Wildlife Garden Calendar
The RSPB’s Homes for Wildlife is an exciting activity inspiring people to transform their homes and gardens into wildlife havens by following simple, free gardening advice.
January is a month for New Years Resolutions and looking forward to the year ahead, so your gardening should be no exception! Start as you mean to go on and adopt a few basic rules when enjoying your patch.
Trim straggly hedges and bushes in January but only once the birds have eaten the berries – this encourages new growth and thickens them up to provide better nesting sites in the spring. Natural food supply is at its lowest which is why its so important to leave the berries as long as possible.
January is a vital month for feeding the birds in your garden - it can be one of the coldest. Keep your feeders clean and topped up with quality bird seed.
If you haven’t got nestboxes already now is a great time to put one up. Often if the weather is mild birds will start choosing nest sites. But it is also worth bearing in mind that it gives the birds chance to get used to something new in their area. Birds can be suspicious of new things but they will have become accustomed to it by Spring if you introduce it now.
Now is also a good time to plan a wildlife garden. Try to ensure you choose native plants and shrubs – these will be better for birds and other wildlife as they have evolved to work in conjunction with the creatures in this country and wildlife has adapted accordingly. They are also better suited to our soil and climate. Hawthorns are a good option for hedges and honeysuckle and ivy will also be beneficial – as well as keeping you feeling festive that little bit longer! More suppliers are tending to stock plants that are good for birds and wildlife nowadays. So when visiting garden centres and nurseries there should be more choice available. Wildlife gardening doesn’t just mean leaving a patch of weeds! Many attractive plants are an important part of a wildlife garden so it can be beautiful as well as wildlife friendly! If you want more advice call the RSPB, visit the website or talk to your local garden centre expert.
January marks a really important event for the UK’s garden birds as it is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch.. We are asking you to take one hour over this weekend to watch the birds that visit your garden and record the results to send to us. You could use this is an opportunity to get out in the garden with your family or you can do it from the warmth of your armchair through the window! This event helps us monitor any species declines or increases and decide what we need to do to help!
photograph 'Girl and Nest Box' by Andy Hay
February and the cold weather has finally appeared with a vengeance but hopefully this hasn’t stopped you getting outdoors and preparing your gardens for Spring! Ongoing care and attention to keep your garden looking its best will become more enjoyable as the sun starts to shine for a bit longer each day. As always, we are keen for you to consider the birds and garden wildlife with your preparations.
People always think that January is the coldest month and although the stats often hit their lowest then, it is February when the effects of freezing weather can lead to food shortages for small birds. Please continue all the excellent feeding you have been doing over the winter so our garden birds can keep their energy levels high and get through this cold snap.
Male birds will be starting to mark out their territories ready for the mating and nesting season and natural food will be in short supply, especially if there are deep frosts, so anything that can find and eat easily will be a real boost to energy levels.
If you can get out in the garden, this will be the last chance you get to complete any planting, transplanting or dividing of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.
Make this year the year you go peat-free when sowing your seeds. Lowland peat bogs are one of our most vulnerable natural habitats and home to rare plants and offer support to threatened wildlife. Peat extraction destroys this habitat so I’d like to urge you all to use peat-free alternatives. The quality of compost varies from brand to brand especially if using a peat free variety. Buy the best you can afford to get your seeds and new seedlings off to the best possible start. Make sure your compost has a good rich crumbly texture and not too fine as this will cause your plants to become water logged or too coarse your plants will need more watering. A good quality multi-purpose compost should be able to support your plants at every stage of their development.
If your garden is anything like mine it will have taken quite a beating from the strong winds we had over the winter. Make sure you look at tree ties and stakes and replace any that haven’t fared well. Trees and shrubs offer vital shelter and possible nesting sites for birds and we need to get them secured as soon as possible with the nesting season approaching.
photograph 'Family and bird table' by Andy Hay
March is one of the busiest times for birds when absolutely anything could happen! Birds will be looking for nest sites and maybe even starting the construction of their nests! If it is milder in coming days, some may even be feeding their young – the RSPB has received several reports of mallards with young since early January and they don’t always stick to the breeding season.
You can help out the birds in your garden by tying up bunches of tiny twigs, dried moss, and other stringy vegetable matter near your feeders.
