by Sheena de Jager Miles
There are several reasons for having plants in an aviary.
Firstly plants provide shelter and places to hide for the aviary inhabitants – your birds. Most finches will get very stressed and thus not breed if they do not have the option of places to hide. A big bare aviary does not offer much in the way of protection for your birds. With the addition of some plants the birds can disappear into the shrubbery if threats appear such as hawks, butcher birds or even people. A hen can escape from a cock bird that is chasing her too hard. In a mixed collection, the more timid species can get away from the more aggressive birds.
Secondly plants can provide additional food sources for the birds. Plants attract a variety of insect life, which provides natural live food for the birds as well as the exercise and stimulus of hunting down the individual insects to catch and eat. If you have a moth trap then in the morning when emptying out the trap, the captured insects will fly into the shrubs and plants where the birds can chase them throughout the day, instead of flying straight out of the aviary into the plants in the garden outside. Other plants, like the various grasses, even provide food themselves with seed heads, flowers, leaves and berries adding more variety to the birds’ diet.
Plants also provide potential nesting sites for the birds and are especially important for those species who build their own nests and refuse to use nest boxes or baskets. With plants in the aviary the birds have a variety of nesting sites on offer at different heights to suit their own individual preferences. In addition with plants the birds can have their own little territories and do not need to compete with their neighbours all the time as they are out of sight on the other side of a bush.
In the heat of our Queensland summers, plants do have a considerable cooling effect and give the birds shady places to perch and build their nests. A nest of youngsters does not survive very long out in the baking sun as birdkeepers have found when birds build their nests too close to a bare metal roof. Plants can also be used to offer protection from bad weather and winds.
Plants, especially grasses, also provide nesting materials, as some species, especially weavers, love to strip the leaves and use them to build their nests.
Shrubs and grasses also provide a wide variety of perches for the birds with the differing sizes giving their feet plenty of exercise. The seeding grasses provide hours of entertainment as birds clamber up and down the stems to try to reach the seedheads.
And finally, plants just look nice and make an aviary a delight to look at with the birds flying around and in and out of the bushes and flowering plants.
But what kind of plants should we be putting into our aviaries and how should we plant them?
Basically for planting we have two choices. We can keep the plants in pots or we can plant them in the ground on the floor of the aviary. If the aviary houses those species that strip plants then you are probably better off keeping at least some of your plants in pots. This way the pots can be rotated in and out of the aviary thus giving the plants a chance to recover and regrow before the birds get into them again. This is especially true for grasses and has the added benefit of making sure that mice cannot get a foothold in the aviary by getting into the roots of the grass. Once established there it is very hard to get rid of them.
If planting directly into the aviary floor, consideration should be given to the need to periodically water them. Before planting a drip watering system can be installed which, if put on a timer, makes the plants very easy to look after. But even if you are not using a watering system, please remember that finches require a nice dry floor. A continually damp floor will promote disease. Pools of water, sitting on the floor, are not a good idea. Some form of drainage is required. A good layer of river sand or pea gravel on the top of the soil will help the surface dry quickly.
With pots, keep in mind that if you use saucers, care should be taken not to allow water to sit in these saucers, as they are an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.
When it comes to choosing the actual plants that we want in our aviaries, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly check out how tall and wide the plant or shrub will grow so you know how much room it will need. How fast does it grow? If a plant at maturity will reach 20m but will take 100 years to get there then it could be a viable option. On the other hand with a plant grows too fast, you will have to be prepared to prune it every few weeks or it will either take over the aviary or grow through the roof and/or wire damaging your aviary and allowing birds to escape. Do you have the right kind of soil and weather conditions for the particular plant that you have in mind? You cannot put a plant that requires full sun all day long in a corner of the aviary that gets no sun at all, or a plant that likes a light loamy soil in a heavy clay soil, etc.
Take a few minutes to plan what should be planted, and where it should be placed in the aviary. Try to allow access for plenty of sunshine right down to the aviary floor to avoid build-up of dangerous fungal infections. Allow room between plants for the birds to fly around and avoid planting tall plants at the front of the aviary that keeps the rest of the aviary in shadow all day long. Consider how much winter sun can penetrate into the aviary with the plants you are planning to use, remembering that grasses will be cut down in autumn and shrubs pruned allowing more light and air to penetrate to the floors.
