Winter has eased its way into spring. The goldfinches are finding their bright yellow finery (perhaps inspired by Michele's outfit as she stepped off the plane for the summit). The golden crowned sparrows spent the winter gorging on my greens, but now seem to have given up their butter lettuce in favor of just plain butter (they're packing on the fat for the trip home, and starting to look a little lumpy). The mockingbird has been singing for three weeks straight (but I still love him).
The change of seasons is subtle here in SF, but it still means a change of routine. I thought we could use this week to share a few tips on making our yards more welcoming to the birds.
Wild Grape is slowly establishing itself on the arbor - still no sign of fruit, but gorgeous leaves in the autumn!
My yard is very typical by San Francisco standards - 25' wide by maybe 50' long (half of that paved). Despite that, we've got a bird-friendly yard, with various feeders, water and native plants to invite winged visitors. Details below - these are great for our west coast, urban yard, but please add any ideas for different regions/habitats/birds in the comments. Also, if you have good sources for seed, feeders or accessories, please share.
Inviting birds into your yard gives you a steady source of entertainment.
Sunflower/mixed birdseed: Seed mixes will attract the widest variety of birds to your yard, but that may include some less desirable species like house sparrows and pigeons. Feeding black-oil sunflower will discourage those non-natives (they don't like it much) but it does cost a little more. Birds will toss aside the seeds they don't like, which keeps the ground feeders happy. That's good for birds like doves, fox sparrows, towhees, etc., but it also means that you need to rake/clean under the feeders so that you're not spreading disease. I have all of my feeders over paved surfaces to make the cleanup easier.
Regular seed feeder and thistle feeder. The yellow caps on the thistle feeder help attract goldfinches.
Thistle: Though thistle is more expensive, it pays off by attracting great birds, especially goldfinches and siskins. Thistle needs to be offered through specialize feeders with smaller openings to keep the tiny seeds from spilling out. One popular variation is the thistle sock, a mesh bag containing the seed.
Hummingbird feeders: I haven't put out any hummingbird feeders for the past ten years or so, because we have a good number of hummingbird plants in the yard to attract them. I recently bought one, though, and will be putting it up sometime this summer. One important thing to remember - you don't need to dye the water red. The red "flower" ports and other bits of color on the feeder are enough to attract the birds - no need to make the birds drink the coloring.
Suet: Suet attracts some birds who aren't primarily seed eaters - birds like warblers and woodpeckers - as well as others who do like seed, like chickadees. Starlings also love the stuff, and we have a lot of them in our neighborhood, so when we start getting too many I bring out a "cage" feeder (on the left, below) that allows smaller birds easy access to the stuff, while keeping larger birds out (unfortunately, that also excludes woodpeckers). I'm lazy and buy suet cakes (usually mixed with peanut hearts or bits of fruit), but there are many recipes online for making your own.
Mealworms: I have never offered mealworms, but understand that they're great for attracting bluebirds if you have them in your area. Any bluebirders want to fill us in below?
All birds need water, even those who don't eat from any of your feeders. The water you offer is used for both feeding and bathing, so it's important to keep your bird baths clean. (How do you feel about drinking bathwater?) I have a very nice cast stone birdbath and a super cheap one that I made by putting a terra cotta plant saucer on top of a tomato cage and planting some salvia at the base to cover the cage. Splash water keeps the salvia flourishing, and the salvia (as it turns out) provides a bit of protection for the birds - the neighborhood cat can't easily launch his sneak attacks through the branches. I'm now trying to grow something around the base of the old-style feeder.
BIRD FRINDLY PLANTS
We have an assortment of bird-attracting plants, both native and a few existing non-natives. I've made it a point to plant only natives for decorative plants since we moved in, but I did save some of the existing plants if they attracted birds, bees or butterflies. Some are nectar producing plants that attract hummingbirds (and bees/butterflies), and some are fruiting plants to attract thrushes, waxwings, mockingbirds and others.
Ceanothus - It attracts several kinds of bees, the butterflies love it, it provides a great place for birds to shelter - and it's so gosh-darn pretty to boot. I understand that quail and other galliformes like the fruit, but we don't get them in SF. Oh well.
Among the natives, the nectar producers include several species of salvia, monkeyflower and ceanothus (wild lilac); our native berries include elderberry, ribes (currant) and toyon. Non-native bottlebrush attracts the hummers, hebes is a favorite with bees, especially the big bumblebees, and cotoneaster brings in the berry eaters. When my other berry plants start putting out enough fruit, probably in another year or two, the cotoneaster will be replaced - I don't like the idea that birds are dispersing the seeds from this non-native plant, but I'm not ready to take the food from them yet.
Ribes - currants are beginning to ripen. This is the first year they've borne fruit.
We don't have any, as our yard doesn't seem like a great place to nest, especially with all the free-roaming cats. I can say this much: If you're going to buy or make bird houses, be sure to follow the specifications for hole sizes based on the birds you're trying to attract - too large a hole allows undesirable species like starlings and house sparrows.
Next week, BirderWitch will be guest hosting with a diary on Chimney Swifts. See you there (to learn a bit about some birds I know very little about).