The Coastal Post - February, 1996

The Modern Garden And Wildlife Refuge


Once again, Spring is upon us and the birds are already migrating through the back yards of Marin. As most of us are aware, the songbirds' population is declining rapidly. Some predictions say many species could be extinct within ten years.

For the past several years, we've been educated to the disastrous effect of cats—feral, yours and mine. So, other than to remind us all to keep a sharper watch on kitties, the CP decided to look at ways we can aid the recovery of all songbirds and nature's critters.

After you've got a lock on kitty and stopped using pesticides, declare your yard a wildlife refuge. Analyze how to really make it one without disturbing that beautiful flow between formal and wild garden.

Did you see the super PBS special on Highgrove, Prince Charles' residence in England? He's gone organic and is especially concerned about the wildlife under his care.

For example, he's left a border of cover around his fields and made sure certain rock walls are carefully neglected to allow nesting. Where he's found wild animals, like an ancient family of badgers, he's allowed their burrows to go undisturbed.

His ponds are cleaned nature's way. Water hyacinth and other plants are used as filtering devices and food for fish, insects, birds and some animals.

He analyzed the woods around his ponds and cut a few trees to allow ducks better landing access. And, again, the ponds are stocked with fish and plants. His migrating duck population has increased each year.

He's working with neighbors so his barn owls have plenty of field mice. Each and every living thing is considered in the total picture. We can adopt many of the same techniques.

The Bay Area is blessed. Many of us have only to do a small amount of conversion on already existing foliage to make wildlife compatible areas.

Others might want to take their dry and nearly dead yards and bring them to life again with compost made of leaves, a little water, your vegetable leavings and a handful of worms. Many gardening shops carry worms.

Now's a good time to dig up your area because the soil is softened from the rains and it's the beginning of the growing season.

Depending on its proximity to yours or your neighbor's home, leave some of the compost open for insects to breed. I know! Horror or horrors. But go into a bird station during the spring and watch what baby birds eat.

What so many of us forget is that many birds need a fresh supply of larvae and bugs to grow. We've been systematically killing off every creepy-crawly thing for years. But birds need them to survive. So stop it!

Allow insects access to your area, whether it's in a new or already-established garden. Make it their refuge too.

Look at insects again and realize they aren't all disease carriers. And even the disease carriers aren't always carrying disease. Most have been given a bum rap.

Have you noticed how hard and dry most condominium soil is? Now think. Along with other conditions, when was the last time the ants were allowed to aerate the soil? So, not only are insects endlessly fascinating, their importance on the food chain is crucial.

By transposing our property borders, creek and stream beds into places of refuge, we give all kinds of wildlife a place to live. It would be ideal if all our city blocks had "secret paths" that allowed wild things to move freely.

Your yard, or at least, your border, can be that beginning. Go near the area as little as possible, so your smell isn't around. If possible have the border composed of as many native plants and flora as possible.

For the first couple of years while these plants are re-establishing themselves, "garden" them. In other words, make sure the conditions are as favorable as possible. What you want to do is develop a pristine environment, especially for nesting.

Recently, the tragic frost in Mexico killed over half of the monarch butterflies. You and I must help them if they're not to become extinct. This year—now!

To provide a suitable environment, you'll need food, water, shelter and a place to reproduce. Plant nectar-producing flowers, such as zinnias, marigolds, yarrow, lavender, lantana, butterfly bush and cosmos in a sunny, sheltered part of your garden. Water can come in a small, shallow dish with a rocky or sandy bottom.

Parsley and carrots are great for butterflies to lay their larvae on. So is cabbage, passion vine and pearly everlasting. Though I'm not sure monarchs breed here rather than in Mexico, other butterflies will appreciate the help.

Once you spot the caterpillars, leave them on the plant and watch for chrysalises, but don't touch them. And, come on, you can give a couple of vegetables to others.

A variety of songbirds can be attracted by planting a diversity of plants. Remember, they're seeking insects, fruit and flowers.

Also, use plants that provide alternate layers of foliage for protective cover and nesting sites. Shrubbery, vines, tangled thickets and dead trees with holes facing away from the sun and cold winds are important to many birds.

Sunflowers are easy to grow and rewarding. After allowing the seed heads to dry, you'll be shocked at how many birds flock to them; goldfinch, jays and grosbeaks included. The dried seed heads of cosmos are also loved by goldfinches.

Good food plants have small succulent leaves or blossoms, an abundance of seeds or fruit and attract an array of insects. Chickweed, dandelions and goldenrod are excellent. Watch what the birds are eating or nesting in, and allow those plants to flourish.

Hummingbirds like small flying insects and nectar from lupines, larkspur, columbine, jasmine, monkey flower, pentstemons, salivas, trumpet vine, acacia, aloe, manzanita, ceanothus and toyon.

Bird baths are even better if they have a spray of some kind. Make sure the water is fresh and clean. Place them near protective shrubbery, trees, shrubs and grasses. Small birds don't like to fly through open spaces where they're exposed to predators.

That goes for your compost, too. If you can, place it under or near trees so mom and dad can grab that grub and stop the kids' yakking without being gobbled by the cat.

This material came from the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and WildCare, Terwilliger Nature Education and Wildlife Rehabilitation Center which has taken over the old California Wildlife Center at 76 Albert Park Lane, San Rafael when they moved to bigger quarters. Phone 456-0594.

Do the birds like the continued servicing? I saw a minimum of two hundred wild birds and several species hanging out the last time I was there.

On February 4th, the first Sunday of the month, PRBO is conducting an exploration of the Mount Vision burn area. The loop is six miles, meet at 10 a.m. at the Bear Valley Visitor's Center. Go across the street to the picnic parking lot near the toilets. Or call 868-1221 ext. 40 for more information.