Shrubs suitable for an aviary:
For an aviary it is preferable to use evergreen shrubs, which will not grow higher than the roof, to provide continual shelter for the birds. In addition many ground cover plants, vines, ferns and grasses can be used. You can consider any non-poisonous small plant, tree or shrub to suit your conditions. It is a good idea to check with your local plant nursery for advice on what species will thrive in your area and in your soil type. Another consideration is the species of birds that are going to be kept in the aviary. Some birds like a habitat that is lush and full of plants while other species prefer an area with more open sandy, earth or gravel spaces for fossicking. Also remember that most Australian native plants do not like high phosphorus fertilisers but do benefit from regular pruning.
Some popular and suitable Australian natives are listed below:
These are an evergreen Australian native in the myrtle family with over 200 recognised species some of which can grow to a height of 30m. In the wild these plants are generally found in open forest, woodland or shrubland, particularly along watercourses and the edges of swamps. Ideally these plants require a fertile, well-drained moisture retentive lime-free soil with plenty of sun. A few species suitable for growing in an aviary are M. erubescens (Pink Paperbark) grows to 1-2m,; M. thymifolia (Thyme Honey Myrtle) grows to 1m,; M alternifolia (Ti tree), used to produce Tea Tree Oil, is slow growing so can be kept as a bush for many years but will grow to 15-10ft eventually.
Closely related to the Melaleucas they are small evergreen shrubs with a few small tree species. Many are commonly called ‘tea trees’. This name derives from the practice of early Australian settlers who soaked the leaves of several species in boiling water to make a herbal tea rich in vitamin C. They are hardy tolerating most soils and exposures with good drainage and full sun. Some are frost and drought tolerant when established. In the aviary species such as L. flavescens (Wild May) grows to 2m; L. petersonii (Lemon Scented Tea Tree) gives a fresh smell to the aviary and grows up to 3m; L. liversidgei (Olive Tea Tree) grows to 2m can all be used.
Another Australian native plant, Banksias are a woody evergreen plant ranging from prostrate shrubs to tall trees and easily recognised by their characteristic flower spikes and cones. In the wild they are found in a variety of landscapes – sclerophyll forest, rainforest, shrubland and some more arid areas. These grow best in a well-drained soil in a sunny position but are prone to root-rot fungus with high humidity and heavy rainfall. For the aviary such species as B robur (Swamp Banksia) grows to 2m; B. oblongifolia (Dwarf Banksia) grows 1-2m; B collina (Golden Candlestick) grows to 3m are good choices.
There are thousands of different species as they hybridise so easily with an enormous range of flower colours and forms so there is a Grevillea that can be grown in any place in Australia and will flower for most of the year. For the aviary the smaller growing species are of most interest and there are many dwarf varieties available these days in plant nurseries. Some species that can be considered include “Robyn Gordon” which grows to 2m; “Shirley Howei” grows to 1.5m; “”Sericea” (Pink Spider) grows to 1-2m and does best in sandy soils; “Pink Midget” is an especially tough plant withstanding drought conditions as a ground cover; “Poorinda Royal Mantle” is another ground cover.
Callistemons or bottlebrushes are another colourful favourite. They are mostly very hardy favouring moist conditions but many species will tolerate drought and limited maintenance. They grow well in a wide variety of soils except highly alkaline ones. Many varieties have been cultivated and are good subjects for the aviary such as “Captain Cook” growing to 2m; “Tineroo” growing to 2-3m and C polandii (Gold-tipped Bottlebrush) comes in various heights but is available as a spreading shrub to a height of 1.5m.
A member of the Protea family with some looking similar to Grevilleas, Hakeas are a very diverse group and perform best in well-drained soils in open sunny positions, although they will tolerate some shade. They are also subject to root rot fungus if left continually wet. They need to be well pruned starting when they are young to keep them neat and compact. Some suitable for the aviary include H. gibbosa (Hairy hakea) grows 1-3m high and is very prickly; H. purpurea an erect shrub growing 1-3m high.
