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Home and Garden

Simple steps can transform a backyard into a bird sanctuary

The large California Towhee joins American Gold Finches in eating at the platform feeder at the Wild Birds Unlimited store garden in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo
The large California Towhee joins American Gold Finches in eating at the platform feeder at the Wild Birds Unlimited store garden in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo

NORTH COUNTY — Food, water and a birdhouse are the essential ingredients to starting up a sanctuary for wild birds at home. For avid gardeners and nature lovers alike there’s also an abundance of low- to high-end possibilities that go way beyond that for attracting birds, butterflies and even bees to a North County backyard.

Plants are naturally one of the first things that come to mind when creating a haven for our flying friends.

Hassie Kimber, a customer service representative with Green Thumb Nursery in San Marcos, suggests attracting birds with a variety of plants that contain a berry such as Cotoneaster, or for larger gardens, the thorny evergreen shrubs called Pyracanthas. Hummingbirds are drawn to bright flowers, especially red and orange types, and tubular flowers that they can really sink their beaks into such as long and skinny Salvias. For those looking to bring more Monarch butterflies into their garden, Kimber recommends planting Asclepias, commonly known as milkweed, which provide sustenance to caterpillars.

“Right now the big craze is the milkweed for butterflies,” says Kimber, who notes the Monarchs can be spotted locally as they migrate to the Mexican state of Michoacan near Mexico City. “We carry a ton of varieties of milkweed and none of them have been sprayed with anything.”

Board members of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation help install plants in a new butterfly bee garden located behind the lagoon’s Nature Center in Carlsbad. Photo courtesy of Liz Paegel
Board members of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation help install plants in a new butterfly bee garden located behind the lagoon’s Nature Center in Carlsbad. Photo courtesy of Liz Paegel

For growers on a budget, Kimber said 4-inch bedding plants or the $2.99 six packs of plants are the way to go. She suggests annuals and perennials, particularly in containers, for small gardens but shrubs and trees in large yards. Some examples of bird- and butterfly-friendly plants to spice up a local garden include passiflora, known as the passion vine, and the achillea, also called yarrow, to lure in butterflies. The Mahonia aquifolium, called organ grape, brings in birds and the trumpet vine attracts hummingbirds.

A nice water feature such as a ceramic saucer on the low end and birth baths on the upper end also helps attract birds as well as bees.

“Bringing in bees is important if you’re growing fruits and vegetables or anything that needs pollination,” she says, noting that bees also like lavender plants and lantanas. “Anything from a Koi pond down to a whiskey barrel or even a bird bath works depending on how much space you have. A lot of people with a small garden just do a half whiskey barrel with a liner in it.”

Before customers go home with their load of new plants, Kimber offers advice about placement of the plants — typically the larger plants are arranged behind the shorter plants, for example — and she offers tips about watering schedules, fertilization, mulching during certain times of year and recommends products to take care of insect infestations or fungus issues. She says the “Sunset Western Garden Book” is a handy resource for anyone interested in obtaining lists of plants in their Latin and common names that are particularly attractive to birds, bees and hummingbirds.

At the California Backyard Birds store in Encinitas, which sells bird feed and supplies for mostly outdoor birds, co-owner Mark Hocking says setting up a bird sanctuary in a natural environment has its advantages such as no cages to clean, no medicines to administer and no vet bills to pay.

“You get more variety of birds in your yard than you would in an aviary,” he says. “In a natural environment there’s not a lot of work involved.”

Hocking says customers on a budget can set up a bird-friendly environment in their yard for as little as $70 to $75. He suggests incorporating a hanging bird bath for $20 to $40 or a standing bird bath for $45 and up; a bird feeder for as low as $15; and bird seed that sells for about $4 to $8 for a 5-pound bag.

Inexpensive accents to incorporate include putting a smooth stone such as a beach rock in a bird bath to help the birds wade in the water since their depth perception is not very good. Plus, Hocking says birds just love to stand on the rocks and splash around. He says bird houses are great during nesting season, mainly in the spring, but they should be hung at least 5 feet or higher and not too close to food and water, otherwise predators like crows and scrub jays could spy the baby birds. Hocking notes that bluebird houses are practical because they attract wrens and bluebirds, whereas a wren house would only be used by wrens.

Guidelines for hummingbird feeders is to clean them at least once a week, or twice a week in hot weather, to avoid fermentation. If the birds get fermented sugar water on their beaks it can cause a growth on the beak that could possibly kill them, he said.
His advice for the bird feeders is to use a tube feeder because birds recognize that more than other types of feeders. Hocking says 100 percent birdseed without corn or other fillers is best because they won’t attract rodents or other pests. He suggests waiting two or three days before filling up an empty bird feeder to encourage birds to forage on the ground for the leftovers, cleaning up any mess that would otherwise attract the rodents.

