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Wild birds snacking on your fruit trees? Try this


wild birds in tree

Credit: iStock

I’m writing this with a mob of white cockatoos sitting on the pomegranate tree outside my study window. They’re just passing through because there’s a white goshawk sitting on the angophora tree near them. If they don’t leave soon, one or two will become white goshawk dinner.

Once, mobs of white cockatoos were followed by predator birds. That’s why they post lookouts — sentinels who keep a keen eye out for predators. But along came colonists with guns; they shot the goshawks and other predator birds or used pesticides that thinned the predator birds’ eggs so there were few viable hatchlings.

Birds are beautiful and the most obvious wildlife most suburbs have. Who wants to live in a human-only desert?

We’re lucky: we turned our home into a reserve so we get white, red and grey goshawks, little eagles, wedgetails, powerful owls and many other species that keep populations of other birds and critters, native and exotic, under control.

But, even if you live in the inner city, birds can clean up between 40 and 90 per cent of pests. They are also beautiful and the most obvious wildlife most suburbs have. Who wants to live in a human-only desert?

If birds eat your fruit, however, try growing trees closer together — many birds don’t like flying into thickets. Here, the birds eat the top 10 per cent. We call it “paying the tithe” as the birds were here before we were. It’s rent. But we get the lower fruit that birds don’t want to scramble for.

We also grow decoy crops. Birds like sour, small fruit, so we grow cumquats, calamondins, lilly pillies, emu berries, native figs, “wild” small kiwifruit and others. The birds are conservative; they finish one food supply before they begin on another. And that means as long as they have small fruit to eat all year round they leave our big juicy oranges or apples or pears alone. Try damson plums, too, or sloes or loquats, though beware of fruit fly with them in hot areas. Make sure either you or the birds clean them up before fruit fly can get to them.

The birds are conservative; they finish one food supply before they begin on another.

But birds need to eat, too. Think about what else they have to eat, apart from your fruit trees. Try planting half for you and half of the things birds prefer. That way you get the fruit and the joy of seeing happy birds munching away. You get a glow of pleasure from proffering hospitality.

We have large mobs of rosellas, parrots and bower birds here, but the birds ignore our oranges — they’re eating the tiny, sour calamondins. Calamondins are very prolific and small enough to be carried away or held in a claw.

There are many other crops to tempt birds, of course. Look at whatever native (sour) fruits grow well in your area then use them to tempt the birds away from the nasty sweet stuff we humans like.

Birds often eat fruit just for moisture, especially in dry times. Give fresh water every day — 40 per cent of fruit eating is a search for water. Even though there’s always water in the pools in our creek, the birds still like water close at hand and will eat fruit rather than fly 200 metres for it. Put birdbaths in a shady spot out of the cat’s reach and keep them topped up with cool, clean water. You may find the bird depredations cease entirely or are much reduced. And you’ll have the delight of watching the drinking birds, too.

Encourage resident birds as well, like our goshawks, eagles and powerful owls; they’ll help keep away seasonal invaders such as white cockatoos. This applies especially to resident currawongs, magpies and other large birds.

And pick often. Once birds get the taste of a fruit it will be very difficult indeed to convince them otherwise. A daily harvesting of ripe apricots, strawberries, cherries, raspberries etc can mean the birds won’t notice the tempting morsels in your backyard.

Picking often also means that pests like fruit fly won’t be attracted by the scent of ripe fruit; nor will scale or stink bugs and others that love ripe fruit fragrances. Smaller daily harvests are also easier to handle. I throw whole fruit in the freezer to stew or turn into jam or jelly later when I have the time. Daily handfuls of berries soon add up as you put each one in bags or containers in the freezer.

Try planting half for you and half of the things birds prefer. That way you get the fruit and the joy of seeing happy birds snacking away.

One thing to avoid is bird netting. I have seen too many birds tangled in it, their legs broken, their beaks tied up, or fruit bats or snakes caught and dangling there till they die. You can use fruit-fly netting instead: lovely fine-textured stuff that no one can get caught in. It will also protect your fruit from being stung by fruit fly and getting small grubs in it. It’ll give some hail protection, though not if the hail is golf-ball sized, and a few degrees of frost protection as well. Put it on about a fortnight before the fruit is ripe then roll it up after picking to use again next year.

But do leave a little for the birds, if not on the trees — you don’t want them knowing exactly where the bounty is — then some fruit on the bird-feeding table or strung up on string in another non-fruiting tree as a thankyou for eating pests, for giving joy and Beauty, but mostly so that we don’t have to live on a planet that’s a human desert, inhabited only by us and our pets. Wild birds are … wild. And every life needs some wildlife within it.



 

Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.