This past month has been a wonderful time to get outside and listen to your garden awaken from its dry-season slumber. For the past week I have heard a sharp increase in the bird songs in my yard. Western kingbirds have been calling from atop my neighbor’s pine tree, while scrub jays and acorn woodpeckers have been raising a ruckus in my oak trees. A pair of morning doves have been billing and cooing under my ceanothus and hummingbirds have been buzzing about and feeding on the blossoms of my manzanitas, white-flowering currant, black sage, and hybrid wooly blue curls. A sharp-shinned hawk went streaking through the backyard a time or two and yellow-rumped warblers (“butter-butts” as we like to call them) have been twittering in the toyon. You may think that we live out in a vast rural area of Valley Center or similar clime, but we live on a small suburban lot in Escondido. Since planting our bird-friendly native habitat garden, we have enjoyed spending many hours of birdwatching in our own little yard.
Landscaped spaces like home gardens and parks have been traditionally designed for use strictly by people, consisting of lawns and tidy flower beds. Controlling nature was a sign of a civilized, modern world. As our world becomes ever more urbanized and digitalized, people are discovering that they want a more enriching experience in their outdoor spaces, a greater sense of our connection to nature and a sense of place. Landscaping with the goal of attracting birds (birdscaping) can transform your garden into a fascinating, complex habitat. Not only will it attract birds, but applying the principles of birdscaping to your garden will also attract butterflies, native pollinators, lizards, and other animals into your yard. When we select plants to attract birds with a year-round supply of seeds, fruits, nectar, and foliage, we get the benefit of enjoying a garden filled with the year-round beauty of flowers, colorful berries, and foliage interest. Using California’s native plants is the best way to attract the widest variety of birds to your garden. Each native plant is a habitat for many insects and other herbivores that have adapted to that plant species over thousands of years. As author and permaculturalist Diane Kennedy recently wrote, “native plants have evolved to provide exactly the right food in exactly the right package to attract and feed native insects, birds, mammals, (and) reptiles.” Planting California natives also saves water, reduces your carbon footprint, and saves on labor.
So, how do you start creating a bird garden? There are 4 basic steps to creating a habitat garden: Provide a year-round source of water for drinking and bathing; provide shelter for foraging, raising young, and avoiding predators; provide food in way of native plants; eliminate chemicals from your garden.
Water is a must for a bird garden. Birds prefer moving water so a re-circulating fountain or a birdbath with a mister or dripper are great choices. A small pond can also provide habitat for frogs and dragonflies. Year-round water can be provided in a drought friendly way. For example, we use a bucket to collect the warm-up water from our shower and use it to keep our ponds and fountains filled. If you choose to set up a bird bath, make sure it is not too slick! You can place a few small rocks in your birdbath to give the birds some sure footing. Also, make sure that you place your water source near some cover as birds will not feel secure if they need to drop down to an large, open area for a drink or a bath.
Birds need varied structure for resting, nesting and providing the correct foraging habitat. A mixture of trees, shrubs, flowering perennials, and grasses will attract the most birds. Tall trees host a wide variety of birds. Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) are some of the best habitat trees around. Jays, bushtits, nuthatches, woodpeckers, hawks and owls all use oaks as shelter and a dining hall. Western sycamores (Platanus racemosa) attract finches, cedar waxwings, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers. Black walnut trees (Juglans californica) attract jays, and pine tree nuts (Pinus spp) are a favorite of many seed eaters. Larger trees are a great place to hang nest boxes. but be sure to remove any perches from the nest boxes as house sparrows will use them to harass the birds in the boxes. Small trees and shrubs provide dense canopy for smaller birds such as towhees, finches, warblers, sparrows, wrens, and bushtits. These birds use dense foliage to hide from predators, nest, and forage for berries, flowers, and insects. Vines are very important to our native birds well, given that they nectar, fruit, insects, and safe cover. Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is one of the most important habitat plants in California. However, since we really don’t want to cover a pergola with it, we can use native honeysuckles (Lonicera subspicata or Lonicera hispidula), blackberry (Rubus ursinus), grape (Vitis californica or Vitis girdiana), or heart-shaped penstemon (Keckiella cordifolia). Flowering perennials supply nectar, seeds, and an all-you-can-eat bar of insects for our birds. Tubular flowers provide nectar for hummingbirds and orioles while flat flowers attract insect pollinators for birds to eat. The seeds of the flowering perennials also feed small songbirds such as sparrows and finches. Grasses also provide valuable habitat. We are talking here about native bunching grasses (Nassella spp, Aristida purpurea, Bouteloua gracilis, Melica imperfecta, Muhlenbergia rigens), fescues (Festuca spp), and sedges (Carex spp), not mono-cultured lawns that are pretty much ecological wastelands. Native grassland plantings provide open areas for ground feeders like towhees, doves, thrashers, and quail to scratch in and search for insects, worms, and fallen seeds. They also provide areas for phoebes and kingbirds to hunt insects on the wing. Grasses also provide nutritious, high fat seeds and nesting material. Rocks, boulders and logs are other structural elements that attract insects to munch on and lizards for a roadrunner’s dining pleasure.