Mealworms and insect suet will attract the insect eating birds, he says.

“The colorful birds are usually the insectivores,” he adds.

Serving good quality food to the seed eaters should be a high priority in these types of gardens, according to the owner of the Carlsbad Wild Birds Unlimited store, Silvia Slemmer. She said some of the inexpensive seed blends may contain fillers that the birds will pick out and let fall to the ground.

“Don’t get the cheapest thing you can find,” Slemmer says. “It’s junk. They won’t eat it and you’ll be wasting money because it will be on the floor.”

Feeding bread crumbs to the birds is another no-no.

“That’s really bad for them,” she says. “They’ll eat it because they’re hungry but it’s not good for them. If you’re not going to give them nutritious food, don’t give them anything at all.”

Some of the best times of day for backyard bird-watching at the feeders are the early morning and early evening, Slemmer says. The main reason, she explains, is birds lose weight at night, sometimes shedding as much as 20 percent of their body fat on winter nights, and they need to store up energy by eating before and after nighttime.
September and October are prime viewing times because a lot of birds can be seen locally as they migrate to Mexico and South America. She adds that six species of hummingbirds can be seen in the local region this time of year, including the year-round Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds. During September, the white-crowned sparrows arrive locally and the hooded orioles migrate south. House finches, American gold finches and lesser gold finches along with Mourning doves are other birds to watch for as they live in the region year-round.

One of the fun ways Slemmer enjoys her garden is by using her smartphone to Google specific bird songs and then watching as nearby birds flock to the bird calls.
“It brings song and joy to your life,” she says of the pleasure she gets from her modest backyard paradise. “It’s also beneficial because a lot of birds will eat bugs, insects. They’ll get rid of all those pests from your yard.”

Flora and fauna are beginning to mingle together nicely in a new butterfly bee garden at the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation Nature Center in Carlsbad. Serving as an inspiration for gardeners and an educational resource for school children and other visitors, the butterfly bee garden ties in with the ecological reserve’s goal to provide protection for plants and animals and their habitats.

Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation board member Liz Paegel said the 16-by-25-foot butterfly bee garden was installed a little more than a month ago behind the lagoon’s Nature Center as a way to encourage people to get outside, and to learn about birds, bees and butterflies and why it’s important to protect the dwindling numbers of bees.
Some of the young plants installed in the garden include the milkweed, the insect-friendly penstemon with red and pink flowers similar to a small snapdragon, the ceanothus, also known as the California lilac, that draws bees and butterflies, the yarrow and the fuchsia. A poplar tree was also planted to provide shade.

“It’s actually a beautiful walk behind there if you have some friends or kids you want to go with,” Paegel said, noting that seed funding for the garden was provided by the Monarch Watch organization, which supplied 32 plugs of milkweed. Monarch Watch is concerned with the declining numbers of Monarch butterflies due to habitat loss.
Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation board member Don Omsted, who also serves on the Leucadia Wastewater District board, supplied additional plants including redbud, wild California grape and cottonwood.

Paegel said the first butterflies began arriving at the garden within an hour of the milkweed being planted. She expects the plants will thrive this winter when the native plants are at their peak growing season.

“It’s going to be really gorgeous,” she said. “It’s going to be really covered with butterflies and bees.”

Along with enjoying birds and butterflies in a garden it’s important to attract the hardworking bees that can play a vital role in a backyard ecosystem.

Candace Vanderhoff, a local architect who makes houses for native bees, said welcoming bees to a garden or orchard could increase crop yield and biodiversity since 80 percent of crops need pollination. She says the native bees, which generally live alone, are 60 times better at pollination than honey bees because they carry pollen collected from plants on their hairy bodies and scatter it to other flowers. Honey bees, which were brought to America by European settlers in the 1600s, carry pollen back to the hive. Tomato plants commonly found in home-based gardens are pollinated only by native bees, not honey bees, she added.

Vanderhoff said the best ways to encourage bee proliferation is to avoid pesticides by growing organic fruits and vegetables, provide a shelter such as the SoloBee native bee shelters she makes, and provide drinking water by setting out a dish or shallow saucer with water and small stones in it.

“Native bees evolved with native plants so they are found all around the world, but with habitat loss and pesticide use they are in decline and suffering,” Vanderhoff said. “By going organic, you can help the bees, birds and butterflies breathe easy and enjoy your beautiful garden.”