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Garden Birds in Southern Africa - Attract, Identify, Enjoy | Review

Review by Adam Cruickshank

Garden Birds in Southern Africa - Attract, Identify, Enjoy by Duncan Butchart

Struik Nature 2017

192 pages, paperback


I received a copy of Duncan Butchart’s ‘Garden Birds in Southern Africa’ late last year, and I expected much of the same that other garden books present. You see, the problem I find with many garden books is that even though they are filled with many great photos and illustrations, they are not a lot of fun to read! I knew this was a book about garden birds, but when I saw the sections on gardens, the book ended up gathering dust on my bookshelf while I begrudgingly put off opening it for as long as possible. I eventually plucked up the courage to delve into the pages of Butchart’s book on garden birds and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

An African Paradise Flycatcher on a garden tap was chosen for the cover photograph of the book. In many ways this epitomises the heart behind much of the book – this interconnectedness between man and nature. This beautiful, well known species that so many people know, resting on a garden tap. Nature coming into the world that is all around us – and as one follows the advice in the book, I am sure that there would be many more close encounters with nature in the years to come. The book does not simply present a quick fix solution, instead it looks at how one can create an environment in your garden as close to nature as possible. Duncan challenges the approach that so many have to gardening when he says, ‘Most of us like to keep a tidy home, and this orderly behaviour generally extends into our gardens too…This is very well if you want a conventional manicured garden, but it is not the best way to encourage the maximum variety of bird species and facilitate the development of a healthy food web’. (Page 9)

Butchart is not only a well-known author (authoring books including ‘Wildlife of South Africa’ and ‘Wildlife of the Okavango’), but he is also a talented artist. The illustrations that he has done for the book ensure that this book is not only informative, but also a satisfying visual experience. It is always difficult to explain an artistic style to someone else, as different people would see it differently, but the illustrations are soft enough to have an artistic appeal to them, but at the same time they are detailed enough to show the important details of the species. When I first opened the book, I made a cup of coffee and slowly paged through the book and enjoyed the visual spectacle that it was. The book is also filled with many great photos, taken by both Butchart as well as wide range of contributors. The photos add another element to the visual aspect of the book. As good as the photos were, it is Duncan’s paintings that grabbed my attention and set this book apart from many other books on the market.

The book is divided into sections that make reading it as well as using the book for reference going forward easy. He looks at the garden, the birds, and the plants (there are other sections, but these provide the heart of what makes up the book).

Before the book starts to go into the three sections I mentioned, the introduction provides a brief yet informative overview of the nine biomes of Southern Africa (grassland, savanna, alley thicket, nama Karoo, succulent Karoo, fynbos, forest, and desert). This is an important foundation for the rest of the book because as Butchart points out ‘the bulk of your plants should be native to the soils and climate around you’ (Page 11). This introduction allows one to get a taste of Butchart’s style of writing, although he is someone who is intelligent, he is able to present his material in a way that is both informative, yet at the same time easy to understand. He can present material that others may present in a dull and boring way, in a way that is easy to read and an enjoyable experience.

Butchart now starts to look how to create a garden that will attract a wide variety of birds. ‘The more varied your garden’s structure and vegetation, the wider the variety of birds you will attract’ (Page 15). He now starts to unpack and explain the different types of habitats that could potentially make up your garden. The information that is provided on the twelve habitats gives just enough information without becoming long-winded. He speaks about each of the habitats as well as giving examples of what could potentially be attracted. Many birders have an interest in biodiversity as a whole, and Butchart does not just speak about the birds that could be attracted, but also looks at things such as butterflies, insects, frogs, and even snakes. Once Butchart has gone through natural composition of plants and habitats, which he points out are always best to attract birds, he now speaks about the more artificial ways to attract birds such as providing food and nest sites for them. For those who wish to feed birds this way and put-up water feeders, he not only provides information that will help you broaden the diet of birds that are attracted to your garden. I am pleased that he also speaks of possible dangers that could result such as using artificial sugar and colourants to sugar-water feeders (which many people sadly do in an attempt to attract birds). For those that may not be able to plant gardens for what ever reason, will still find the book of value because of this section of the book.

Butchart now starts to look at the birds in the next section. Although this is not a field guide, he touches on a lot of information that one would encounter in a guide such as bird anatomy, bird names, as well as providing other valuable information that would especially benefit newer birders, such as bird calls, bird behaviour, and migration. This book is a great tool not only for more experienced birders that wish to plant bird friendly gardens, but it also provides information that would make this a great gift for people that are only interested in the birds that come to their gardens. A large section of the book is made up by the ‘101 Garden Birds’ section, where Butchart highlights the birds that are most likely to appear in our sub region's gardens. This section has an almost field guide approach to it, with a page dedicated to each of the species that are highlighted. Photos are provided to help with identifying the bird as well as a short description of the bird. There is also a handy key that uses common bird sizes to help the user work out how big the bird is. Again and again in the book Butchart seems to look for ways to cater for both experienced and novice bird lovers. For each species there is a handy green block with a good amount of information, such as feeding and breeding habits, the voice (or call of the bird), the lifespan, and similar species. What sets this apart from your other field guides on the market is a short write up on ‘garden needs’, where he writes about what would be needed in one’s garden to attract the specific species mentioned. The information provided for each of the species recorded is far from the amount of information supplied in some other field guides on the market, but I don’t feel that most birders would be buying this book for that sort of information. Yet the garden needs that is provided for each of the species will definitely be a valuable resource for those that wish to attract more birds to their gardens.

In the last section of the book Butchart now looks at the plants – where he looks at fifty bird friendly trees, shrub, and climbers that you can plant in your garden. He does introduce this part of the book by giving a basic overview of how to choose and place plants in your garden – he looks at things such as the wise use of space, climate, and soil, which leads to a brief look at indigenous species. For each of the tree and shrub species he looks at he provides a name and a short write up. He also provides a photograph and a handy key to help one work our how big the tree will grow (again as with the bird species, he makes working out the size very simply with the key that he uses). He also briefly looks at aloes, decorative plants, and grasses. With each of the write ups he not only looks at the species, but also how it helps to create a healthy space for nature, by looking at what the specific species would attract and how it would benefit not only birds, but also things such as butterflies and insects. Butchart helps to the reader to see how everything works together in a healthy garden to create spaces that nature will thrive in.

The book is finished off with a look at what birds one would encounter in the sub region's Botanical Gardens as well as a handy list of useful resources which includes magazines, books, apps and websites amongst other things.

Butchart has created a book that is both readable, informative, as well as being an absolute visual delight. This book will please both birders as well as those with only a passing interest in nature. This book would be a great addition to any serious nature lover's library. I for one have finally found a book that speaks about gardens that I enjoyed, and I am sure this book will bring many hours of delight to nature lovers.


Listen to Episode 37 where we featured an interview with Duncan Butchart. Listen on your preferred podcast app or head on over to


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