Other shrubs suitable for planting in aviaries include the following:
Baeckea virgata(Twiggy Heath Myrtle) grows to 1-3m. A tough, disease free shrub, which withstands dry periods, frosts and poor soil conditions. They do best in semi-shaded areas.
Clerodendrum floribundum(Lolly Bush) is a tall shrub growing to 5m with white tubular flowers.
Melastoma polyanthum(Pink Lasiandra) grows as an erect spreading shrub to 2m. In the wild often found alongside a freshwater creek so its ideal habitat is abundant water and protection from the sun.
Jacksonia scoparia(Dogwood) are pea flowered shrubs growing 2-3m high with flat angular branchlets which are leafless except in young growth similar to a broom. Grows well in open sun in lighter soils and is hardy and long lived.
Westringia fruticosa(Coastal or Native Rosemary) is an easily grown shrub of neat appearance reaching heights of 1-2m. W. wynyabbie gem is a hybrid which is almost bullet proof. Growing to around 2m it prefers full sun and is at home in most soils. It is also salt resistant.
Saltbushis tough, hardy and in low rainfall, it not only survives but grows well. It responds well to pruning, which encourages more fresh leafy growth. Gouldians especially like to eat this plant.
Palms, Ground Covers and Creepers
Other types of plants, which can be used in aviaries, are small palms, ground covers and creepers. Heavy ground covers should be used with caution taking into consideration the surrounding conditions to avoid having continually damp floors, which can harbour moulds, bacteria and diseases. Creepers can be grown over a trellis to provide much needed privacy for more timid species. This can be quite valuable if space is at a premium. Also they can be very useful where the aviary is situated in less than perfect conditions forming windbreaks and protection from bad weather. If some of these plants become large or dense care should be taken that birds do not get trapped in them. Some suitable plants include the following:
The Bird’s Nest Fern(Asplenium nidus) or Crow’s Nest Fern in the wild grows on trees, rocks and other vegetation in rainforests around the world. A moisture and shade loving plant, its fronds can reach up to 4 feet.
Midgen Berry (Austronyrtus dulcis ) is an Australian native, which will grow to dense spreading shrub up to 40cm high by 1.4m in diameter in full sun, but in more shaded areas it becomes a more open ground cover. It has white flowers and then produces white edible berries with small blue black spots and prefers a sandy soil.
Cut Leaf Daisy(Brachycome multifida) is a perennial herb found in the grassy understories of woodlands and open forests. It grows best in full sun but can tolerate part shade and will grow on a range of soil types including heavy clays and light sandy loams. It is a hardy and colourful plant, which does not require much water, growing in clumps of 0.5m spread.
Pigface (Carpobrotus glaucenscens) is another flowering plant, which loves the sun and is a creeping succulent spreading up to 2m. Naturally growing in coastal areas on sand dunes it is very salt tolerant and is able to withstand salt spray, strong winds and sand blast with fleshy leaves, bright pink-purple flowers and a red-purple berry fruit used by aborigines as a food source. Will withstand extended dry periods.
Smooth Flax Lily(Dianella longifolia) is a tufted perennial fleshy stemmed plant that suckers and forms large clumps. In spring and summer the plants produce long sprays of light blue flowers followed by blue berries, which can be eaten by birds. Found in woodland and grasslands it grows to 0.8m high in full sun or part shade in a well-drained soil.
Golden Everlasting(Helichrysum bracteatum), Bracted Strawflower or Paper Daisy is a colourful annual, which will reseed itself. It is a hardy plant growing in full sun to a height of 1m in demand as cut flowers.
Snake Vine (Hibbertia scandens) or Golden Guinea Vine is a fairly vigorous climber growing to 2 to 5m long with large golden yellow flowers. It will tolerate a wide range of climates including salt laden winds doing best in full sun but also grows in semi-shaded areas. It can smother smaller plants.
Bower Vine(Pandorea jasminiodes) or Pink Bower of Beauty is found in rainforest and wet sclerophyll forests and is commonly found in Australian suburban gardens. It is very hardy plant growing in any reasonably drained soil producing tubular pale pink flowers with a dark pink throat. It grows well on a fence or trellis.