To provide the best food source for your bird habitat, use at least five California native species that together will provide nectar, seeds, fruit, and insects year-round. Nectar is provided by tubular shaped flowers such as manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp), currants and gooseberries (Ribes spp) in the winter; penstemons (Penstemon spp), sages (Salvia spp), mints (Monardella spp), monkeyflowers (Mimulus spp), honeysuckles, and fuchsias (Epilobium spp) from spring through summer. Seeds from acorns to buckwheat (Eriogonum spp) to tiny grass seed provide year-round food for sparrows, finches, quail, grosbeaks, morning doves, red-winged blackbirds, jays, and titmice. These birds would love it if you didn’t deadhead all of your flowers and grasses, as they would very much like to have some seed heads to dine on. Beside oak and grasses, many shrubs and any of the flowering perennials produce seed – mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus spp), ceanothus, sages, sunflowers (Encilia spp, Venegasia carpesioides, Viguiera spp), penstemons, monkeyflowers, asters (Erigeron spp), etc. Berries and fruits are a rich source of calories for waxwings, phainopeplas, orioles, bluebirds, mockingbirds, tanagers, warblers, finches, sparrows, wrens, towhees, thrashers, and kingbirds. The plant that attracts the most fruit lovers is the Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana). This large shrub/small tree can get a bit twiggy, but if you stay on top of the pruning to maintain a more refined look (or just let it go for a wild, natural, care-free look) you will attract a plethora of birds to your garden in summer. Other excellent summer fruit bearing plants are grapes, blackberries, lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), and sugar bush(Rhus ovata). Fall to winter bearing fruits are coffeeberries (Rhamnus spp), toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia), summer holly (Comarostaphylis diversifolia), honeysuckles, snowberries (Symphoricarpus spp), and holly-leafed and Catalina cherries (Prunus ilicifolia spp). Springtime currants and gooseberries, strawberries (Fragaria californica), and manzanita berries are also avian favorites. Adding bird feeders with high quality food can also help attract birds to your new habitat garden. The noise and activity of birds at your feeders will let other birds know that your yard is bird friendly. Cheap bird seed will only bring the most common birds such as house finches to your feeders. Provide a variety of food in thistle, suet, grape jelly, nectar and whole nut feeders and keep them clean to get the birds started in your garden.
Keeping your yard pesticide free assures the health of native pollinators and their larvae, European honeybees, and a host of invertebrate predators. In turn, this healthy and balanced population of insects and spiders will be great a food source for insectivorous birds such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, phoebes, bluebirds, warblers, wrens, and bushtits. If you have an edible garden you will get the added benefit of having these insect loving birds gleaning pests off of your crops. When the flocks of bushtits hit my oak and mountain mahogany, they always stop by my kale and chard patch and glean the cabbage butterfly larvae off of my greens!
This may all sound rather intimidating, but all you really need are a couple of trees (even small ones), some open areas combined with some dense understory areas, a water feature and voilà, you have created a bird habitat. Starting small may be a good idea. as I did when I started my native gardening passion by converting my little side yard into a California habitat garden about 15 years ago. Check out our blog entries on books and on-line resources to start your plant research. Many of the these on-line resources provide lists of the best California natives for a birdscaping. Take advantage of this special El Niño planting season by birdscaping your garden and soon you will be enjoying a natural symphony in your own backyard!