This is one of a new series of posts based on real questions I have been asked. Feel free to add to the answers or include your ideas and experiences.
In this part of the world we have wild birds that eat a wide variety of foods but, unlike many warmer climes, we don’t have nectar-eating birds and truly bird-pollinated flowers. That doesn’t mean that our birds don’t like sugar just as much as us though and there are plants, native and introduced, that indicate when their seeds are ripe and ready to be distributed, by changing the colour of their fruits, generally to red, a colour that birds can see, to tell them that a sweet treat is ready for them. It is why blackbirds steal all my strawberries but leave my yellow raspberries alone – one of the few times when I have successfully outwitted the birds! Most bird-pollinated flowers are bright red and contain copious amounts of nectar.
But birds are not really ‘bird-brained’ and they learn where they can find their favourite sweet tastes. A question I had was unusual but not that surprising;
‘I put feed and water out for my garden birds, so why do they keep eating and ruining my flowers. Blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits and sparrows seem to be the culprits.’ They had destroyed pansies, polyanthus, primroses and flowering cherry. More unusually they carried on in summer, attacking petunias, million bells and busy Lizzies.
It tends to be the finches that attack flowers and flower buds in search of nectar (as on the calliandra above). This spring I lost virtually every flower bud on my plums in a single day when bullfinches moved in. The buds were small but were showing colour and presumably had a tiny bit of nectar. This is common problem in rural areas.
When I first started gardening, one of the traditional spring jobs was to put short split canes, about 30cm long, among the polyanthus in the flower beds, and wind black cotton around and between them, to make a loose cat’s cradle, to keep the sparrows off the flowers. (It was cotton thread and was not designed to trap the birds – just to make things awkward for them). Sparrows seem to be especially fond of yellow flowers in spring and they will shred primroses, polyanthus and crocus to get to the nectar.
I am a little surprised that blue tits were blamed in this case and I think it is more likely that they were looking for aphids and other pests. In my own garden the blue tits always seem to know where the aphids are and suddenly spent lots of time on my hazels this summer when, because of the dry conditions, the undersides of the leaves became covered in greenfly. They seem very efficient at finding pests. I encourage wildlife in the garden but I am never really convinced that it is all beneficial and will do your gardening for you. But I do think blue tits are good little pest eaters and repay their diet of peanuts in winter – (yes I know they need feeding all your round and I do).
It seems less likely that the birds will attack the summer plants mentioned in the question, especially as these are not especially rich in nectar. I think that the birds were looking for pests and any damage was inadvertent. But who knows what goes through the mind of a bored sparrow? They are naturally curious and mischievous, which is part of their charm. So perhaps they were just having fun.
One of the best ways to discourage birds from an area of the garden is to hang up flashy things like CDs, tin foil or cut up pie tins. It may not look very nice but it does work and it may not need to be left up if you break the cycle of feeding. I will be watching my plum trees carefully next spring and will hang up CDs as soon as I see the buds showing colour.