By now, all resident breeding birds will be in song and early mornings will be a joy to listen to. Its often the smallest birds that have the loudest voice – the wren and the dunnocks give their larger counterparts a run for their money! If anyone tells you they have a nightingale singing in their garden, chances are often that it is actually a robin or blackbird. But in march it is quite feasible that it’s a blackcap – a warbler that the poet John Clare named the ‘March Nightingale.’
Despite the cold the sun has been shining and if you are itching to get out in your garden and start work make sure you keep an eye out for nests. It can be easy to knock them, damage or destroy them when hedge trimming as birds naturally try to keep their nests secret so they are not easy to spot!
Shrug off the inertia of winter by rediscovering your garden and preparing it for lazier summer days. Do your bit for wildlife and think ahead with measures that will benefit them for the coming months.
Now is a good time to plant your summer-flowering bulbs and sow hardy annuals. If you exercise the ‘right plant, right place’ rule you will get the most of out of your flowers and ensure that wildlife does too. Fertile, well cultivated soil is a must, and will help you avoid garden pests and diseases. Consider stakes and other tools for supporting new growth before it really needs it – especially with the strong winds that are battering us about the moment!
If you couldn’t find time in September or October, then now is the time to reseed bare patches in your lawn. You may however want to leave some areas bare as these are good places for small wild annuals plants to grow, such as meadow grass, the seeds which are liked by sparrows. It is also a good place for sparrows to dust bathe and where birds may find it easier to feed on any insects that have come to bask there.
photograph 'House Sparrow' by Ray Kennedy
It’s April and spring is definitely here! Everything in the natural world is bursting with energy and April is a lovely month in the garden with plants just starting to burst through with new fresh green young growth. If you’re not feeling so spritely yourself, take a look at the birds, wildlife and plants around you for inspiration!
April can be a tricky month for gardeners with hot weather during the day followed by frosty nights making it tough for young plants. Check the weather forecasts to ensure you know when to protect your tender plants – Japanese maples, hydrangea and pieris with fleece are among those sensitive to extreme temperatures and need an eye kept on them at this time.
With the longer evenings and the frenzy of birdsong it a wonderful time to be out in your garden after it has lay dormant for the winter, but don’t be tempted to rush things by putting new young seedlings out too soon. Be patient!
Birds will be making the most of the longer days this month and getting ready for their busiest time of year – the breeding season. You’ll see them hurrying back and forth with beaks stuffed with moss, twigs, grass and mud for nest-building and some will have worms, insects and grubs. You may even spot some adult birds getting more daring in their quest for insects, grubs and berries to feed early fledglings.
Make sure you keep feeding your garden visitors this month, even if the sunny days make you think there will be enough natural food about. April can be a funny old month weather-wise, and softer foods like mealworms and soaked sultanas would be a great treat and easily digestible by the young too.
The first step to smartening up your garden can be your lawn. Cut your grass but avoid the temptation to make it almost bald – leaving it a bit longer will help create your own ‘wildlife garden’ and also provide for insects on which your birds can feed. You could mix your grass cuttings with straw and add them to the compost bin. Alternatively use the clippings to mulch any new planting.
photograph 'Blackbird' by Sue Tranter
May is a very exciting month to be out in your garden, with the fruits of your labour over the past few weeks starting to show themselves. Plants will begin bursting forth and hopefully it will really put you in a summery mood!
Many of our birds will have had one set of young already and are probably re-nesting ready for the next round. It is a joy to watch them work as they painstakingly collect materials and food for their young – they really are attentive parents and they seem to have never-ending supplies of energy!
May is a good month for setting out bedding plants and hanging baskets – the old adage ‘don’t cast a clout til May is out’ could also apply to the outdoors and hopefully the weather will start to become a bit more reliable now! Its worth keeping some horticulture fleece handy or even some old newspapers to cover any less hardy plants on chilly nights though – most fruit trees are in flower now and it only takes one frosty night to destroy a potential crop for the whole year.
Hanging baskets can really brighten up a front door or bare wall and many gardeners take great pride in their preparation. As well as looking beautiful they could also serve another valuable purpose – as nests! Yes, wrens in particular will regularly use hanging baskets as an ideal home, so do keep an eye out for them when trimming and watering!
