Bird Gardening in California

From great egrets standing majestically in a coastal marsh,
to spotted owls roosting in an old-growth redwood forest, to mockingbirds
building a nest in a backyard citrus tree, California’s bird population is as
diverse as the geography of the state itself. From my window in Santa Cruz, I see Anna’s hummingbird visiting a
late-blooming salvia, double-crested cormorants perched in a eucalyptus tree
across the street, and a yellow-rumped warbler paying a visit to my neighbor’s
feeder. The good news for California
gardeners is that no matter where you live, your garden can play host to a
variety of year-round and migratory birds.


Resist the temptation to tidy up
too much during the winter months. I go
out every year in December to prune the roses, cut off any dead or decaying
tree limbs, and trim back the salvia to encourage new growth, but otherwise, I
try to leave things alone. The cuttings
go into a rather untidy pile in the far corner of my garden, where I let the blackberry
vines climb over them undisturbed. In
the vegetable garden, there are usually a few sunflowers still on the stalk,
their heavy dried seedheads drooping towards the ground. If I need to clear them to make room for a
quick crop of winter greens, I toss the seedheads on the brush pile, too. Christmas wreaths and swags go in the pile
after the holidays, and although I leave fallen leaves on the ground in my own
garden, the neighbors are all too happy to contribute their bags of leaves for
my pile. As the oranges begin to ripen
on my tree in January, I cut a few in half and place them in the tangle of
twigs and branches.

This brush pile becomes the winter
living room for the birds. Song
sparrows forage for insects and seeds, wrens seek shelter, and a bright yellow
western tanger appears sometimes to perch on an orange rind and enjoy the
fruit. Birds that overwinter in
California are always on the lookout for an undisturbed place to nest, forage
for insects and seeds, or simply seek shelter during a winter storm. My own garden is too small to accommodate a
brush pile year round, but I am all too happy to offer a corner to the birds in
the winter and clear it out come spring.

Berry-producing trees and shrubs
are the real treasures in a winter garden.  The toyon, also known as Christmas berry or California holly, is a
California native that produces bright red clusters of berries from November to
January. Junipers offer berries as
well as winter shelter and color. Although they don’t grow well in extreme desert heat or mountain cold,
junipers are widely available elsewhere. Check with your local nursery for a variety that grows well in your
area; the low-growing shore juniper is popular along the coast, and the tall
California juniper grows well in desert areas.

Even apartment and condominium
dwellers attract birds to their patios and balconies in the winter. My neighbor keeps a potted Christmas tree on
her balcony and decorates it with treats for the birds during the holiday
season. Pine cones rolled in peanut
butter and cornmeal, sprays of millet, and strings of berries make for a
decorative and bird-friendly winter display.


Coastal gardeners often experience
wind and rain throughout the early weeks of spring, with only a few warm, balmy
days to hint at the calmer weather to come. In the mountain regions, snow can continue through March, making shelter
and clean, well-stocked feeding stations more important than ever. But once the warm spring weather does
arrive, I look forward to the spectacle of bird-friendly trees coming into
bloom in my neighborhood.

Pacific dogwood, a California
native, or the more widely known Eastern dogwood, make excellent focal points
for the spring garden. Both produce
grey branches that grow in a pleasing horizontal pattern in winter. Both burst into spectacular bloom in April
or May, with a second flowering possible in September. As if that wasn’t enough, the leaves turn a
glowing red, yellow, or pink in fall. After the leaves drop, clusters of scarlet fruit provide a feast for the
birds during fall and winter months. Dogwood berries are favorites among over ninety different birds,
including cedar waxwings, song sparrows, and mockingbirds.

Flowering plum and cherry trees
also offer spectacular spring blossoms and fruit for the birds later. I like the native hollyleaf cherry and the
hardy wild plum, also known as the goose plum, for their reliability and lovely
pinkish-white flowers. If you’re lucky
enough to have such a tree in your own garden, cut a few branches just before
they bloom and bring them indoors for a spectacular early spring flower

Spring is a good time to plant
annual flowers that will produce seed in summer and fall for finches, towhees,
juncos, and sparrows. My favorites for
spring blooms are columbine, which attract hummingbirds with their
trumpet-shaped blossoms; forget-me-nots, which can be invasive but offer bright
early spring flowers and plenty of seeds later; calendula and marigold, which
also attract beneficial insects to the vegetable garden; and bachelor’s button,
which I interplant among spring bulbs for summer color. The highlight of my flower garden, however,
is a patch planted with meadow wildflowers such as California poppy and yarrow,
purple coneflower, and scabiosa, or pincushion flower. Many of these flowers
attract butterflies as well, so last year I introduced milkweed, which not only
provides strands of fibrous bark for orioles and other birds to use as nesting
materials if allowed to stand through winter into spring, it is also the only
plant where Monarch butterflies lay their eggs. 


