Winged and welcomed
To the rest of the world, it’s Oscar season in L.A. For those of us who live here, there’s a far better show in town. It’s bird-nesting season. For the gardener, this poses an immediate responsibility: Do nothing. Stop pruning. Still the buzz saws. Put down the shears. This is the time to stop hacking at shrubs and trees and to marvel at the array of life that sets up within them.
After that, you’re on your own. Gardening for birds is like those fantasy games in which you graduate from level to level, from neutral to keen to helpless enthusiast.
On a scale from 1 to 5, I am probably a 2.5. It started almost six years ago, on July 19, 1998, the first morning in my new home, new city, when I woke up and heard the low, slow ooahh, coo coo coo of a mourning dove. I knew this song. I knew it from holidays. This was the sound of paradise.
OK, I’m a 3. But I came at it more motivated than most. I arrived in Los Angeles starved of birdsong. I moved here from London, a city whose bird population suddenly collapsed in the mid-1990s, save crows and pigeons. Developers, pesticides, badly managed parks and air pollution collectively did them in. It was such a sharp loss that on arriving here and designing my first garden, high among my considerations was doing right by birds.
This was, I learned browsing through bird books, a matter of providing shelter, water and food. So I laid in a fountain and two birdbaths. I not only fed birds, I planted places for them to nest and plants that produce berries they like to eat. I stopped pruning from February through July, and as agonizing as it was for my mow-and-blow guys, convinced them to allow the hedges to become luxuriant during that same period. I bought lots of unsatisfactory books until David Allen Sibley published his masterpiece, the National Audubon Society “Sibley Guide to Birds.” I bought two copies, one for the house and one for the car. A brand new western guide is even better for Californians.
Learning how to use Sibley was a gradual process. I do not carry it around the garden, or wear binoculars while I plant lettuce and pull up Bermuda grass. Instead, if I notice a bird, I try to study it, then look it up in the evening. Often, the initial clues to a bird’s identity come not from a close-up look at its markings, but its gestalt. The first thing I noticed about a northern flicker was the distinctive pulses of its flight, the one-two-three, flap-flap-flap-and-glide, as it foraged the skies for bugs.
The second thing I noticed was the kooky quality with which it lighted sideways on the stem of a palm tree, woodpecker-style. When I finally got close enough to see its fabulous spots, it was Act 3 of a prolonged delight.
In six years of gradually accumulated impressions I’ve spotted and identified more than two dozen kinds of birds in my garden, from oak titmouses to a passing great blue heron. The thrill of it all, my love of birdsong, the whistles, the melodies, the taps, screeches, buzzes and rattles, reduces me to a gibbering state of enthusiasm. But one of the greatest benefits was unexpected. Birds don’t just sing, I find, they work. Birds, not chemicals, are the best way to control insect pests in the garden.
Contrary to the heavily advertised line from the Scotts Co., broadcasting insecticide treatments on suburban lawns every spring is not the best way to control grubs. Birds are. Systemic insecticides are not the best way to protect roses. Birds are.
To attract birds, you need to forgo the basket of poisons heavily advertised every spring as so beneficial to lawn care. To attract birds, you need healthy soil, teeming with worms and beetles. Once you have this, birds will find it, and once they find it, they are voracious little gleaners. They strip plants of pests. In the worst whitefly years, my hibiscuses have had maybe a few leaves affected, while immediate neighbors who sprayed have been forced to rip out their flowering hedges. Friends complain of ants. If my ants could talk, they would complain of woodpeckers.
How many types of birds you attract depends on how far you go, what level bird fancier you are. Garry George, executive secretary of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, is a hardcore Level 5. In the small gardens of his 1920s mid-Wilshire home, he reckons he’s spotted more than 70 types of birds. As he leads a tour, a wren forages out front, warblers glean bugs overhead. Out back, he points to a large white splat on his porch. His fondest hope is that it was left by an owl.
He and his partner went further than birdbaths. They created a riparian environment with layered tree canopy and motorized stream. They then planted their gardens with almost all natives. Front and back, the garden is a blushing thicket of fragrant and flowering native shrubs: Cleveland sage, California lilac, desert willows, Channel Island mallow. A plaque out front identifies it as a National Wildlife Federation habitat.
The problem with gardening exclusively with standard issue garden plants is that they are usually imported from other parts of the world. Their suitability for native birds, if they are suitable at all, will be accidental. However, if you have already landscaped your garden with nonnatives, as I did and so many of us have done, birds have probably already begun to adapt to it. Mockingbirds love nonnative Carolina cherries, and many of our small birds depend on bougainvillea for safe housing away from cats.
The trick is then introducing natives into conventional gardens planted with California standards, such as citrus and roses. Sages and abutilons are good to attract hummingbirds. Berry-producing plants, such as the native toyon berries and Sambucus shrubs, are superb bird plants. In fact, Jeff Chapman, teacher and naturalist at the Audubon Center at Debs Park, near Pasadena, wonders if toyons can’t be trained into hedges.
Then there are the kings of bird plants. Native trees. Black walnuts and oaks. Titmouses will chatter through the leaves of coastal live oaks, stripping them of bugs. Galls that form with wasp larvae are harmless to the plant and are like steakhouses to hopping little gleaners, such as bushtits. Jays will streak through every acorn season. Those of you lucky enough to have oaks, do not under any circumstances blow away the leaves that lie all around their roots. They are particularly sweet and nutritious for soil formation. Worms that develop in the natural mulch will attract all manner of insect eaters, including wrens and warblers. Flocks of almost lime-tinted yellow crown kinglets will sweep through your garden. Woodpeckers will nest in tree hollows, from where they will sweep out to feed on flying insects and even to forage on the ground.
Feeding birds is the time-honored way to draw them into your garden for closer looks, but it will only attract seed-eating varieties. Purists such as George discourage this. However, naturalist Chapman says the society does support bird-feeding in particularly stressed urban environments.
My central Los Angeles home meets that definition, so I provide both food plants and birdseed. But I overdid it with the seed, and can authoritatively report one side effect. Feed too many doves and predators show up. I discovered this one day as a friend came up my walk and my garden’s chorusing birds fell silent. He thought he had scared them until -- whoomph! -- a headless pigeon plummeted from the sky and landed at his feet. A Cooper’s hawk had just swooped in for a snack.
Bird gardening, I learned, is less like a Disney production and more like a wildlife film. There is lots of beautiful and cute stuff, but you can bet there will be a gory bit.
Emily Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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How to lure birds and keep them safe
For the gardener, a few simple dos and don’ts for feeding and nesting will have them flocking to your place.
Give them shelter. Plant an area of thick trees, shrubs and vines to create thickets.
Stir their drinks. Fountains or ponds should have pumps. Flush the water out every day, or every other day. No water at all is better than stagnant water.
Build a beach. Layer birdbaths with pebbles to create perches.
Seed sparingly. If you feed birds seed, put it out in the morning and in small enough quantities that it doesn’t sit overnight. Damp seed can grow moldy.
Beware of sugar. Change sugar solutions in hummingbird feeders every day. Otherwise the solution can provide a medium for dangerous bacteria.
Plant natives. For a list of recommended plants, go to www.audubon.org, search for your local chapter and look up garden-at-home links and bird plants.
Offer warnings. Put a bell on your cat.
Use pesticides. They’ll reduce natural food.
Tempt the cats. Bird feeders are bad ideas if you have free-ranging felines.
Prune or buzz hedges. At least during nesting season, or blow away leaf mold. This creates shelter, feeding grounds.
Recommended reading: “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America” (Knopf, 2003, $19.95).