If you’ve had blue or great tits using a nestbox in your garden then keep watching it from a distance this month. Most will fly from the box during May and you may be lucky enough to see them take their maiden voyage. They do tend to leave early in the morning so perhaps if you take your cup of tea outside as the weather warms you’ll stand a good chance of catching them. Once they have departed, don’t rush to clean out that nestbox. Ideally, leave it until at least August but before the end of January. Dispose of any unhatched eggs and it will be ready to welcome guests as the cycle begins again in the New Year!
If it has been extremely dry many birds – especially those feeding young such as blackbirds – may have problems finding enough food. Mealworms and soaked dried fruit are excellent supplements for your garden wildlife – for hedgehogs as well as birds. Emerging hedgehogs will notice the dry conditions too and whilst gardeners will be delighted at fewer slugs and snails the hedgehogs will miss their favourite snack!
photograph 'Wildlife Garden' by David Levenson
Flaming June! Or least we hope it will be! You can never be sure what to expect with the British summertime but spare a thought for the wildlife be it boiling or chilly!
Many birds will finish nesting this month so keep an eye out for their young whilst in your garden. It’s not great planning but many birds leave the nest before they can fly! Don’t worry if you see a fledgling on the ground and don’t try to help it back home – its parents won’t be far away and we must leave its introduction to the big wide world to nature!
Planting carried out last autumn should be attracting a host of insect which adults birds will be incredibly grateful for. At this time of the year most garden birds, even seed-eating finches, tend to feed their young on insects.
If long, dry periods during summer are on the cards, now would be a good time to consider measures to mitigate any problems in our gardens. If you have a hosepipe ban and have emptied your water butt then you need to think carefully about what water you can use for your plants and shrubs. Try not to let any water drain through the plughole without first thinking if you can use it in the garden!
Small jobs in the garden can take up a lot of time at the moment: weeds will be growing faster at this time of year and keeping on top of them can be an almost full-time job! Get busy with your hoe rather than spraying them into oblivion – a little everyday should keep them under control.
Also look out for the fascinating little hummingbird hawkmoth which is often mistaken for a hummingbird. This creature will hover at flowers to take nectar and often stay for several minutes probing so you can admire it before it zooms off to feed elsewhere. June is a great month for butterflies and the like and their exotic colours and patterns can really brighten up the garden!
photograph 'Red Admiral Butterfly' by Chris Gomersall
July is often the month when the green-fingered among us can look around our gardens with pride at what we have achieved and sit back, relax and enjoy our beloved plots. Watch out during summer evenings for bats swooping over scented flowers, snapping up insects.
There has been much talk of making your home and garden more ‘green’ in the news recently, and water butts are an excellent starting place.
If you do already have some spare saved water, a soggy patch of earth will prove a bonus to blackbirds and other species searching for food during dry spells when the soil becomes baked hard. In dry weather birds can dehydrate rapidly and long spells without rain can also mean a reduction in insects such as caterpillars which are used to feed young. Make sure you also clean your birdbath regularly to reduce the risk of disease.
Don’t be alarmed though if the number of birds visiting your garden starts to decline in the next few weeks – it can sometimes seem as if they have disappeared altogether.
Rest assured that it is a perfectly normal pattern in most birds’ lives that, having enjoyed our hospitality and finished nesting they go for a well earned rest in the countryside – much like us taking a holiday! They moult their worn feathers, grow new ones and enjoy the plentiful natural food supply that is on offer. This can sometimes sustain them throughout the winter.
Summer migrants will continue to fascinate as they sweep and zoom above our heads this month, with many adult birds being joined by young from their first nesting. It is sad to think that the ‘master of the skies’ – the swift – will soon be leaving us for their long return to Africa, so enjoy them while you can! They are incredible birds that feed exclusively on airborne creatures.
photograph 'Wildlife Garden with pond' by David Levenson
August is holiday time in the garden with most birds taking a well-earned break after the frantic activity of the breeding period. Whilst the swifts have gone, the swallows and housemartins are just reaching the end of their stay so enjoy them while you can!
If you are desperate to see some of your garden regulars, keeping a bird bath well topped up with water may tempt them out for early morning bathing as well as a much-needed drink.
We are now nearing the end of the breeding period for many birds, but if you do feel the need to trim and tidy please be careful when approaching that beech, holly or hornbeam hedge with your clippers as you may have late nesters. Blackbirds regularly have young in July and dunnock, robins and song thrushes may also have found a safe nesting place in your hedge so give them a wide berth!