 The highlight of my spring season is watching
a pair of mockingbirds build a nest in the lemon tree. Both birds share the task of building a nest
of dead twigs and grass about ten feet above the ground. It is a joy to sit on the back porch early
in the morning and watch them forage for food among the berry-producing shrubs
and vines, stopping frequently to chatter at one another or hop to the roof of
the garden shed, where they protest loudly anytime a gull dares fly over their


summer. The mockingbirds continue with
their nesting, the hummingbirds dart in and out of the flower garden, and
frequent trips to the seashore are enlivened by sightings of great blue herons,
avocets, and black-necked stilts. Everywhere, it seems, the birds are enjoying abundant fruit, plenty of
insects, and generous leafy cover for their nesting sites.

A wide perennial border alongside
my house is devoted to plants that are attractive to hummingbirds, and this is
the season to enjoy them. I’ve planted
red penstemon and scarlet pineapple sage, native columbine, and lupine to
attract the Anna’s and Rufous hummingbirds that are most frequently seen in my
neighborhood. Desert gardeners should
consider drought-tolerant natives such as California fushcia and monkey
flower. Aloes and red-hot poker plants
thrive in both desert and seaside areas and attract hummingbirds with their
bright orange blooms. In a cottage
garden, flowering plants such as
butterfly bush, bee balm, penstemon and foxglove will attract hummingbirds and
butterflies. I’ve even drawn them to
the vegetable garden with scarlet runner beans, which sport bright red flowers and
edible beanpods.

Because California summers are
usually dry, a good source of water is essential for birds in your
backyard. This can be as simple as a
trash can lid turned upside-down and filled with water or a small birdbath
attached to the railing of a deck, to something as elaborate as a pond with
running water. 

A small, plastic-lined pond
provides a good source of drinking water. Desert gardeners in particular may want to add a recirculating fountain
to create the sound of running water, which will attract birds in dry climates. Even a simple pipe dripping on rocks, or a
gallon jug suspended above the pond with a small hole punched in it to allow
water to drip out, will be enough to draw birds to your garden. A patio garden can also offer a little water
to local birds. A friend of mine fills
a galvanized bucket with water, adds a few water lilies, and tucks it among her
larger potted plants, which include small trees like camellia and lemon.

For a good bathing spot, consider
making a small birdbath the focal point of the garden. Since small birds prefer to splash around in
a couple inches of water, make sure your birdbath has a shallow area near the
edge for them. Larger birds will step
into deeper water and splash around, so leave a few inches of water for
them. Cement birdbaths are sturdy,
inexpensive, and easy to maintain, requiring only that you keep them scrubbed
and refill them every two to three days during the dry season. 


In many parts of the country,
autumn marks the end of the gardening season. Fortunately, though, California gardeners can spend the fall planting
trees and shrubs, scattering wildflower seeds, and enjoying a late blooming and
fruiting season. 

I begin the fall season by checking
for shrubs and perennial flowers that are past their prime and should be
replaced. Recently I’ve been planting
salvia, penstemon, low-growing junipers, and winter-blooming heathers. October is the best month to plant in
California, since the rains are just starting and the weather is still warm
enough to encourage young growth in new plants. A good layer of leaf mulch in the garden helps keep roots warm in
winter and provides an opportunity for the sparrows to forage for insects under
the leaves.

Fall is the prime season for
planting wildflower seeds, whether you have an open expanse of meadow or short
stretch of ground along a walkway. To
get an area ready for planting, clear it of any weeds or debris, rake the area
thoroughly, then water. In a week or
two, weed seeds that would otherwise choke out your wildflowers will begin to
emerge. Rake the area again to pull up
young weed seedlings, then water and wait for another crop of weed seeds to
emerge. By repeating this process two
or three times, you will eliminate most weed seeds with very little effort, and
the area will be ready to scatter with wildflower seed. Check your nursery for a good mix of native
wildflower seeds that grow well in your area.

Another way to plant good food
sources for the birds is to let them do it themselves. Clear an area of ground and create a perch
for birds by running a strand of wire between two posts. The birds will stop to rest and survey your
garden, and while they’re perched along the wire, they will leave behind
droppings that contain the seeds of their favorite food sources. Allow whatever comes up to prosper,
potluck-style, and you’ll have a weedy but welcoming buffet for the birds the
following year.

If you have the space, consider
planting a hedgerow of natives such as coyote bush, coffeeberry, elderberry,
California sagebrush, “Blue Blossom” ceanothus, and native buckwheats. Plant wild strawberry around the edges for
an attractive fall fruit, and scatter wildflower seeds such as poppy, lupine,
and yarrow. Mulch with a thick layer of
newspaper and wood chips to keep down invasive weeds. If you don’t think your yard can accommodate an overgrown
hedgerow, look around you. A neglected
alleyway or a vacant lot nearby might be the perfect spot if the owner is
agreeable. A hedgerow takes on a life
of its own, attracting a rich diversity of birds who will seek shelter, nesting
sites, and food in the form of berries, seeds, and insects.

One of my favorite vines comes into
its prime in the fall: Virginia
creeper. It will scramble over the
ground, climb up a trellis, and will provide good erosion control when planted
as a ground cover on slopes. The leaves
turn a dramatic orange-red in fall, and the berries are attractive to flickers,
titmice, and robins, among others. Here
in coastal California, I look to the long-blooming Mexican sunflower
(tithonia), the Virginia creeper vine, and the migratory Monarch butterflies to
provide fall color in my garden.