I just finished a design project for a couple looking for a bird garden in their Menlo Park backyard. As more birds are being displaced through urban development (lack of trees for nesting and fruit-bearing shrubs for food sources) it is more important than ever to remember the birds when beginning a landscape design project.
Here is a useful article that I found written by Arvind Kumar, educator, native plant expert and California Native Plant Society board member.
Birds make a garden come alive. They are a source of endless entertainment, dashing, fluttering, feeding, jumping, scratching, drinking, bathing, and eventually flying off. These foraging creatures are independent spirits, wild at heart, but if you provide what they need food, water, shelter, and nesting spaces they will return to your urban garden again and again.
Bird feeders provide instant gratification to bird and human alike, but they require regular cleaning and refilling, not to mention cleaning of the mess below. A complementary and sustainable approach is to plant shrubs with berries that our feathered friends find irresistible. Here is a short list of shrubs to increase the carrying capacity of your garden naturally:
Blue Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana, pictured). I call this plant an avian cafeteria for the sheer variety and quantity of songbirds that visit it in July-August to snack on the pale blue berries. (Yes, the berries are edible by humans, too.) By nature a large shrub, this fast-growing deciduous plant can be easily pruned and shaped as a multi-trunked tree to 20.
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). An evergreen shrub to 8 that produces brilliant red berries in November-December. Flocks of cedar waxwings and other birds gorge on the berries until they disappear. Attractive in flower as well as fruit, this native, non-invasive alternative to firethorn or cotoneaster is a must for bird-friendly gardens.
Holly-leaved Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia). A lush green densely branched versatile shrub that can be trained as a hedge or allowed to grow to a 20 tree. Flowers attract insects (therefore birds) in spring; fruit attracts birds in late summer/fall. Slow growing, drought tolerant.
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica). A handsome shrub with dark green foliage and stems that mature from mahogany to brown. Looks good year round. Tiny flowers attract hummingbirds and native bees in spring. Berries go from green to red to chocolate in fall, and are consumed eagerly by birds.
Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium). The state shrub of our neighboring state thrives in part shade. Shiny green leaves and yellow flower clusters adorn it in spring. By fall, the flowers have turned into purple berries that the birds love. Cold weather infuses red color to leaves.
In addition to food, birds need a steady source of water, especially during the dry, hot summer months. Include a water feature in the garden: it may be a simple fountain or a more elaborate stream or pond, or something as basic as a bird bath that is cleaned and refilled, often several times a day in very hot weather. If you provide it, they will find it.
Shelter is a critical component of bird habitat. Densely branching shrubs thwart larger predators and provide safe haven to small birds. Shrubs that provide food as well as shelter do double duty, and are preferred choices.
Each species has its own unique nesting requirements, and it is best to include trees and shrubs of varying sizes in the garden to provide a diversity of options for nesting sites.
Lastly, if you are concerned about wild birds and their safety with your cat around, please consider a wonderful (but funny looking) option called the Cat Bib.
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