Flights of fancy

Rainbow Lorikeet. Photo credit: Glenn Ehmke
Rainbow Lorikeet. Photo credit: Glenn Ehmke
Dr Holly Parsons, an Ornithologist and Birds in Backyards
Program Co-Manager at the BirdLIfe Discovery Centre at
Sydney Olympic Park

One of the many great reasons for living in the northern suburbs of Sydney is the amazing bird life. A quick look at BirdLife Australia’s Birdata portal shows 199 species have been recorded in the Kur-ing-gai LGA and a whopping 236 species in the Hornsby LGA.

From Superb Lyrebirds and Powerful Owls to Superb Fairy-wrens and Spotted Pardalotes, these are not birds that are just restricted to our beautiful national parks – these are birds that visit gardens. So how can you create a haven for some of our amazing bird life?

The key to designing a bird-friendly garden is to create a multi-layered habitat of ground covers, small and medium shrubs and trees that will provide year-round food and shelter locations for many different species. 

There’s a dazzling array of birds in our area that are just waiting to visit you – here’s how to attract feathered visitors.

Ground layer
A little lawn is not a bad thing – Australian Magpies, Galahs, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Willie Wagtails all like some open space. Even Superb Fairy-wrens will feed out on short grass, but they also need dense shrub layer that offers protection for birds is essential. Replace unused lawn areas with garden beds or native grasses which produce attractive seed heads that provide food for finches and other seedeaters such as Crimson Rosellas.

Of course don’t forget to mulch as well, this keeps the plants healthy and provides lots of yummy invertebrates for insect-eating birds to feed on.

Shrub layer
Vegetation is often densest in the shrub layer, and so thickets of shrubs are important habitat elements for many bird species, particularly the smaller ones. Several shrubs close together can form dense, protective habitat for small birds. Prickly shrubs can be especially valuable (think Hakeas and Tea-trees) but think carefully about where you place them. Hide these spiky plants behind others so you are not constantly brushing against them.

Grow rambling, light climbers in amongst medium to tall shrubs and trees, to give extra shelter and possible nesting sites

Tree layer
Trees provide an important perching spot for many birds to look out over the garden. They’re also that all-important canopy that provides food and protection for many birds. If you have a small space, even a small tree like Leptospermum laevigatum (Coastal Tea Tree) will do wonders for your garden if you have the room.

Go native, locally native
Plants that grow naturally in your area are suited to local conditions and will provide the right food and shelter for a range of local native birds. Whilst often our first instinct might be to pop in some prolific flowering Bottlebrush’s or Robyn Gordon grevilleas, these do attract the big and bossy birds – so instead look for plants that attract insects, provide seed or have smaller nectar-producing flowers (like Grevillea speciosa – the Red Spider-flower). The Ku-ring-gai Wildflower nursery and Hornsby Council’s community nursery are great places to go to source your plants and their teams will be able to give you advice specifically for your garden.

Plant for the future
Bird-friendly gardening is not a short-term endeavour. Many plants, particularly trees and large shrubs, take quite some time to mature and provide valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife. It’s just as important to plant some of these as it is to grow plants that mature quickly. Fast growing plants like Wattles are fantastic for birds but will often have a fast life and need frequent replacing. By using slower growing species to form the structure of your garden, you’ll always have a constant framework to work within.

Design for formality or informality
A variety of Australian native plants can be planted to create a formal garden or a bush-like garden, whatever you prefer. Most native plants respond very well to pruning so don’t forget to tip prune when your plants are young to create density that small birds like, whilst also stopping that leggy, straggly appearance that native plants can sometimes get.

Bird baths
Giving birds access to water is a great way to encourage them to visit you. You can install a pond with running water or any of the many types of bird baths that are available. You can even make your own – a simple plant saucer on the ground (provided there are no pets in your yard), is a great bird bath, especially for smaller birds. If you’re using a pedestal bath that is glazed or a bath that is deep, make sure you put a branch, brick or pebbles in the bath so if a bird gets over-zealous, it’s able to get itself back out of the water.

Empty your bath every couple of days and refill and occasionally give it a scrub with a very dilute (1:20) bleach solution to make sure there are no nasties.

Rather than putting your bird bath out in the open, where only the bravest birds will venture, put it close to some dense shrubs or under a tree. That way, they can see there’s no danger but have an escape route close at hand if they need it.

To feed or not to feed?
If you’re doing all of the above, then birds won’t need to be fed as well – it’s much better that they forage naturally for their food. There can be unwanted consequences by supplementary feeding such as disease transmission and nutritional deficiencies caused by a poor diet, not to mention problems that some birds like Sulphur-crested Cockatoos can cause when they congregate in large numbers and get destructive.

If you do feed birds already, think of it as a cup of tea and a slice of cake for the birds – a lovely occasional treat. Ensure that you keep feeding trays impeccably clean and out of reach of cats. Avoid bread, honey/water mixes and huge amounts of sunflower seeds. Keep an eye on what’s coming to your yard and if you’re attracting huge numbers of birds, take a break for a while. Also, ensure pets are fed indoors or any leftover food is removed.

Remember a garden that provides natural food for birds such as one with native grasses to provide seed, mulch to encourage insects and small-flowering locally native shrubs to feed honeyeaters is much better for our whole bird community than one that feeds only a few potentially problem birds.

Holly Parsons is the Co-Manager of the Birds in Backyards Program, and has studied how birds live with us for over 20 years. Check out the Birds in Backyards website ( to find out more about how to create bird-friendly spaces and let Holly know what you have visiting your garden by taking part in her online surveys. You can also find Holly on social media in the Birds in Backyards Facebook group (

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