Once upon a time, not long ago and not far away, a White Starred Robin visited our garden pond. If I had the powers to understand the language of robins, what might I learn?

This robin was, or probably is, a visitor to our secret garden, or rather the secret part of the garden behind the pond, which we disturb as little as possible.


Apparently, the white spot (that gives the White Star Robin its name) above the eye is only visible when the bird is excited or alarmed. As you can see in the photos, the “star” above the eye was easy to see (although a second star on its chest was not). Perhaps, it was excited to be taking a bath, and maybe it was also a little alarmed at my presence.

I was excited too, as this was the first and only time I have seen a White Starred Robin, which is not to say it has not been around, but just unseen by me.

Why had I not seen this gorgeous little bird before?  Probably because it is difficult to see in the dense vegetation, such as forest thickets and dense undergrowth along drainage lines and streams, that it prefers, often foraging quietly on its own (although breeding pairs usually mate for life).

Behind our garden is a strip of unused land along one side of a drainage line, which used to be a stream, before the exotic plantation of thirsty trees was planted up the small valley and adjacent hillsides. However, the drainage line is heavily vegetated, and even though mostly by alien plants, at least they provide protective cover, perfect for this little bird.


Our secret garden, backing onto the unused strip of land next to the plantation, provides dense cover and shelter for birds and other small creatures

So, if the robin chose to communicate with me and I chose to listen, perhaps I might learn how we can make our gardens more wildlife friendly?

Fairy tales often hinge on the granting of wishes. So let’s consider waving a magic wand (or magic trowel) and grant some wildlife wishes and conjure up small sanctuaries in our backyards.

Here are some garden wishes that might be the heart’s desire of the White Starred Robin and other creatures, desperate for safer homes and habitats:

★ A shallow birdbath, or a small pond with a sloping shallow “beach”, for bathing and drinking

★ A corner with dense plant cover that is seldom disturbed

★ Plants of varying heights and densities, from low ground cover through to a tree or two

★ Plants that occur naturally in the region

★ Plants providing for various needs, including food, shelter, perches and shade

★ Fallen leaves left to form a natural mulch – good for the soil, and for creatures and birds

★ Small open patches for self-seeding plants, for dust baths for birds, and burrows for critters


A bird’s eye view of our secret garden 

But in truth, the robin flew off, not having the time to spend on educating me. Off it went to a more sheltered spot to forage and forage. It is busiest in the breeding season, bonding with its mate, the female building the nest, and the pair needing to defend their territory and young, and feed and raise the chicks. Depending on the region, some White Starred Robins are altitudinal migrants, needing to be aware of seasonal changes, and making long journeys to overwinter in increasingly scarce suitable habitats.


Leaving the leaves provides an enchanting “forest floor”. I love the sound of thrushes and other birds as they scuffle through the leaves in search of the food to be found there

I was astonished to learn that the White Starred Robin builds its nest at ground level. The well-concealed nest is a domed structure with the “roof” sometimes overhanging the cup-shaped nest like a small porch. Sometimes it incorporates the nest into growing foliage, such as asparagus fern, or else the nest is built at the base of small boulders, usually covered in moss, or at the base of tree trunks. Most nests are built on sloping ground and are hidden in dense ground cover.

The female builds the nest, and materials used include dead leaves, small roots and tendrils, and moss. She lines the nest with soft, skeletonised leaves, small flower material, and sometimes with animal hair (including from antelope).


Another point to add to the wish list:  Logs and fallen branches left undisturbed, where mosses, ferns and fungi, such as this toadstool, can find homes

The White Starred Robin searches for food, mainly insects, in leaves, twigs and bark in the understorey and right up to the tree canopy. It also forages in leaf litter on the ground. It can also catch flying prey on the wing, especially at dusk. Food items include beetles, small moths, ants, spiders, flies, caterpillars, bees, crickets and other bugs. It also eats small fruits, berries and seeds.


The shade-loving Haemanthus albiflos thriving in the leaf litter and twigs that have fallen from the surrounding trees

Allowing a fertile and diverse understorey to develop differs from the lawn-and-neat-flower-bed approach to gardening. It helps us develop empathy for other creatures, learn about our local plants, and form a creative partnership with pollinators and other insects, with birds, other creatures and plants, forming a kind of sympathetic magic.


Tiny treasures, such as this small indigenous Lobelia, can be found sheltering in the understorey, this one beside a Clivia


Another shy species, the Lemon Dove (formerly the Cinnamon Dove) also enjoys the shelter of the understorey in the secret corner of the garden


Other animals, such as this tree frog, also benefit from the undisturbed and dense understorey. What a delight to find creatures such as this sheltering and surviving in the backyard sanctuary


An African Firefinch seeking food in a small patch of garden with exposed earth, but scattered with fallen leaves


Wood in the form of fallen branches and logs not only provides homes and food for a variety of creatures, but a foothold for beautiful fungi, such as this bracket fungus. The amazing thing is, this fungus is not cultivated or placed there by the gardener. The mere presence of undisturbed logs naturally attracts a remarkable diversity of life


Dappled shade in a cool, green foresty patch


The smallest garden, patio or even balcony can provide a its own secret sanctuary, with low growing plants providing food and shelter for pollinators and other species we too easily take for granted

My wish is that more and more of us discover the pleasures of freer forms of working with nature, rather than trying to manicure and discipline it as so many gardening conventions seem to require.

Once we fall under that spell, we learn more about what plants and other forms of life need to thrive and complement each other. As we learn more about local plants and the needs of local wildlife, our backyards can become a mosaic of diversity across the country and across the globe.

As wild spaces shrink and habitats diminish in size and diversity, how wonderful if White Starred Robins and similar ground-nesting species can find places to raise their families in our suburban spaces.


Source: Roberts VII Multimedia PC Edition. 1997-2016 Southern African Birding. http://www.sabirding.co.za/roberts7/portal.html

This post was inspired not only by the White Starred Robin but also by some of the posts I read at the blog titled, The humane gardener: Cultivating compassion for all creatures great and small. Find it here


 Posted by Carol