Flights to fancy for bird-brained

Sheena Patterson

Sheena Patterson

First published in Columns Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , Off With The Gloves

Sheena Patterson of Oxford Garden Design takes a look at feathered friends A garden without birds is unthinkable. Like salt in the sea, or rain on Bank Holiday Mondays, they are all taken for granted.

But as a gardener, I have to admit to a slight ambivalence towards our feathered friends.

Most of the time I love them. Beautiful and wild, I could spend hours watching them, and happily feed them through the winter, encouraging the rarer species into our garden.

I was ecstatic when a Tawny Owl took up residence in our garden.

But there is also the dark side! Any gardener will tell you how birds wreak havoc. Crows, starlings, robins, woodpeckers and blackbirds are notorious for destructive behaviour.

In fearsome scenes to match Hitchcock at his most terrifying, they can demolish a freshly seeded lawn for breakfast, soft fruits for lunch, and the veg to follow, a mere teatime snack.

Wood pigeons are often the worst. They peck at leaves, tearing them apart, until there is only the stalks and larger leaf veins left behind. They are particularly partial to lilac, brassicas and peas.

Prevention is, of course, better than cure. Use protective netting on anything you want to keep from becoming a tasty morsel to our feathered friends. Or you can try a scarecrow as a deterrent.

Approximately 30 species of bird are regular garden visitors, although more than 140 bird species have been recorded in British gardens. Recently a campaign to vote for our national bird has caught my attention. Other nations have theirs: the United States has the bald eagle; French football and rugby shirts are adorned with the strutting Gallic cockerel, and New Zealand’s national bird, the Kiwi, needs no introduction. So, what would be the bird to choose as a national symbol for Britain?

The vote is now open. Organised by Birdfair, the annual gathering of conservationists, birdwatchers and nature lovers at Rutland Water, you can choose your top six from a list of 60 including regular garden visitors like the blackbird, house sparrow and starling along with some of our mightiest birds of prey such as the golden eagle, the osprey, he peregrine falcon and the red kite – regularly seen here in Oxfordshire and a conservation success story.

Then, in the New Year, you can vote for the number one choice from a shortlist of six, with the winner to be announced next May. (Go to for more information).

There are a few immigrants on the list including the long-established pheasant, a familiar sight but first introduced to Britain by the Romans. And also the ring-necked parakeet, a more recent incomer from the Himalayan foothills. Parakeets are thriving and are now among the 20 most commonly seen species in London, and on the official list of British birds. In contrast some of our most familiar species are in serious decline. The RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch 2014 found that starlings had declined by 84 per cent since RSPB first surveyed in 1979, the song thrush by 81 per cent and the house sparrow by 62 per cent – despite still topping the charts at number one this year. You can see results of the survey, featuring other wildlife too, at

Fascinating reading for the bird-brained!

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