The Wonga-Wonga Vine(Pandorea pandorana) is in the same family and is found in many habitats from rainforest to dry sclerophyll forest to dry scrub and rocky outcrops. It can grow in either clay or sand-based soils and produces cascades of tubular flowers in a variety of colours.
Native Passion Flower(Passiflora aurantia) or Blunt-leaved Passionfruit is a tendril climber with red or salmon coloured flowers followed by green fruits about 50mm in diameter. It prefers moist, fairly rich soil, reasonable drainage and can grow in full sun to semi shade.
Native Violet(Viola hederacea) forms mats to around 50cm wide with small white and violet flowers on 15cm stems for most of the year. It is a hardy perennial, which likes damp areas and shade but will tolerate full sun. It will grow well in almost all areas except for very dry conditions.
Vitex ovatais a vigorous groundcover recommended for difficult landscape environments; particularly exposed coastal regions and roadway median strips so will handle most conditions. Its flowers are attractive to nectar feeding birds.
Dwarf palmscan also be considered as they provide nesting sites and nesting materials for birds such as the African weavers. Various conifersand English Ivyare other plants that can be used in an aviary.
Grasses are a popular and useful plant in an aviary and their seeds form a large part of a wild finch’s diet. Around most parts of Australia wild grasses can be found and can be gathered for feeding to your birds. The easiest way to ensure that your grass is not contaminated by sprays, poisons or traffic exhaust particles is to grow your own either in the aviary or your garden. Grasses produce not only seed heads for the birds to eat but also can be stripped and used for nest building. Some birds will even build their nests in the grasses. As mentioned previously care must be taken that mice do not take up residence in your clump of grass as they are very hard to get rid of once established. If grasses are grown in pots then they can be changed to keep up a continual supply of fresh green seed for the birds. If grasses are planted in the aviary then at the beginning of winter they should be cut right back and allow plenty of winter sun into the aviary. They will regrow in the spring.
Great care should be taken that the grass is fresh and never feed mouldy grass or seedheads that have a sticky residue, usually black, called ergot as it will kill your birds. Extra seedheads can be put into freezer bags and put in a freezer till needed.
Some popular grasses include the following and grow between 1-3m high:
Johnson Grass(Sorghum halepense) grows in dense clumps and can reach 2.4m in height.
New Guinea Palm Grass(Setaria palmifolia) has broad leaves, which some finches love to strip.
Pit Pit Grass(Setaria spp) is similar but with a finer leaf.
Green Panic Grass(Panicum maximum var. trichoglume) one of our most popular grasses in Queensland.
Barnyard Grass(Echinochlao crus-galli) is an annual grass and a single plant can produce up to 40,000 seeds.
Pampas Grass(Cortaderia sp) has large fluffy seedheads, which make great ornaments in suburban gardens but dry these fluffy heads will be used by the birds to line their nests.
Small Bamboosare also popular plants in an aviary but care should be taken as some species can be very invasive. The best idea is to put a concrete wall around the plant to contain the size of the bamboo clump. The leaves are great nesting material and the plants are good nesting sites.
Seed Mix. If you are having trouble finding seeding grassheads in your area then why not plant some of your waste Finch Mix into pots or the aviary then when the seed heads grow your birds can make their own ‘Finch Mix’.
Finches enjoy picking over a clump of lawn grass, so either grow a patch in the aviary or cut sods of grass and put into old ice cream containers, water and then on a daily rotating basis put in a container into the aviary and watch your birds jump in. The same can be done with clover and other green foods such as silverbeet, endive, milk thistle, etc.
Finally, you have planned and planted your aviary and then let the birds loose. But after a couple of days some plants have been stripped bare. What can you do?
If you have planted them in pots then no problem you can rotate the pot out of the aviary to recover but if you have planted them then there is a solution. Birdwire can be easily bent into a frame to cover the plant so the birds can only get at the new shoots that extend through the wire and the plant will be able to survive. Pots can also be kept under a wire frame to preserve the plant if necessary.