Save native birds in your backyard

As we write this, it’s Conservation Week/Te Wiki Tiaki Ao Tūroa in New Zealand. And because of COVID-19, the country is also at levels 4 and 3 lockdown.

So while we all need to stay at home – this is an excellent opportunity to think about how we can protect our native wildlife right in our own backyard. Any garden can be made more attractive to wildlife, even if it’s a courtyard, or the size of a postage stamp.

Keeping our feathered friends safe

Did you know that 80% of New Zealand’s native birds are threatened or at risk of extinction? This is mainly due to a mix of habitat loss and predation by introduced species like rats, possums, stoats, hedgehogs, and domestic cats, as well as birds like starlings and mynas.

So before we lay out the welcome mat for native birds, it’s essential to make sure our garden is a safe and attractive place to visit (or even live, if we’re lucky). Here’s some preparation to consider.

  • Set traps to keep predator numbers down.
  • Keep your cat inside: this is extra important at dusk and during the night.
  • Make sure any feed stations and birdbaths are placed well out of reach of introduced predators.
  • Clean bird feeders or water bowls regularly to prevent disease spreading.
  • Provide plentiful water for birds to drink and bathe in, especially in summer.
  • Try these ideas to create a critter friendly garden.

Rather than simply feeding native birds, the best long-term plan is to create an environment that’s naturally full of food. Native trees and shrubs provide shelter, food, and nesting places. Planting and protecting them will attract native birds.

  • Consider planting a range of natives so your garden is a year-round source of food for birds. Think berries, nectar-bearing flowers, seeds, insect habitats and even their ability to attract lichen and moss.
  • Group plants at various heights – including some taller ones – for diversity and bird safety.
  • Let twigs and leaf litter build up on the ground. This creates a home for the insects that many native birds like our beloved piwakawaka (fantail) rely on for food. And it’s good for your soil too.
  • If you have enough space, create a more private "wilderness" area away from the house where birds can nest and rear their chicks.

Five backyard trees that are beaut’ for birds

Kōwhai’s (Sophora microphylla) dangling yellow flowers are much loved by nectar feeders like korimako (bellbirds), tūi, tauhou (silvereyes), hihi (stitchbirds) and kereru (wood pigeons). Pīpīwharauroa (shining cuckoos) also eat kōwhai moth caterpillars.

Pūriri (Vitex lucens) may be large and slow growing but if you have the space it’s absolutely worth the investment in time. This dark leafy green tree produces nectar-filled flowers and berries for almost the whole year, feeding kereru, tauhou, korimako and tūi.

Makomako (Aristotelia serrata) aka Wineberry, is a shrubby mid-sized native tree with little sweet red-black berries, which are irresistible to birds. All plants have pink flowers in spring, although you need a male and female to get the fruit in summer.

Kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) is a small tree with distinctive heart-shaped leaves. Plant it in a shady area and be rewarded in summer with tūi, korimako, kererū and possibly even kākā and saddlebacks (if you’re very lucky), which arrive to feast on the female plant’s upright orange fruiting spikes.

While not a native, Prunus campanulata does provide an abundance of nectar that tūi will go mad for. This ornamental cherry has hot pink blossoms in late winter – when there’s not a lot of other nectar about. Caution: plant only the sterile cultivar 'Pink Cloud' which still blooms but won’t produce seed that threatens our native forests.

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The need to feed

While your native planting gets established, you may need to supplement with some food too. Try hammering some nails high into a fencepost or board and putting pieces of fruit on the nails for nectar loving birds – try orange halves, pears, apples, kiwifruit and persimmons.

Sugar water is great for birds like tūī and korimako. It’s easy to make: simply dissolve half a cup of sugar in four cups of water (1:8). A higher ratio could attract wasps or ferment before the birds can enjoy it. You can buy a bird feeder to hold your ‘nectar’ or google how to make one.

Avoid feeding native birds these five foods

  • Seeds and grain. They attract introduced birds to the detriment of natives.
  • Birds that eat a lot of bread can become malnourished.
  • Birds can’t digest milk and it can create stomach problems.
  • Birds love honey water, but this practice can spread bee diseases.
  • Cooked oats or porridge, as they can turn to ‘concrete’ around a bird's beak.

Keep New Zealand’s outdoors great

But what if you rent and can’t change your garden easily, or live in an apartment or townhouse? You may like to contribute to protecting and restoring New Zealand’s wild places by donating to one of these fantastic organisations:

Forest & Bird – help this organisation to be a voice for New Zealand’s nature, across land, fresh water, oceans and climate.

Conservation Volunteers New Zealand – your support connects volunteers to projects, with more than 150,000 trees planted so far.

Endangered Species Foundation – help protect New Zealand’s most vulnerable species and habitats by supporting its high-priority conservation projects.

Million Metres Streams Project – add your metres to help this organisation reach a million metres of riparian planting, to improve water quality and biodiversity.

Native Forest Restoration Trust – help to protect more than 7,000 hectares of native wetlands and forest for generations to come.

New Zealand Conservation Trustsupport the Trust to protect and breed rare native species like kiwi, and reverse the current trend of our species in decline.

Trees That Count – contribute to a vision of planting 200 million native trees across the country.

Trees for Survival encourage young people to plant native trees that help restore natural habitats by contributing to this education programme.

Wetland Trust – contribute to stopping the alarming trend of draining and filling wetlands so they can maintain healthy ecosystems and keep our waterways clean.