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Attract songbirds with native plants

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Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
Long spines on the flexible branches of fuchsia-flowered gooseberry offer good cover for birds.

Bringing birds into your garden might seem to be a no-brainer: just install a bird feeder. But like humans, birds are healthier when they can eat primarily from the garden, not from a “fast food” stand.

Since December, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that it, as well as wildlife rehabilitation centers, has been “inundated with calls from residents who are finding sick or dead finches at bird feeders,” according to a press release. The birds were infected with salmonella, which can cause death from salmonellosis within 24 hours. Spread through droppings from sick birds, the disease “is almost exclusively reported from locations with bird feeders where birds congregate,” the release reported. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that you can stop the disease from spreading by removing bird feeders and bird baths if you start to see fluffed, lethargic finches in your yard. The birds most affected are pine siskins, which spend the winter in California.

Instead of using feeders, you can invite songbirds into your garden by providing a healthy habitat with food, shelter, water and places to raise their young. An added bonus is that it’s more interesting to watch birds’ natural feeding behaviors.

Food sources

Virtually all birds rely on insects, and caterpillars are crucial for raising most baby birds, but providing a variety of food sources can help you attract a wider range of birds. For instance:

• Finches and juncos like seed-producing plants such as native oaks, grasses and buckwheats.
• Cedar waxwings, orioles and robins like berry-producing plants such as toyon, elderberry and coffeeberry.
• Towhees like to forage for insects in leaf litter.
• Black phoebes like to perch at a high point and catch flying insects, especially near water.
• Nuthatches like to creep headfirst down a tree trunk, looking for insects under the bark.
• Hummingbirds like nectar-producing plants such as California fuchsia, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry and hummingbird sage.

Play around with audubon.org/native-plants to find more bird-plant matchups. Food from natural sources, especially native plants, is always better than feeders.

You can even reduce the numbers of “invasive” birds such as European starlings and European house sparrows in your yard by planting more native plants. These avian bullies actually prefer non-native plants and don’t come to yards with mostly native plants! I learned this from a talk given some years ago by Toby Goldberg, who was the education director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society for a decade.

Many birds are drawn to the sound of moving water. You can attract birds with a bubbling fountain, a mister or dripper, a solar mini-fountain in a sunny place or a “water wiggler” in the shade. Birds prefer water less than 2 inches deep, and be sure to scrub out your water basin regularly. Empty and sanitize it if you see any sick birds in your area. To protect bathing birds from neighborhood cats and other predators, surround the water feature with thorny shrubs.

A multilayered garden provides good shelter and places for raising young. