For many of us, birds are the most enjoyable animals in our gardens. Try to imagine a garden where the only thing that was alive were the plants. I certainly can’t. One of the values of a well planned, well managed garden, even in urban Orange County, might be to attract birds. I will focus on seed, berry, and insect eating birds.
As an avid “birder” for over twenty years I’ve chased rare birds from Alaska to Florida and from the North Dakota-Canada border to the southernmost point of Texas. But it is the birds in my own garden that often evoke the fondest memories.
I believe that birds, bugs, frogs, lizards, opossums, worms and great plants are all be part of a garden. In nature, one depends upon the other. But in a garden it is the gardener who, with foresight, must allow nature to enter.
Perhaps the easiest way to “allow” birds in a garden is to maintain the garden with just a bit of wildness. Perfectly manicured lawns, clipped boxwood hedges and immaculate shrubbery may not be to a feathered friends liking.
Varied plant heights are important for attracting birds. Providing some open shrubbery and a loose canopy of trees allows birds to visit the garden without being nervous. For example, House Wrens are charming little garden birds, often being heard before seen, due to their constant chatter despite their tiny size. They search for bugs anywhere, especially among heavy shrubbery.
A mature tree, especially a sycamore, alder, oak or a large clump of birch can be a huge asset to a bird-friendly garden. Small insect-eating birds, like Yellow-Rumped Warblers and Bushtits will work the branches looking for a meal, while Black Phoebe’s and Cassin’s Kingbirds dash out from an exposed perch to catch small insects, returning to the same branch, waiting for the passing victim. Colorful and comical, Kingbirds call to each other frequently with a loud chi-BEW (maybe celebrating each bug they’ve caught!).
Gardens should always be maintained in a sensitive manner, regardless of your wildlife ambitions. It just makes sense to avoid harsh chemicals, systemic rose foods and overuse of ant and snail controls, which will eventually lead to a sterile, lifeless garden; one sparsely visited by birds. Like a contrived garden of tightly clipped plants, a garden of Ortho, Scott’s, Miracle Gro and Snarol may look pretty in a picture, but isn’t necessarily where a Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Brown Towhee, Song Sparrow or Bullock’s Oriole would like to live.
Birdhouses, more appropriately called “nesting boxes”, are another way to bring certain birds into a garden. Many gardeners may not know that specific houses are required for different birds. Subtle differences, including the size of the house, the elevation of the floor and especially the diameter of the entrance hole will determine which birds will use it. For instance, House Wrens need an entrance hole of 1 1/4” diameter, Tree Swallows: 1 1/2”, Western Bluebirds: 1 9/16”, House Finch: 2” and so on.
In my spare time, yes I have a little, I maintain three bluebird nesting boxes that I installed at a park near my house. When I began, three years ago, there were no bluebirds nesting in the park. With properly placed boxes, regularly monitored, I now have nests every year. In a couple of the boxes I’ve even had two broods in one season. Usually four or five chicks are raised in each clutch. Because of the boxes, Western Bluebirds are now common sights at the park and the surrounding gardens.
If you ever see a large flock of really tiny little grayish-brown birds in your garden that are peeping up a storm, then you’re probably seeing Bushtits. These are about the cutest birds imaginable, and they always travel in groups. Because they feel safe in numbers, Bushtits are rather fearless and will twitter all around you if you remain still. They are very focused on their relentless examination of your plants looking for aphids, scale, whitefly and other tiny bugs. When you see a flock of Bushtits in your garden, you can bet that they’re ridding your plants of pests and you should thank them for this valuable service!
As you are reading, you’re probably noticing that different birds have different food requirements. Another unique group of birds can be attracted by providing fruits and berries, like Toyon or Pyracantha. The sight and sound of a flock of sleek Cedar Waxwings descended on a plant laden in berries is unforgettable; all the while exuding their unmistakable high-pitched whistles.
The birds mentioned here is just the beginning. With a little planning and a few simple adjustments your coastal garden can attract Northern Flicker, Cliff Swallow, Scrub Jay, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Western Tanager, Mourning Dove, Brewer’s Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch and many others.
Next week we will talk about the various hummingbird species in Orange County and how best to attract them to your garden.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar