This Story Is for the Birds : Attract Feathered Friends to Your Yard With Plants That Provide Food, Cover

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Dardick is a free-lance writer living in Eagle Rock. </i>

In England, the songs of birds are valued more than the sounds of water to many English gardeners, who design their gardens especially to attract birds.

Here in Southern California, where water is an increasingly scarce resource, gardeners can transform their back yards into habitats that will attract numerous species of birds.

The delights of observing these creatures of the wild are matched by the importance of protecting them as natural habitats and food sources shrink, caused in part by the five-year drought and also by increasing urbanization.

Gardening is the No. 1 leisure time activity in America, and according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of the Interior, bird watching is America’s second favorite pastime. Creating a back-yard bird habitat is an excellent way of combining both hobbies.


Songbirds will visit any garden that satisfies their basic needs--food, water, protective cover and sheltered nesting sites. With a little encouragement from humans, the number of bird visitors can be increased dramatically.

Birds, and butterflies, another welcome garden guest, can be drawn to any size of garden, whether it consists of plants on a deck or a half-acre of trees, shrubs, lawn and flowers.

Some avid bird fanciers create gardens specifically to care for and protect birds.

“When I decided to remove my front lawn and relandscape my gardens, I hired a landscape architect, Shirley Kerins (ASLA), and instructed her to create a garden for the birds,” said Barbara Cohen, a resident of the San Gabriel Valley. An avid birder and longtime member of the Audubon Society, Cohen conducts monthly bird walks at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia.


Her property already contained several mature trees--alder, oak, camphor and a liquidambar tree whose seeds are especially attractive to goldfinches.

The front lawn was replaced with flowering shrubs and herbs to provide dense cover and food. A large pomegranate bush in front of the house also is a popular source of shelter and food to a number of songbirds. Wisteria was planted on an arbor adjacent to the house to offer additional shelter.

Penstemon, bottlebrush, borage, sorrel, toyon, holly and honeysuckle are some of the other plants she selected.

Cohen also plants sunflowers every year so birds can feed on their dried flower heads filled with seeds.

She also provides sources of water.

“Water is vital to birds, and the sound of dripping water will attract them as they migrate or fly by,” Cohen said. She installed a water lily pond in her back garden, and its recirculating fountain draws numerous feathered visitors.

Cohen is such an avid birder that when a back-yard oak tree died, she refused to have it removed.

“Dead trees are excellent sources of perches, nesting sites for birds that like hollows, and insects as food sources,” she said. “They can be an important part of a bird habitat.”


Cohen also gardens organically.

“I don’t use toxic chemicals on any of my plants, including the roses,” she said. “Since birds will perch on the rose canes and eat the aphids, I don’t want to poison them.”

But bird gardens aren’t just for dedicated bird fanciers. Some landscaping experts are also becoming intrigued with the aesthetic and practical charms of this garden style.

“When I traveled in England last year I was impressed with the skill and care gardeners spent in creating bird gardens, and I am starting to create adaptations of English bird gardens here in Los Angeles,” said Leo Snyder, owner of Coventry Landscape Co. in La Crescenta.

Snyder recently created a 25-by-50-foot demonstration bird garden during a monthlong exhibit at the Showcase House of Design in Pasadena.

He planted various pittosporum, abutilon, hundreds of delphiniums and foxgloves, ornamental garlic (to attract insects, which then attract birds), marigolds and different types of salvia for their seeds, and honeysuckle.

He also built a 3-by-4-foot birdhouse in the same design as the Showcase House.

A back-yard garden is really part of a larger habitat, which often includes an entire neighborhood. The type of trees planted (or removed) along public streets affects the local bird population because trees are one of the greatest bird attractants, providing cover, nesting sites and, in many cases, food sources through their fruit or seeds.


For example, orioles use palm tree fibers for nesting material. A neighborhood planted with palm trees can expect visits from these colorful birds during their annual migration. The individual garden then becomes an important niche in the overall habitat.

Southern California is home to about 100 bird species, and is also part of a migratory route termed the Pacific flyway. Amateur back-yard birders can expect to attract 20 to 30 species into their own gardens.

“I’ve observed 27 different species in one day in my back yard,” said Karen Johnson, a board member of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society and a leader of bird walks at Descanso Gardens.

Johnson lives in La Canada Flintridge, and is a keen bird observer. She places bird feeding stations in her garden to provide them with supplemental food sources. She also creates birdbaths by filling ceramic or clay saucers with water and placing them on pots turned upside down.

“Southern California is home to birds that live here year-round, and is a stop-off for a large number of migratory birds in May and October,” she said.

“Some of the most commonly seen resident species include Northern mockingbirds, house finches, house sparrows, bushtits, plain titmice, scrub jays, mourning doves, common ravens, red-tailed hawks and Anna’s hummingbirds.

“Among the migratory species that we can see here are rock doves, cedar waxwings, black-chinned, rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds, goldfinches, towhees, orioles, American robins, warblers, Western tanagers, white-crowned sparrows and owls.”

Johnson points out that birds will be attracted to a yard that includes a natural, undisturbed area.

“At least one area of the yard should resemble a natural setting with leaf litter, tree trimmings and overgrown shrubbery,” she said.

It’s also important to protect birds from predators, and in many households that includes the family or neighborhood cat.

When possible, place at least one bell around your cat’s collar. This will usually provide enough sound for the bird to make a quick escape, although some cats are such clever hunters that they can successfully stalk a bird even when wearing a bell.

Many birds eat insects, and for that reason are also welcome additions to gardens since they can be natural sources of insect control. It’s crucial for gardeners to avoid the use of any toxic insecticides or fungicides.

Some of the flowers that attract birds will also provide food for butterflies. Lantana is a semi-tropical plant that was introduced widely into Southern California. Its nectar feeds butterflies as well as hummingbirds.

Greater Los Angeles is home to 106 species of butterflies, and of these 15 will be regular visitors to gardens that contain the plants they like.

“There are two different ways to attract butterflies,” explained Art Evans, Ph.D., insect zoo director at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

“A popular method is to include plants such as lantana or buddleia that are sources of nectar for adult butterflies. The other method is to grow the plants that are hosts for the butterfly caterpillars, such as milkweed, which hosts Monarch larvae.

“The downside of attracting butterflies is that caterpillars can damage other plants in the garden,” Evans added. “One way to avoid this is by planting only the nectar sources so the adult butterflies will lay their eggs at some other site.”

Natural butterfly habitats are rapidly shrinking.

“Some butterfly species will survive only if the plants they require continue to be planted,” said Rudy Mattoni, author of “The Butterflies of Greater Los Angeles.”

“The existence of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly depends on the passion vine. When people plant these vines, they can expect swarms of this butterfly species to come from miles around.”

Plants and seeds of bird and butterfly attracting flowers and shrubs are readily available in Los Angeles. Most nurseries stock the more common plants, and many seeds and plants can be obtained at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, (818) 768-1802.