If birds had green thumbs what would they plant?

If birds had green thumbs: what to plant in your garden to attract native birds

Hi everyone.

Kevin C. Burns, School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University knows his stuff and gives us a really simple start to planting natives.

Take it away Kevin.   Thanks Nick.

My experience has taught me that if birds had green thumbs, these six species are what they would plant in their gardens:

  1. Five-finger
  2. Tree Fuchsia
  3. Pate
  4. Hangehange
  5. Karamu
  6. Flax

I recommend the first four because they have both fruit and nectar that birds like, and all six of them provide year-round food for birds. Read on to find out why this is important.

New Zealand is home to some of the weirdest animals in the world – the world’s only alpine parrot (kea), the most primitive reptile (tuatara), and a flightless bird with tiny wings but a ridiculously long bill that it uses to pound into the ground in search earthworms (kiwi). Nowhere else on earth is home to such an odd assortment of wildlife.

But strange species are not the only reason why New Zealand’s natural heritage is so unique. Sometimes it’s what our native species do that make them exceptional.

I’m a biology lecturer at Victoria University and my research focuses on how life evolves on isolated islands. My goal is to put New Zealand’s native animals and plants in a global context – to figure out what aspects of our natural history are totally unique, and which bits are shared with other isolated islands.

On many isolated islands like New Zealand, birds often have unusually broad diets. Do New Zealand birds follow this global trend?

For the past 8 years, I’ve been trying to answer this question by keeping track of the diets of native birds in Zealandia. Approximately twice a week since 2005, I’ve walked the same series of trails, keeping my eye out for birds as they go about their daily routines.

Sounds simple, but these walks can be a rich source of new scientific information. They can tell us not only what birds eat, but because bird food is often supplied by plants specifically to attract birds, they can also tell us something about how birds may have coevolved with native plants.

It turns-out that our native birds are unusual because they eat both the nectar and fruit of many plants. Bellbirds, hihi, kaka, saddlebacks, tui and whiteheads not only rely on native plants for nectar, they are also avid consumers of native fruits. This means they help the plants pollinate their flowers and disperse their seeds. A handful of native plants have responded by producing both bird-pollinated flowers and bird-dispersed fruits.

This feature of our native birds and plants can come in handy if you love birds, want to attract them into your garden, but don’t have time to maintain a bird feeder. If you’re a gardener and you’re looking for ways to attract native birds onto your property, then take advantage of their wide diet and plant trees and shrubs that provide birds with both nectar and fruit.

Below are six plant species that feature prominently on the menu of native birds. The first 4 (five-finger, pate, tree fuchsia and hengehenge) produce both bird-pollinated flowers and bird-dispersed fruits, and will therefore attract birds to your garden at both stages in their reproductive cycle. The remaining two are different, but their fruits and flowers are so highly prized by birds that I recommend planting them anyway.


                        1. Five-finger (Pseudopanax arboreus)Five Finger

Five-finger is one of the most common trees in regenerating bush around Wellington, so it might already be familiar to you. It prefers sunnier, north-facing slopes and produces clusters of small white flowers in late winter, which are followed by small black fruits in early autumn of the following year. Many native birds, particularly the smaller ones, visit five-finger for both flowers and fruits. Here a whitehead (left) and a silvereye (right) share a meal of five-finger nectar. However, five-finger is somewhat unusual in that plants are either male or female, so if you plant one that turns-out to be a male, it will produce only flowers.


2. Tree fuchsia (Fuchsia excorticata)Tree fuchsia

Like five-finger, tree fuchsia produces flowers and fruits that are relished by birds. Its tubular flowers turn from green to red though time and have an unusually protracted flowering season, providing food for birds from mid-winter into early spring. Fuchsia flowers are especially prized by tui and bellbirds (shown at right) and both species will take great pains to protect flowering trees from other hungry birds. The flowers are followed by fruits that look at bit like little black sausages. In terms of growing conditions, tree fuchsia prefers shaded streambeds and wetter south-facing slopes.


3. Pate (Schefflera digitata)pate

From a distance, pate might be confused with five-finger, because both species grow to similar heights and have similar leaves, which are large and palm-shaped. The biggest distinction between them is the shape of the structures that bear flowers and fruits, both of which will attract birds to the garden and are each similar in size and shape to five-finger. Both species have broadly similar habitat preferences as well. However, unlike the spherically-shaped flower and fruit clusters of five-finger, pate produces flowers and fruits on long, droopy stems, which give them an unkempt look. But the birds don’t mind, especially saddlebacks, which prize both pate’s flowers and fruits above all other native plant species.


4. Hangehange (Geniostoma ligustrifolium)plant 4

Like the previous three species, hangehange relies on birds for both pollination and seed dispersal. But unlike its predecessors, hangehange is a short-statured shrub, rather than a tree. It also has thin, papery leaves that are more suited to shadier, sheltered conditions. So planting this species in the shade of the others, instead of out in the open, might be preferable. It produces small white flowers in spring, which are visited mainly by smaller birds such as silvereyes. Its fruits are unusual in that they come in the form of dry, woody capsules that ripen in summer. As they ripen, the capsules split open to expose what looks like dry chewing gum infused with small, black seeds. Photo credit: Phil Garnock-Jones


5. Karamu (Coprosma robusta)plant 5

Karamu is wind pollinated, so its flowers are devoid of nectar and birds ignore them. However, its fruits are a different story altogether. It has a long fruiting season, from early autumn to late winter, which is a particularly difficult time for song birds. So its orange fruits help see birds through tough times, when days are short , insect abundances are low and cold southerlies can last for weeks at a time. Karamu has thick tough leaves, which better adapt them to sunnier conditions, which will also induce them to produce huge fruit crops for their stature. Like five-finger it can be male or female, so hope for a girl.


6. flax (Phormium tenax)Plant 6

Opposite to karamu, flax produces wind-dispersed seeds, which are ignored by seed dispersing birds. Seed predators, such as kakariki, are a different story, as they will predate (i.e. kill) seeds with their sharp bills, instead of swallowing them whole and depositing them in a new site with a bit of fertiliser. So while our songbirds generally ignore flax seeds, their flowers are the most highly prized of all. So much so that tuis will defend them against any threat – particularly tenacious males have even tried to chase me away while I made my measurements. Like karamu, flax also likes it out in the open, rather than in the shade like hengehenge.


Working together naturally, all six species should attract birds to your garden throughout the year. Vigorous mammal control throughout the Wellington region will then keep them safe when native birds come to visit you for tea.


Kevin C. Burns

School of Biological Sciences

Victoria University