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GARDENING : Birdbaths Let You Enjoy a Pet Without Having to Care for It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are the most care-free pets imaginable. You don’t have to clean out litter boxes. You don’t have to take them to the veterinarian for shots. You don’t have to feed them even.

All you have to do is offer them a drink of water.

By adorning your yard with a birdbath, you can attract a colorful array of feathered friends that would otherwise pass you by. And as a bonus, a birdbath--with or without its intended guests--provides a splash of serene beauty to a garden or lawn.

“It’s like having pets that you don’t have to keep in the house,” says Ed Persson, an aviculturist at Magnolia Bird Farm in Anaheim.

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Orange County developer Barry Hon and his wife, Valerie, added a birdbath to their yard last year, after they remodeled their Monarch Bay home in a Continental style. Their sunny library overlooks a rose garden that surrounds the simple yet elegant fluted sandstone birdbath.

“The birdbath gives the scenery outside our library window a focal point,” Valerie Hon said. “And it has made our yard a haven for birds. I like to sit by the window with a cup of coffee and just watch them.”

When her rose bushes are in bloom, Valerie Hon will occasionally float buds in the birdbath. “I leave enough room for the birds, of course,” she said, laughing.

Birdbaths come in a wide range of styles and prices--from $30 plastic to $9,000 marble models.

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“We have birdbaths that start at $75 and that go as high as you want to go,” says Patty Pollak, manager of Paris Fountains in Laguna Beach.

Paris Fountains imports its products from Mexico. Pollak has two birdbaths at her own home, One, on her upstairs balcony, she keeps filled with seed; the other, in her back yard, serves its original purpose.

“I think that a birdbath really enhances a garden area; it’s an integral part of the landscaping,” she says. “It gives a yard a warm, tranquil ambience. I can’t imagine being without one.”

Many Southern Californians, however, do indeed do without one. More swimming pools than birdbaths are found in Orange County back yards.

“They’re very secondary to our fountain business,” Pollak said.

“Birdbaths are much more popular on the East Coast and in the Midwest, where there are more European-styled homes,” said Chris Folgmann of R.M. Tulleners Landscape in Laguna Hills. “Californians tend to think that birdbaths don’t fit in with a Spanish motif. Yet a simple, plain birdbath looks nice in any setting.”

Folgmann helped do the Hons’ landscaping--a lawn with a sprawling maze of hedges wrapped around small garden areas. He ordered their birdbath from International Terra Cotta of Los Angeles, an upscale store that imports statues and fountains from Italy. Its birdbaths run from about $1,200 to $2,500.

The Hons’ birdbath has a fluted bowl with an ornamental bird perched on its rim. It is hand-carved from sandstone, a rock similar to limestone.

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“Sandstone is the gray-tinted stone that the centuries-old churches in Europe were built with,” explained Dick Allison, showroom manager at International Terra Cotta. “It is a porous stone, so a new birdbath will ‘sweat’ a bit initially, but it eventually self-seals. Because of the moisture, moss will grow on the outside of the birdbath. Some people like the moss--it gives birdbaths and fountains an aged look. But if you prefer, you can scrub off the moss with soap and water.”

The Hons’ birdbath is secured with an iron rod in an underground cement block, but birdbaths positioned on level surfaces need not be bolted down, Allison said. Still, he said, doing so “is advisable in earthquake zones.”

Goodwin International of Costa Mesa also imports birdbaths from Italy. “Italy has some of the last artists who are still hand-carving marble and stone ornaments,” said owner Tim Goodwin. He sells birdbaths made from terra cotta (starting at $350) and marble (up to $9,000).

But a perfectly decent birdbath--albeit machine-made of ceramic rather than hand-carved from sandstone--can be had for under $100. The HomeClub in Santa Ana offers a wide variety of inexpensive birdbaths, including a plastic one for $30. A ceramic birdbath decorated with squirrels goes for $40, and a more ornate one embellished with three doves is priced at $90. Most of the birdbaths must be special-ordered from a catalogue.

If you want something less traditional, the Nature Co. in South Coast Plaza sells a copper birdbath designed by an artist in Washington State. Its bowl sits atop a pyramid-shaped base.

“The copper oxidizes with water, giving it a green patina,” manager Brett Bell said. “Part of the birdbath’s beauty is in its oxidation. It is a work of art as well as a functional birdbath.” The modern sculpture comes in two sizes: four feet high and two feet in diameter ($495); and 36 inches high, 18 inches in diameter ($295).

Nature Co. also has a hanging birdbath that can be attached with rope to a tree branch or balcony rail. The terra cotta bowl, 18 inches in diameter, is priced at $49.95.

“Birdbaths are part of our store’s statement, which promotes the observation and understanding of nature,” Bell said.

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Persson of Magnolia Bird Farm said that a birdbath can “turn your yard into a nature center all your own.”

“It will attract birds that you normally wouldn’t see,” he said. “Some of the most beautiful birds in the world migrate through California, in flight from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and South America. For instance, there is the bunting, which has a blue head, a pink chest and green wings. Migrating birds might rest up for a few days in your back yard.”

Birdbaths also bring in more common yet charming species--blue jays, starlings, sparrows and hummingbirds. “Blue jays can become your little pets,” Persson says. “They will eat food right out of your hand.”

Like barnyard cats, wild birds earn their welcome by dining on pests. “It’s good to have blackbirds hanging around your garden, because they eat bugs,” Persson points out.

He warned, however, that when you invite birds to your house, you should not include pesticides on the menu. “Only organic gardeners should try to attract birds to their gardens. Pesticides will kill birds as well as insects.”

Nor should you tempt birds into your yard if you have outdoor cats. “It’s like feeding time for cats,” Persson said. “Birds and cats just don’t mix. You can’t fight it--it’s nature.”

Birdbaths should be placed in an open spot, clear of bushes where predators can hide. Hanging birdbaths are good for cat-infested neighborhoods because they can be hung out of claws’ reach.

Although wild birds are low-maintenance pets, they do require a little loving care.

“Birdbaths should be cleaned daily with a hose and brush,” Persson says. “A sick bird might leave droppings that could contaminate a lot of other birds.” If you want the decoration without the responsibility, Persson notes, there’s no law that says a birdbath must contain water.

“Fill it with marigolds,” he suggested. “Birdbaths make lovely planters.”


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