Gardening for wildlife

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Bathing beauties

    My new garden pond was filled just before Christmas, and if you'd asked me to predict which birds will visit it, top of my list would be this one, which arrived on the very first day and has been regular since.

    The photograph was taken through my bedroom window, but nevertheless you can see that the name Grey Wagtail just doesn't do them justice. The 'Bright-yellow-ended Wagtail' might have been more fitting, perhaps? And once they enter breeding plumage with a smart black throat, they are even more dapper.

    I thought the pebbly margin I added might really suit them, given that they are most at home on the gushing, stony streams of upland Britain.

    And I love how they make full use of that long tail, wagging it as enthusiastically as a spaniel.

    The population estimate for the whole of the UK is just 38,000 pairs, and numbers are falling, enough for this to be another species on the Red List of Species of Conservation Concern, so I feel very privileged to have one spending the winter in my neighbourhood, and even prouder that it should have taken a shine to my pond.

    What I didn't expect was that this boy would take to the water so readily.

    I've seen him three times now, and given that I am out most of the time, I presume he is very regular indeed. He is a male Sparrowhawk; unlike the rather mud brown female, he has steelier plumage on the back and then that lovely salmony hue on the cheek and sides of the breast.

    What next, I wonder? Anything now seems possible!

  • February in the Wildlife-friendly Garden

    I know we love to talk about the weather, but what was all that about in January?! All those low pressure systems rolling in with such astonishing force and tipping out so much water on their way through? It's a winter we won’t forget in a hurry – and I know it has been far worse for many of you than for me down in soft Sussex.

    Who knows - February might still decide to throw in a dose of proper winter, or we might get yet more Storms-with-Names to cope with. But, whatever it chucks at us, there is still plenty that can be done this month to help wildlife in gardens.

    These are what I think of as February's four main tasks:

    1)     Filled feeders. Birds have had it relatively easy this winter (wet and windy can still make looking for food quite a challenge, of course), but it is now that natural supplies begin to thin out.

    2)     All things 'trees'. If you've yet to get around to the winter tree work you've been considering, this is a good month, whether it be planting bare-rooted trees, shrubs and hedges, or pruning.

    3)     All prepared. It’s good to go into spring with everything in working order (and I don't mean just you!). February is perfect time to ensure you've got your seeds ordered, plant pots clean, tools greased and everything ready for when you put your gardening foot on the gas.

    4)     And then Give Nature a Home. Literally! I’d love you to think about whether you’ve got room for another nestbox. Maybe you still haven’t got a Blue Tit box in your garden – the one with an inch (25mm) wide hole – or the old one is falling apart. But the big need these days is for nesting sites for House Sparrows and Starlings. Sparrows use the same size boxes as Blue Tit but they need a 32mm hole. Starlings need a box which is twice the volume, and with a whopping 45mm hole (below - I'm very proud of it having made it myself. Up close you can see it is amateurish, but in a small photo it looks quite decent!).

    Have a look at our dedicated Giving Nature a Home pages for House Sparrows and Starling boxes to see if you feel up to making your own. Or you can buy one from the RSPB shop.

    And here are the two ends of 'my' Starlings - with nestboxes you often only get to see half a bird at a time!

  • Walking in the footsteps of the great Charles Waterton

    Back in the early 19th century, the squire of Walton Hall in Yorkshire was called Charles Waterton, a man for whom the term 'eccentric' might have been invented.

    For example, it is said that he would crawl around on the floor pretending to be dog, biting people's calves. And he apparently rode on top of a cayman (a type of crocodile) on a trip to South America. I think he sounds great fun!

    However, this was the same man who, on his estate, watched his birdlife through a telescope and decided that he wanted to encourage them to nest. So he set about making a stone box for Barn Owls to use.

    He didn't stop there. He built homes for Jackdaws, for Tawny Owls, and used 50 drainpipes to make nesting chambers for Sand Martins.

    Of course, there had long been dovecotes, while the Dutch had used clay pots to entice House Sparrows and Starlings which then ended up on the dinner plate. But we don't know of anyone prior to Waterton going out of their way to make homes for birds to try and help them.

    What a long way we've come! Nowadays, it is a fairly common sight to see a nestbox in a garden or on the side of a house, and you no longer have to be eccentric to put one up - quite normal people do it these days, I'm told.

    The big winner over the years has been the chipper little Blue Tit, which relishes the simple square boxes with a 25mm (1 inch) diameter hole. Such boxes have made a wonderful alternative to natural tree holes, given that few gardens have old enough trees.

    But maybe we've come to the next turning point in the history of the nestbox. All those gaps in the eaves and roof tiles and house walls and barns and outhouses which once made such brilliant nest sites for House Sparrows, Starlings and Swifts? Well, such sites are disappearing fast.

    So, with National Nestbox Week looming, we need the great British public to take on the mantle of Charles Waterton and adorn house walls everywhere with nestboxes to help in the battle to give nature a home.

    So far, I've gone for a Starling box...

    ...four Sparrow boxes

    ...a Swift box

    ...and I've even had nesting holes built into my front door porch roof.

    I know many of you are also walking in the footsteps of the great Charles Waterton - the more the better if we are to save nature, I'm sure he would take his hat off to you. And probably eat it!