In a hot dry spring many birds and animals are struggling to survive even here in suburbia. However, gardens large and small can help wildlife survive in difficult circumstances, especially when gardens are planted with indigenous (native) plants that provide food and shelter.

Eating and collecting food for larvae or offspring take up much of any animal or bird’s energy and time. It really warms my heart to see the plants in our garden providing food for a diversity of creatures.

A Brown-hooded Kingfisher with a freshly caught cricket

A Brown-hooded Kingfisher with a freshly caught cricket

 Insectivorous birds, many small reptiles, spiders and insects themselves prey on insects and other creatures and are part of the circle of life, and so using pesticides in our gardens should be avoided. Using pesticides interrupts the food chain – not only does poison remove food sources from birds and animals that we claim to cherish, but also non-target species can be poisoned from eating poisoned prey. Even if they are not killed outright, they can be weakened and become ill, ultimately resulting in a slow death.

Caterpillar eating leaf, KwaZulu-Natal

Moth and butterfly-friendly gardens host also their larval forms, that is caterpillars, which in turn provide food for many birds and other creatures

Suburban and urban spaces can provide sustenance and sanctuary for many animals, and it would be wonderful if more people with gardens and balconies provide plants and habitat for wild animals and birds. Imagine the mosaic of sanctuaries that would ensue!

It is not necessary to be a purist; planting up wildlife-friendly corners or sections of the garden or else mixed borders incorporating native food plants would make a significant contribution. Native plants are often hardy and water-wise too, making for a less resource-greedy garden that gives back as much as it takes in. When rain is scarce and temperatures are high, planting more robust native plants that do not need lots of water, fertiliser or pampering makes a lot of sense, and these plants can flourish without the gardener being tempted to use pesticides.

An African Emerald Cuckoo eating a Processionary Caterpillar

An African Emerald Cuckoo eating a Processionary Caterpillar

Thread-waisted Wasp dragging a large caterpillar to provision its nest

A thread-waisted wasp transporting a large caterpillar to provision its nest where it will lay its eggs

Bird feeders stocked with commercial bird seed can be used as a supplement when times are hard, but birds need shelter, nesting materials and nesting sites too. Many plants provide all this and food too, and they don’t need stocking and cleaning, are less of a focus for competitive behaviour than bird feeders sometimes are, and unlike bird feeders they are not a potential source of moulds, bacteria and viruses, which are all risks associated with bird feeders.

Sombre Bulbul eating fruit from a Cabbage Tree

A Sombre Greenbul enjoying fruit from a Cabbage Tree

There are many attractive native plants that bear fruit and they can provide for a diversity of creatures across the seasons. Seedeaters should not be forgotten either. Native grasses provide an unexplored source of richness for gardens and grasses can be used to good effect in many borders and awkward areas of the garden, as well as in pots on decks,  patios and balconies.

Swee Waxbill eating grass seeds

A Swee Waxbill finding seeds on native grasses growing at the base of a Copper-stem Corkwood (Commiphora  harveyi)

A young Vervet Monkey eating a succulent leaf from a potplant

Peeking through a window blind I secretly photographed this young Vervet Monkey carefully savouring a succulent leaf from a hanging stem of a potted Donkey’s Tail (Sedum Morganinum). I was given this exotic plant as a gift and I have been surprised to see it favoured by a few of the visiting monkeys. Although not a native plant, it serves as a reminder that pot plants too can be food plants for animals and birds

A Vervet Monkey eating petals from a Dwarf Coral Tree

Although tricky to photograph in harsh sunshine, I rather like this image of a Vervet Monkey eating the scarlet petals of a flower of a Dwarf Coral-Tree (Erythrina humeana)

Flowers are important sources of food eaten whole or petal by petal and also because of the nectar and pollen that they provide. Although honey bees get the most press when it comes to pollinating plants, many flies and other insects as well as birds play significant roles as pollinators too.

Honey bees collecting pollen from a Snake Lily

Honey bees busily collecting pollen from a Snake Lily (Scadoxus puniceus)

A sunbird taking nectar from a flower

A female Double-collared Sunbird feeding on nectar from a Fence Aloe (Aloiampelos tenuior)

The day this post is scheduled to be published, we will still be away on our holiday and stopping over on our way home at Camdeboo National Park near Graaff-Reinet. When we booked our trip we knew there was an ongoing drought in the Eastern Cape and the Karoo, but we had little idea then that the drought would bite as hard as it has.

In the past weeks Graaff-Reinet’s water supply dam, the Nqweba dam, which is located in the Camdeboo National Park, became completely dry – it is now an expanse of dry mud strewn with the dehydrated remains of rotted fish. The humanitarian organisation the Gift of the Givers is providing emergency relief by sinking boreholes and delivering bottled water for residents and nutritional products for school pupils. It is also trucking in water and fodder for animals. For more on the scale of the drought and the emergency situation in Graaff-Reinet see this article here.

The online news publication Daily Maverick is publishing a series of articles on the drought in the Eastern Cape and Karoo. For an article on the desperate situation of stock farmers see here. As noted in this article, in this terrible drought even the thorn trees are dying. In contrast to the photographs above, animals, both domestic and wild, are dying of starvation and thirst. In the Karoo sheep farming area around Sutherland for example, there used to be 450,000 sheep. There are now only 40,000 sheep left, with animals either dead or sold off to prevent them from dying of thirst.

And in the relatively fortunate region where I live, we have had almost no spring rain this year and daily temperatures are in the high 30s (Celsius) – conditions we used to consider to be unseasonably hot, unseasonably dry. The prospect of this summer is scary, and for those in many regions of southern Africa already suffering the searing drought with no end in sight there are insufficient words to describe the crisis.


Posted by Carol

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