal Account Of The Great Spotted Woodpecker In Ireland’.
He is also well known as a self–taught expert on birdsong and recently travelled to Spain in order to cover the dawn chorus near Madrid for RTÉ radio.
On this occasion, however, he was set to concentrate on less exotic species and to urge householders not to be shy about feeding birds.
Declan made no secret of the fact that he is a fan, awed by the fact that a small bird can fly the width of the Atlantic or that a blackbird can hear the worms beneath its feet.
‘They are so brilliant,’ he enthused, preaching the message that the presence of the winged wonders is a welcome symptom of biodiversity.
It behoves gardeners, he suggested, to give the birds a safe environment and a steady source of food at a time when farming practices and construction work are nibbling away at their territory.
‘Look after the birds,’ he counselled. ‘Know them and watch them and remember that food is what they are looking for most of the time.’
Declan pooh-poohed the notion that the food should only be put out during the winter when alternative supplies may be scarce.
Extra rations are surely also appreciated when there is a nest full of hungry chicks to raise and they are partial to easy pickings all year round.
He took his listeners through the benefits of seeds, mealworms and sunflower hearts.
And the most popular item on the ornithological menu is peanuts.
Here are a few tips and thoughts.
1. Poor grade peanuts are likely to develop a toxic fungus, so be prepared to pay a little extra. Declan recommended specialist suppliers Irish Garden Birds.
2. It is an urban myth that garden birds should not be fed in summer by those who have their welfare at heart. Remember, a couple of blue tits may have ten young to look after, so they can use all the help they can get.
3. Try putting out apple slices to tickle the palate of blackbirds and thrushes. Apples also appeal to the starlings.
4. An average suburban garden is likely to have 30 blue tits passing through on any one day and taking a nibble at the feeder. They all look pretty much the same, so most of us never realise the scale of the turnover.
5. The entrance hole in a nesting box for tits should ideally measure 32 millimetres in diameter. And please do not site the box where a cat can sit on top to pick off a snack at its leisure. Robins prefer an open ledge to a box, by the way.
6. Bullfinches will not normally take food from a bird feeder but they love dandelion seeds, though of course most gardeners consider dandelions to be a pest.
7. Cats are the biggest killers of birds and the biggest threat to our native species of bird. Feeders must be located where psychopathic
felines cannot reach them.
8. Vegetable plots usually offer very little to interest birds, though robins are lured to pick over freshly dug soil.
9. Nyjer seeds are a magnet for goldfinches, siskins and the occasion redpoll. They should be dispensed from a feeder with smaller than normal holes. They resemble thistle seeds but no sane gardener grows thistles. Nyjer comes originally all the way from Ethiopia but is now grown commercially in Hungary.
10. Small birds cannot eat wheat or barley corn but sunflower hearts are as attractive to them as crack cocaine to a drug addict: ‘They go crazy.’
ASKED after his lecture how he would like to be described, Declan’s immediate response was: ‘I am an author first of all.’
Much of his considerable energy at the moment is channelled into making his first book into a bestseller, and so far he is making a great job of it.
The work on the woodpeckers is a sell-out in its self-published hardback form and it has now been taken up by publisher Lilliput, which plans a paperback edition.
The writer is hoping that their expertise in promotion and distribution will yield sales in the UK as well as Ireland.
His only problem with the arrangement is that they will alter his original cover design, while their proof reading department has been running a fine-tooth comb over his grammar and use of apostrophes.
Declan discovered his reputation as an author had gone before him and that many of those who came to Enniskerry were already aware of his woodpecker volume.
When he gives on of his talks on garden birds, he generally finds that the issue of how to keep scavenging magpies at bay is top topic in the question-and-answer session that follows.
On his occasion, however, the big black-andwhite mischief makers were scarcely mentioned and instead there was no shortage of people willing to discuss the woodpeckers.
The guest speakers fielded reports of several sightings from around the greater Wicklow and south Dublin area.
He told them that the bird, which was unknown on this island in modern times up to 2008, is now believed to have 300 pairs in Ireland.
They have been less evident this summer than in other recent years, though he has been hot on their trail as the job of tracking, counting and encouraging continues.
It is thought that their behaviour may have modified, adopting a lower profile in response to the growing numbers of pine martens in the Wicklow mountains.
As the highly elusive relative of the stoat spreads, so the woodpeckers must learn strategies to stay out of reach of the marten’s sharp claws.
‘I have been a birdwatcher all my life since I was seven years of age,’ muses the infinitely enthusiastic author.
He originally qualified as a horticulturalist but worked for many years, not with plants, but as a staff member of Birdwatch Ireland.
He looked after the organisation’s retail arm as well as giving talks and leading occasional guided ornithological walks.
He left his native Dublin in 2003 to move into the mountains of Wicklow, where he remains happily resident to this day, tending his garden and keeping an ear out for unusual birdsong.
Though now employed as a horticulturalist, his passion for nature cannot be contained, so he is also happy to speak to school groups or fill an evening slot at a public library.
He shares his enthusiasm with a light touch in a way which encourages those who hear him to try feeding finches or putting up nest boxes or learning the calls of different species.
While he exults in the moment when, for instance, he can stand in snow and listen to the bark of a fox, Declan worries that a generation is growing up increasingly divorced from such experiences.
THE internet and the universal access to mobile phones mean that children are not going out much to look at the real world close up.
‘Children are obsessed with their games,’ he muses. ‘At three years old, they have more exposure to YouTube than to the natural world. They miss the touching, the feeling.’
Perhaps it is not only the youngsters who are drifting away from reality on the tide of superfast broadband and of lives lived behind double, if not treble, glazing.
During the evening in Enniskerry, the topic of hawks and their appetite for its cuter, smaller feathered cousins was mentioned.
Declan Murphy reminded everyone that the predators need a living prey, so it is not a tragedy if they take the occasional sparrow as it dines at a peanut feeder.
‘People don’t like to see it but a lot of nature is not nice to look at.’ His message is not to be squeamish but to relish the reality in all its sometimes harsh variety.
ABOVE: Declan Murphy at Tinakilly House this week. LEFT: A blue tit – which can have 10 young to look after. LEFT: Declan’s book. TOP: A bullfinch.