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On the Fly – Gardening for the Birds

Going native

Now that spring is almost over and so many plants have gone to seed, big brown are hopping around on the hill behind my house and enjoying the crop. House finches are all over the neighborhood, still singing their sweet song, and goldfinches too. All of these birds have sturdy triangular beaks built for crushing seeds — unlike, for instance, gnatcatchers, whose longer and more slender beaks are good for finding insects in tree bark.

Then there are the hummingbirds, with their impossibly long bills, searching out nectar in tubular flowers. And when berries start to ripen, all kinds of birds with all kinds of beaks will go after them, including waxwings and robins and maybe even bluebirds.

Besides food, birds use plants as refuges and nesting sites. Those towhees need some open ground to scrounge on, but they also need a place to flee from cats and other predators. Orioles like to use milkweed fiber in their nests, a thrasher will rarely leave the hard chaparral it calls home, and of course oaks, pines, cottonwoods and all the other trees — native and nonnative—in our neighborhoods harbor entire avian universes.

The choices we make about what to plant — what mix of shrubs, trees, brush, flowers, fruits, seeds and grasses we create — can be of great help to the birds, and so can our style of gardening. If there are areas in your yard where a less-than-pristine look is acceptable (and why not?), consider extending the feast by leaving some seed stalks standing, some spent flowers unpruned, some trimmings scattered about. One of the best things we can do is provide water year-round, with cover nearby. And have mercy when trimming trees — wait till fall, after nesting season is over.

Given the right habitat, most birds can thrive, but native plants in particular are a boon to them and other creatures as well — think butterflies. In California we have several species of birds that are mostly endemic — they live or breed nowhere else in the world. The Allen's hummingbird is perhaps the most glamorous example. Others include the California thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum), the Central Valley’s yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli), and the Nuttall’s woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii).

Others species, such as the Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna), the wrentit (Chamaea fasciata), and the oak titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus), have larger ranges but stay pretty much on the West Coast. These birds have adapted to certain plants over the millennia, and plants in turn have changed themselves in order to make good use of pollinators.

Scientists have gone to great lengths to understand this, publishing papers with such thrilling titles as “Geographical Aspects of Bird-Flower Coevolution” and “The Role of Flower Width in Hummingbird Bill Length–Flower Length Relationships.”

We know that by feeding from flowers of different lengths, short-billed and long-billed hummingbirds can live in the same neighborhood without getting in each other’s way. Differently curved bills align with differently shaped flowers. Some plants position their flowers upright but some allow them to dangle, and in either case a properly configured hummingbird will get not only the nectar it is seeking but a glob of pollen on its forehead to deposit in the next flower it visits.

Hummingbirds don’t have much sense of smell but they see color, and many plants produce the red and pink hues they prefer. And the plants that hummingbirds feed on are often soft in structure, accommodating hoverers but providing no landing opportunities for competitors or predators.

The California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), also known as “hummingbird plant,” and the scarlet bugler penstemon (Penstemon centranthifolius) are two California native species that will happily grow here. And while our endemic Allen’s hummingbird will dine with gusto on South African aloe flowers, I think it must be even more pleased to encounter one of these species, or maybe a Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii). The western columbines (Aquilegia formosa) are smaller than the eastern species but still stunning, and hummingbirds love them. All of these plants produce brilliant garden flowers and, being native to our dry state, can survive on very little water.

Here are a few other suggestions: ceanothus, or California lilac, for beautiful blue-to-purple flowers and lots of seeds for bushtits, mockingbirds, quail, and finches; redbud to provide nectar for hummingbirds and seed for goldfinches; toyon, Oregon grape, gooseberries and currents (Ribes spp.), elderberries, huckleberry, and coffeeberry to provide fruit for robins, waxwings, grosbeaks, bluebirds, and many others; and manzanita, which comes in shapes and sizes to meet all kinds of landscaping situations, for both berries and flowers. Annual wildflowers, such as California poppies, clarkia, redmaids, and baby blue eyes, yield seeds in prodigious numbers, as do the native bunchgrasses.

For a more complete list, with bird pictures, check out the Theodore Payne Foundation website. The Native Here Nursery in Tilden Park, operated by the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), is a great source of plants and information.

This article originally appeared on Martinez Patch.

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