Donal O’Donoghue of the RTE Guide interviews Oran O’Sullivan, co-author of Ireland’s Garden Birds and principal of Irish Garden Birds.ie
First published in 2008, Ireland’s Garden Birds has become a bible for birdwatchers and bird lovers across the land. Co-written by Oran O’Sullivan and Jim Wilson, long-time colleagues and BirdWatch Ireland veterans, who have spent many years with their noses pressed against the kitchen window. Their pocket-sized guide isn’t just a guide to identification but also a guide to attracting our feathered friends into your garden in the first place. As such, it is indispensable: or as Oran puts it, the perfect “window-sill guide.”
Oran is home in Wicklow when I call. With Milo (a Yorkshire terrier not partial to Jackdaws or Pheasants) as company, we yap away about the birds. Oran, who grew up in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham, surrounded by fields and bird song, discovered the joy of wildlife in one of his first ever bird books, the Ladybird book What to look for in Winter, it was swiftly followed by spring and summer editions. The bug had bit. Oran joined BirdWatch Ireland as a junior member and entered the Young Scientists Exhibition with a project investigating birds and their feeding preferences. “I got a green rosette for my trouble and in my formative years that was important to me,” he says.
Oran first met Jim Wilson, a native of Cobh, in the 1970s during a bird-watching expedition to the birdwatchers Shangri La of Cape Clear Island. Jim had published a field guide to Whales and Dolphins which was quite successful and we spoke about doing a book about Irish garden birds,” he says. “When we were growing up there was no specific guide book on Irish birds, which was quite frustrating as you thumb through lots of pages to get to the native species. So independently we had the same idea to do this book and we came together, divided up the tasks and put it together.”
It is essentially a book in two parts: the first is about the garden habitat and how to make it attractive to birds, from January right through to December. There’s a table of favourite bird foods for Ireland’s top 20 garden birds, a guide to nest boxes and how to situate them in your garden and lots of good tips (including putting a bell on your cat to give birds a warning and to delay pruning garden shrubs until late in the year to give birds cover). The second part is about the birds and how to identify them. The new edition features 57 species, 30 of which you will have a good chance of spotting in an Irish garden if you’re patient enough. There is a new addition to the latest edition, the Great Spotted Woodpecker, a stunning feathered beauty that was only known prior to 2006 as a rare winter visitor (although the chances of seeing them in your garden are still slim). “I have two that come into my garden from the local woodland to feed on peanuts,” says Oran. “Feeding garden birds can have an impact on various species and you can make a difference. And of course, birds help your garden too, as Blue and Great Tits will feed on aphids all summer to feed their young. Garden birds are not only nice to look at but they can also do a job for you.”
You don’t need much to watch birds. Perhaps your most important accessory is a notebook. Useful tools also include a camera, binoculars and of course Ireland’s Garden Birds. Oran blogs regularly on matters ornithological at www.irishgardenbirds.ie/blog and he dreams about publishing a journal that chronicles a year in the life of a bird garden. “So if Collins Press are interested…” he says and laughs. So I leave Oran (and Milo) to their birdwatching. Now where did I leave that notebook and pen?