Real Estate

Attracting feathered visitors

Tips for making gardens more bird-friendly

Songbirds are as desirable in gardens as music scores are in movies. In addition to their lilting chirps, birds benefit the gardens they visit, according to Toby Goldberg, education and outreach director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.

Birds control pests naturally, and that's the first reason to welcome them into one's garden, Goldberg said.

"When a garden or any habitat is in balance between predators and prey, and has strong diversity of plants and animals, you won't tend to see the outbreaks of pests that more mono-cultural areas have," she said.

Many songbirds eat insects, especially California native birds that nest in cavities -- mostly tree holes or, in the case of burrowing owls, in holes in the ground, according to Goldberg.

"These birds will keep aphids, caterpillars, grubs, spiders, beetles and other insects under control just by doing what they normally do, such as foraging for food and feeding their young," she said, adding that larger species like barn owls control rodents, including rats, mice and pocket gophers.

"When the birds are taking care of our pests, we don't have to then turn to chemicals and poisons, which have a wide range of negative consequences for the environment,"Goldberg said, adding that birds help to pollinate and to disperse seeds.

The key to attracting feathered visitors, Goldberg said, lies in the plants one chooses for one's garden.

"The more native and natural habitat a gardener can provide, and the more diversity (of plants), the healthier the backyard space will be and the more birds, as well as other wildlife, it will be able to attract," she said.

A garden that serves as a bird magnet doesn't have to be large if the owner does all the right things, according to Goldberg.

"Even in my small concrete patio, which is no larger than 6 feet by 20 feet, I have at least 15 different plant species, each of which has different birds that are attracted to it," Goldberg said. "So I get hummingbirds, chickadees, wrens, juncos, doves and more."

Callie Elliston, a Master Gardner living in Palo Alto, said different flocks of birds pass through her garden as the seasons change.

"We always have house and goldfinches, as well as Anna's hummingbirds. Now we have flocks of robins, dark-eyed juncos, bushtits and sparrows," Elliston said. "Birds and native pollinators can be easily attracted to your garden with the addition of three things -- food, shelter and water."

Elliston has a recirculating fountain shallow enough for eight to 12 house finches to gather and bathe in. The hanging branches of a persimmon tree and other plants near the fountain provide a natural perch for the birds to dry off and preen, she added.

Native plants can provide birds with the most nutritious food source, according to Elliston.

"Gardeners can supplement with nectar feeders for the hummers and (with) bird seed, but what birds really want, especially when they are feeding young, is native berries, pollen and seeds," she said.

For Palo Alto resident Dexter Girton, birds are not always happily received: Western mockingbirds and scrub jays have a bad habit of snacking on his blueberries.

"The birds are just looking for something to eat, but I'd rather eat the berries since I'm growing them," he said, adding that he will cover the blueberry plants with fine tulle netting as soon as the berries get ripe, a technique that has foiled the birds in the past.

"Not all birds are equally welcome to my garden," said Girton. "Mockingbirds are wonderful song birds. I try to figure out what birds they are mimicking. On the other hand, scrub jays are way too loud and are too aggressive toward other birds. "

About scrub jays and western mockingbirds, Goldberg said they may seem like pests under certain circumstances, but they contribute to the overall health of the environment.

"Western scrub jays are important to help disperse (seeds) and plant oak trees because they bury they acorns to store for later. Mockingbirds are important for seed dispersal for many berry-bearing and fruit-bearing shrubs and trees," she said.

These two types of birds will also eat insects, such as crickets, grasshoppers and grubs, she said.

As for what to do with birds eating backyard fruits, Goldberg said, "In my garden, I just plant a little extra for the critters to have some, too."

Goldberg will give a lecture on how to attract birds to a garden on Saturday, March 12, 9:30-11 a.m. at Elizabeth Gamble Garden in Palo Alto. It will cost $25 for members and $35 for non-members. Information is available at gamblegarden.org.

Freelance writer Crystal Tai can be reached at crystal2@stanfordalumni.org.

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