The weather is usually settled in August, although thunderstorms can take us by surprise. Although not particularly good for those of us enjoying our gardens and soaking up some rays, rainwater will help top up depleted water butts and birdbaths. Wasting water can be a bit of an ‘eco-crime’ so stand out some buckets during heavy rain – its amazing how much water you can collect from a downpour.
If you are lucky enough to have fruit trees in your garden you may be able to pick the first apples of the season – and they taste the best!
Thinking ahead to autumn, you could start letting flowers, and perhaps a few vegetables, run to seed to provide food for birds and other wildlife. It is also a good time to provide some winter quarters for a hedgehog. You can buy hedgehog boxes but a pile of logs or leaves in a corner of the garden will be just as attractive to them. They will reward your hospitality by eating slugs, caterpillars and insect larvae - the sort of wildlife we don’t mind not having in our garden!
Now is also the time to clean out nesting boxes, except if the birds have sneaked in a late brood and are still resident! Dispose of any unhatched eggs and perhaps put some hay or wood shavings in to keep winter roosting birds snug as it gets colder.
Dragonflies and butterflies will also be active if the weather stays warm as promised, so hopefully we still have a few weeks of colour, vibrancy and wildlife left yet!
photograph 'Bird Table' by Andy Hay
September and how things have changed since last month! Birds are now returning to our gardens en masse so the quiet spell is well and truly over. The cooler weather is bringing them all back and now is a great time to step up your feeding after the break.
Think about cleaning your feeders and preparing them for the months ahead. Feeding sites need regular cleaning, and rinsing and air-drying feeders before re-use will ensure they are safe for the birds.
Keep ponds and bird-baths clean as well as feeders – cleaning ponds at this time of year actually has the least impact on wildlife as there is unlikely to be young, vulnerable creatures in the pond. Dragonflies have hatched and next year’s eggs will be down the bottom of the pond in the silt. Leave the debris beside the pond for a few days before removing. This allows any trapped creatures time to return to the water.
The RSPB recommends most of the old favourites for feeding; sunflowers hearts are highly nutritious and niger seeds are a good all-round food source, particularly for goldfinches.
Food scraps from your own kitchen will always be gratefully received but again, do consider garden hygiene. If they are still there after a couple of days remove them before they start to go mouldy.
Now is also a good time to plant with birds in mind. Shrubs will establish well now as the ground is still warm enough to encourage good root growth.
The RSPB recommends honeysuckle who’s fragrant flowers are much loved by insects. Birds eat their fruits and the insects that live on them and mature plants provide great cover for nesting. Hawthorn is also a valuable flowering and fruiting native plant for insects and birds, providing a safe impenetrable cover for roosting and nesting in. Cotoneasters and firethorns are both great for birds and attractive shrubs which provide blossom for insects in the spring then berries in the autumn, helping sustain the birds through winter.
The RSPB also advocates companion planting; growing certain plants to protect other plants from pests or diseases. This can be because the pest is deterred by the companion plant, or because it is attracted to the companion plant rather the crop. Flowers such as marigolds, mint and sunflower are useful attractant plants and planting garlic near roses has proved an effective way of deterring aphids.
photograph 'Sunflower' by Andy Hay
It’s October and here’s the sentence we all prayed our mothers would say to us over the years: it doesn’t pay to be too tidy!
Leave the cutting and tidying of annual, biennial and herbaceous plants until the end of winter. Some of us tend to be a bit brutal when cutting but old stems will give shelter to insects and their larvae over the cold snap. This can provide a valuable source of insect food for birds throughout winter and into spring and any seeds that drop from the old flower heads will be greatly appreciated by house sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches and other ground feeding birds.
Try not to rake autumn leaves from your lawn as they will soon be drawn into the underground tunnels of earthworms where they will quickly decompose. Earthworms help aerate lawns and decompose organic material. They are also an important part of the diet of birds such as song thrushes.
But where large quantities of leaves smother the lawn you could rake the worst off and compost it or better still spread them beneath your shrubs as mulch. This will help insulate and protect the roots during winter and benefit birds such as robins, dunnocks, blackbirds and song thrushes that forage for food on the ground beneath bushes as they like well sheltered areas to make them feel protected.
You may also find that if you don’t religiously tidy your garden you’ll get different visitors such as hedgehogs. They tend to gather up leaves for shelter themselves and hibernate beneath piles of old leaves and debris under hedges and sheds so please be careful when using your garden fork around these areas or emptying out your compost bins.
Watch out for some of the migrants coming and going in the next few weeks – swallows and house martins will be leaving but redwings and fieldfares will be returning soon.
Don’t forget the RSPB’s Feed the Birds Day. We ask you to fill your feeders, clean your birdtables, put out some water and give a helping hand to the wild birds around you. And the sooner you start feeding them, the more birds you'll see when you sit down to enjoy the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch in January! You may be surprised how the number changes according to the food you put out.
photograph 'Song Thrush' by David Tipling
November sees plenty of berries in the garden – a real feast for the birds. You may also notice blackbirds and song thrushes becoming braver, as they venture onto our lawns searching for worms and fallen fruit.
If you are noticing less birds in your garden it may be because hedges and woodlands are full of blackberries, elderberries, rosehips, haws and sloes supplying them with a veritable feast. You could mimic these traditional hedgerows in your garden by planting a mixed fruiting hedge.
You could mix hawthorn, blackthorn and elder to act as a wild food store. These would thrive if planted now, and in time, would provide plenty of food and shelter for your wild visitors. Once the hedge has begun to mature you could add wild roses, bramble and honeysuckle to grow through it.
Autumn is also a great time for planting climbers; honeysuckle, clematis and ivy. These are all attractive and useful for birds and other wildlife and if you have the space, consider a fruit tree such as the crab apple Golden Hornet.
It may also be worthwhile considering space for some drought resistant plants such as lavender, rosemary, broom and Artemisia which are more tolerant to dry conditions and require less precious water but still look and smell divine!
If you have a compost heap you could put some of the leaves on it but remember that leaves don’t compost as quickly as some green waste. As well as your old leaves, grass cuttings, young weeds, straw, tea bags, uncooked vegetables and fruit, eggshells and shredded old newspapers make a good covering.
Unless shredded, it is best to avoid putting large woody stems and twigs in the compost bin.
A more effective and valuable use would be to leave any woody cuttings laying in the shrubs bed and borders. They will soon be colonised by important wood dwelling insects, as well as fungi, mosses and lichens.
If you have a nestbox but are yet to put it up, now is a good time, giving birds plenty of time to get used to it before they choose nesting sites early next year. Make sure you chose a site safe from predators and out of the sun during hot weather. Robin boxes, the ones with the open front, are best sited in cover such as ivy or wisteria.
photograph 'Girl Exploring' by Carolyn Merrett
December is the official start of winter and finally we are starting to feel the cold and get in the zone for the festive season. The ‘will it, won’t it snow?’ question will soon start to be asked with experts predicting the results, but whatever the outcome the RSPB is encouraging people to think ‘green’ instead of white this Christmas.
If you are one of the eight million people who now buy a real tree why not consider a tree with roots so that it can re-planted in your garden once Christmas is over? Once replanted, the tree will be great for birds like goldcrests and coal tits as they favour coniferous woods and trees and will use them as shelter.
There are lots of things you can do to help the birds and wildlife in your garden at this time of year – it may be quiet on the gardening front but now is a great time for preparation. It may seem unseasonal but the RSPB advocates putting up nestboxes at this time of year – birds won’t actually be nesting but they do like to get out of the cold just like we do! They will also be looking out for nesting sites for next year so offering shelter now will make this search easier for them.
You could also collect wind-fall fruit from your garden and store it in the cool shed ready to place them under shrubs for hungry birds throughout the winter. This will ensure you have a ready-made supply of natural fruits for starlings, thrushes, blackbirds and robins.
Feeding is especially important at this time of year and as well as good quality bird food you can use many of your own leftovers to ensure the birds get a tasty Christmas dinner too! Christmas cake and mince pies are high in energy with the fruit inside, and crumbed down this will be a treat for the birds. All types of potato will also be well received, but make sure you break them into small, manageable pieces. Unsalted nuts and other savoury snacks and dried fruit can also be put out, but avoid cooked meats as they may attract vermin.
Dehydration can be as harmful for birds as hunger so make sure a shallow dish of fresh water is always available. Try not to allow birdbaths to freeze over, but if they do, thaw them with warm water and never add anything else.
Remember, birds feel the cold just as we do so make sure you do your bit to help them have a Happy Christmas!
photograph 'Starling' by Sue Tranter