At home with nature

Terrace, windowsills are a great space to nurture birds, butterflies

By Laxmikant Deshpande
Published: Saturday 15 March 2014

imageTowns and cities are expanding, and so are fragmented habitats, accumulation of chemicals in the atmosphere, scarcity of natural food and light and sound pollution. This affects insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds as well as mammals. Many people and organisations want to do something about it, but fail to take a concrete and coordinated step.

For those who want to conserve and nurture urban biodiversity, here is a compilation of simple ways to do so. Most people are blessed with a balcony or a terrace or some open space or, at least, windowsills. These spaces can offer excellent habitats for insects and birds, if designed considering their requirements for food and reproduction.

In fact, ways of nurturing biodiversity are interconnected. A kitchen garden may support butterflies. Manure from a compost pile may be used to develop gardens where one can place bird boxes, baths and feeders. Several NGOs and shops sell the equipment mentioned in this article. These equipment can also be made at home with a little patience and creativity. Besides nature conservation, these activities help reduce stress and enhance concentration, patience and self-appreciation.

Welcome to butterfly garden

The warm climate of India is known to foster more than 1,500 butterfly species. So it is not difficult to attract butterflies to one’s balcony or terrace. All one needs to do is grow “food” and “host” plants.


Food plants are the ones that provide nectar to butterflies. Flowering plants such as duranta, lantana, Ixora, Jamaican blue spikes, cosmos, Egyptian starflower, verbena, bloodflower, poinsettia, periwinkle, pagoda flower, firebush, flag bush, barleria, Indian snakeweed and marigold act like magnets for butterflies. Lemon, sweet lime, curry leaf, nerium, calotropis, oleander, life plant, weeping fig, butterfly pea, passionflower, aster, eranthemum, ginger lily and canna lily are useful for butterflies to lay eggs. These plants are easily available in nurseries.

However, one needs to check appropriateness of space while planting these saplings because they require adequate water and sunlight. Avoid using pesticides as it will kill butterfly caterpillars and adults. Do not often check on the caterpillars. Your frequent visits might attract their predators. In the summer, you may develop mud baths for butterflies. Wet soil mixed with rock salt fulfills their requirements for water and nutrients. A few rocks in it can create a perfect sunbathing spot for them. Overripe, pulpy fruits or fruit peels are excellent baits to make butterflies regular visitors of your house. Remember, most butterflies visit houses only up to a moderate height.

How about breakfast with birds?

If you thought this is impossible, think again. Bird nests, baths and feeders require no special equipment and one may use discarded material to make them. The design, of course, depends on the species. Plastic cans with their tops cut off may be used by parakeets and woodpeckers. Shoe boxes tied firmly on trees attract doves, sparrows, flycatchers and bulbuls. An enclosed wooden box or a carton with a hole is ideal for robin, parakeet and sunbird. Owlets nest in earthen pots fixed on trees.

Different species have different preferences for the size of the entry hole and the details are available on the Internet. But the entry hole should be made at least 125 mm from the base. Place a horizontal stick at the entrance to help the birds perch. It is also important to create drainage holes and tie the nests tightly to trees or windows to ensure the safety of eggs and chicks.

Birds need fiber to cushion the nest, and old doormats, carpets, chatais, worn clothes and coconut shells provide excellent fiber.

Bird baths can be made using plastic or clay trays. They should not be shiny as reflection of light will scare the birds away. The baths should not be deeper than a few centimetres and its edge should not be sharp. Change the water every day because used water has bird droppings, which make it infectious. Ensure that you place the bird bath in the shade to avoid evaporation of water.

A piece of flat wood or tray can be used as a bird table. Its raised rim retains food. Make a few holes at the corners for drainage. The bird table can be placed on the ground for ground feeding birds or on a raised firm surface. A transparent PET bottle with a tiny hole and a horizontal stick attached to it also acts as a feeder. Use netted feeders to prevent squirrels from stealing bird feed. These feeders are easily available in the market. You may use millets, coriander, fenugreek, mustard and sunflower seeds as feed. Pigeons and doves prefer peas, lentils, wheat, barley and uncooked rice. Ripe fruits attract parakeets, barbets, bulbuls, orioles and robins.

Never offer oiled rotis, salty wafers, peanuts, peanut butter or artificially flavored food as these will kill the birds over a period of time. It is important to clean bird feeders regularly. Ensure that the feed remains dry because damp feed will grow fungus and infect the birds. The best time to feed the birds is early morning and afternoon.

Nectar-rich and bushy flowering plants attract butterflies. Enclosed wooden boxes, plastic bottles, shoe boxes and earthen pots offer excellent space for birds to build nests. Tie them tightly to trees or windows to ensure safety of eggs and chicks

Try your hand at composting 

Gone are the days when composting meant handling creepy earthworms or dealing with stinking bins riddled with flies and cockroaches. Composting technologies have evolved to a great extent and many easy-to-maintain compost models are available in the market today. A well-maintained compost pile does not stink or attract fruit flies and cockroaches. Vermicomposting is preferably done with deep-burrowing earthworm species like Pheretima elongate which do not like sunlight and do not crawl out even in adverse conditions. Before they die, these worms lay eggs that rejuvenate to life on watering. So, practically you never see earthworms.

One can buy vermi-cast (dry egg cases) to start vermicomposting. It can be done in pots with plants or a separate drum. Fill the container with layers of pebbles, soil and dry leaf litter. Make sure that the container has holes.

Any kitchen waste, uncooked and cooked, can be used to make compost. Shredding the waste enhances the quality and speed of composting. The compost unit should be moist, not wet. Churning the layers is essential to ensure oxygen at all levels. Over a period of time, bacteria, snails and tiny insects take shelter in the compost unit and contribute to composting.

For those with worm phobia, bio-sanitisers are good options. These are sold in liquid and powder form and contain numerous bacteria which compost waste. One needs to add bio-sanitiser regularly to the compost unit. Certain companies sell these units made of aesthetically designed terracotta pots and one would not remotely imagine them as being compost units. For campuses with no financial constraints, machines, such as organic waste converter (OWC), are good options. OWC is made of stainless steel and includes an inbuilt shredder. It uses bio-sanitiser and partially composts the waste in 15 minutes. The partial compost is then spread in plastic trays and the process is completed in a week.

Grow your own fruits, veggies

Imagine how wonderful it would be to pluck some vegetables and fruits grown by you! You can start making a kitchen garden by finding suitable containers. Make a few holes at the bottom of the container for drainage. Add a layer of pebbles and then cover it with soil and compost. Separate seeds from fruits or vegetables, dry them for a few days and sow in the pots.

Tomato, green chilli, brinjal, lemon, sweet lime, lady’s finger, cucumber, peas and cluster beans grow throughout the year. Soak cuttings of potato, ginger, carrot and radish in a shallow plate with water and they will sprout in a few days. When planted, these sprouts grow and offer produce in a few weeks. You can also sow ajwain (carom seeds), coriander and spinach. Lemon grass, mint and holy basil are a few herbs that offer flavour and health to your everyday tea or juice. People with more space can plant guava, jamun, mango, papaya and custard apple, and enjoy a fruit salad.

Use organic manures and shun pesticides to ensure a chemical-free diet. Avoid flooding the soil as excess water blocks soil pores and prevents plants from breathing. It is important to churn the soil every few months. And finally, do remember to touch your plants with affection—they will respond!

Laxmikant Deshpande is an environment capacity building consultant in Mumbai

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