The weather may be cold, wet and frosty in February but spring is just around the corner and we can all take some comfort in that! Already the birds in and around your garden may be making their initial forays into dense hedges and shrubs to check out potential nesting sites, and those that choose a safe spot are more likely to get an early start and have the chance of a second brood later in spring. Garden bird boxes though are, for species such as Blue Tits, Great Tits and Robins, the safest means of breeding successfully in our gardens and if you don’t have a bird box, February is a great month to put one in your garden. Increasingly, nestboxes that produce the best results are not traditional wooden boxes, although those made from a simple hollowed-out birch log seem to work very well for Blue Tits. Nestboxes made from ‘woodcrete’ – a mixture of sawdust and concrete – are the most successful in my garden and are the boxes of choice for Wildlife Trusts and other conservation organisations. These virtually indestructible and maintenance free boxes keep eggs and chicks safe from woodpeckers, grey squirrels and other predators, plus they stay warm in cold weather and cool when temperatures rise. This type of box is available for a variety of species including tits, Robins, House Sparrows, Wrens and Starlings each, importantly, with a specific hole size for the bird in question. If you are considering putting up a new nest box avoid pretty, coloured ‘bird houses’ which are more garden decoration than wildlife home and go for a solid woodcrete design.
When positioning a new tit, Starling or sparrow box, attach it to a wall or tree trunk at head height or above, avoiding full sun and with the entrance away from prevailing winds. Ensure where possible that predators such as cats are not easily able to access the entrance. Once in a good position, a box is likely to be used year after year.
But nest boxes are not just used for breeding. At any time of year, an unoccupied nest box may be used by smaller birds for roosting and as February can be one of the harshest months of the year for our native birds, a structurally sound nest box can provide a life line. The smaller the bird, the more difficult it is to maintain body heat so some species roost communally and Wrens are especially noted for this behaviour. Watching a nest box at dusk can be very rewarding and I have observed sixteen wrens popping into a roost in my garden.
Roosting pockets, made of natural fibres, can also be put out in your garden at this time as night time temperatures continue to plummet. These small structures, woven from straw and other natural fibres, make safe, dry places for smaller birds to shelter on cold nights and can be packed with dry moss for added warmth. In my garden these little pockets are especially used by great tits and wrens on cold nights. Place them in a sheltered spot, perhaps in amongst the branches of a dense wall shrub or in a porch. Wrens will also build their nests in them, giving them an unexpected dual purpose.
March can be one of the busiest months for wildlife in our gardens. Birds are coming and going, small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies may join the yellow brimstone out of hibernation, and queen bumblebees are on the wing. Summer migrants, especially chiff chaffs and blackcaps, may be arriving to swell the bird numbers at the end of the month. Some species including song thrushes will be egg laying if your garden is a wildlife-friendly. Useful nectar and pollen plants, especially dandelions, are coming into flower.
Tidying up in your borders can be completed now by cutting down and composting last years dead foliage and seed heads, but look out for hibernating ladybirds if the weather is still cold. Lavender and heather can also be trimmed now that the seeds have gone.
There is plenty you can do to help the birds this month. Natural food in the countryside will be completely depleted, so don’t let up on feeding in your garden. A range of high energy nuts and seeds will help to keep the adult birds well fed and healthy, enabling them to cope with the demanding jobs of nest building and feeding young. Nesting material may be in short supply, so a mossy lawn will be a great asset. Long grass with some dead stems will also yield natural nest material for some species. Pond edges will provide the mud that song thrushes need to line their nests. You can also hang out bundles of special nesting material obtainable from bird food suppliers.
March is the month when lawn mowing begins in earnest. Think about how often you need to cut, and also how short. Grass left slightly longer and cut less frequently will support a wider range of insects, plus small plants like daisies and dandelions, both useful for wildlife could be amongst the grasses. Leave your grass box off to allow the cuttings to mulch back into the soil to keep the grass greener in dry weather. If you do remove cuttings, put them into the compost heap with a good mixture of more woody material from your borders to make a habitat for grass snakes.
If you grow vegetables you could be sowing seeds this month. Try including rows of Californian poppies or english marigold between the vegetables to attract beneficial creatures like hoverflies. These insects will ensure that any aphids are quickly eaten. Turning over the soil now will expose plenty of natural food including wire worms and leather jackets for your local robin.