Paradise of Birds

We lost track of time while we sat, mesmerised by the mobile rainbow. We weren't the only ones watching the living kaleidoscope : a pair of miner birds perched silent and disconsolate on the burnt tree stump that was part of our garden furniture.

Before we installed our new birdbath, our garden had been the undisputed domain of the miners. Now their world was shattered and hordes of newcomers had taken over. Boisterous rainbow lorikeets had laid claim to the bath, squabbling among themselves and allowing few others near the water. Only the musk lorikeets stood up to their larger cousins.

As summer continued without rain, the birds developed a routine. The rainbows remained dominant, challenged only by the musks, but other birds visited regularly. They all seemed to have a time slot in which to drink and bathe. Adelaide and eastern rosellas were timid, quick to fly off if we came too close. Crimson rosellas dropped in only occasionally. The miners, magpies and crested pigeons established themselves. Galahs and kookaburras were content to watch from the safety of the trees, coming down only at dawn and dusk. Large flocks of sulphur crested cockatoos appear every spring. They are magnificent, but they frighten the smaller birds and are destructive, so we discourage them.

During daylight the garden was never silent. Birds made homes in the trees, feeding off the sugary cases of the lerps that devastate our blue gums every year. We began to think of ways to entice our new friends to stay longer. We knew that native plants were important. The garden was filled with numerous large trees and a riot of shrubs, but more was required, so we offered food.

Our first serving was a bird pudding , a mixture of porridge oats, margarine and honey, which we forced between the scales of a pine cone. The cone was hung in a callistemon overhanging the deck where it became a great attraction for the miners and rosellas. Sometimes we included chopped nuts or birdseed in the mixture, whatever we had to hand. The birds didn't seem to care and appreciated everything.

In wet weather, the pine scales closed up, which made it difficult to fill the cone. To overcome this I made an artificial cone from thin plywood. Alternate discs about 50—60 millimetres diameter with the intervening discs about 25 millimetres diameter, holding them together with a coach bolt. The mixture was forced into the spaces between the discs and the assembly hung in a small tree.

For an automatic seed feeder, we used a short length of 50 millimetre plastic pipe for the body and an inverted 100 millimetre diameter cap for the base. We secured the body above the base leaving a gap of 12 millimetres to allow the seed to flow out. Finally we placed a loose cap over the body. The feeder was supported about 1.6 metres above the ground.

We soon found that the rainbows were fussy eaters and the wild bird mixture we purchased from the supermarket was not to their taste. They only ate the sunflower seeds, ignoring the other seeds, so we began to buy 30 kilogram bags of sunflower seeds from the local fodder merchant, which they appreciate. Now they are waiting in the callistemon, that overhangs out deck, every morning for breakfast and every evening for dinner. As soon as they see us in the kitchen they become excited. A few move to the window sill and tap on the window to let us know they are waiting. Others eat out of my hand, and these are wild birds.

The rainbows are quite intelligent and their numerical skills well advanced, for birds that is. They can count up to two. Over the years they've learnt that they only have one serving at breakfast so fly off to forage in the trees once the breakfast seeds have been eaten. In the evening they have two serves, so after the first is cleared up, they wait in the trees until I serve the second course.

Now that we had the basic provisions covered we became more ambitious. It would be good we thought, if they would stay to raise a family.

It can take 300 years for a eucalyptus to develop natural nesting holes suitable for nesting, but I was able to make a substitute in about an hour. This is simple and no special skill is needed. The birds are not impressed by fine carpentry, but the boxes must be weatherproof. I used wood, but plastic drums or pipe would serve as well. Don't use metal, it becomes too hot. Entrance holes should be near the top and perches are unnecessary for Australian native birds.They attract pest species such as starling and sparrows. Place them 3 metre or more above the ground, preferably shaded from the afternoon sun and sheltered from prevailing winds and rain. Trees are a logical choice for sites, but one of our most favoured sites is on a shady wall.

Once the nesting box is mounted, resist the temptation to peek inside to check developments. Sit back and wait for the open inspections.

© Jim Ditchfield 1998

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