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

Wicklow People - - INTERVIEW -

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.

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