Even a small suburban garden can host 25-30 species of birds in winter

‘Long-tailed tits feeding from a bird feeder in an Irish garden. Photograph: Oran O’Sullivan
‘Long-tailed tits feeding from a bird feeder in an Irish garden. Photograph: Oran O’Sullivan

The first time I spotted a woodpecker feeding from a peanut feeder in our family garden, I wondered if I was hallucinating.

An agitated flurry of feathers, a brief but vivid splash of scarlet, black and white, and then it was gone. Had I seen a vagabond parrot, I wondered, or was the light playing tricks with my eyesight?

But then, a few days later, it came back again, this time staying just long enough for me to reassure myself it was no figment of my imagination but a greater spotted woodpecker, a species that until a decade ago was known only as a rare winter visitor to this country.

Since my first, somewhat incredulous sighting, these colourful birds have become frequent visitors to our garden each year from mid-spring to early autumn, jauntily scaring other smaller, more common garden species away from the peanut feeders provided so that they can eat in solitary splendour while the finches, tits and siskins cautiously wait their turn.

Watching these sorts of intricate avian pantomimes take place – the careful negotiations as regards the complicated pecking order, the sudden, fierce turf wars to determine territory, the delicately-nuanced mating rituals – is one of the great joys of encouraging birds to visit your garden. They offer us a tiny portal into the world of the wild, and seduce us with their grace and state of perpetual motion while their presence reassures us that all is right with the world of nature as long as they continue to be a part of it.

Now, of course, is the time of year when colder nights, shorter days and dwindling supplies of food from the wild mean that they begin to need our help the most. How to help? The good news is that even a small, habitat-rich suburban garden is capable of hosting up to 25-30 different species of smaller birds in winter, from robins, blackbirds, tits, and magpies to finches, wrens, sparrows, starlings, dunnocks, thrushes and yes, even the occasional woodpecker.

 Examples of bird-friendly garden habitats include everything from a native, species-rich hedge and pockets of dense planting to a wall covered with a variety of climbers and shrubs, log piles or a small pond. A lawn or border gently tended without the use of environmentally-noxious weedkillers or metaldehyde-based slug pellets provide plenty of rich pickings in the way of tasty earthworms and insect larvae. 

Incorporating a selection of berrying and fruiting shrubs and small trees into the planting scheme such as the native guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), hawthorn, elder, holly, yew, euonymus, pyracantha, sorbus, malus and berberis will also help to provide a diverse range of food for wild birds visiting your garden at this time of year.

Many smaller species of wild birds will also happily feed on the autumn seedheads of faded perennials and ornamental grasses as well as common garden weeds such as dock, yet another reason to avoid being too tidy-minded when it comes to cutting back plants in autumn.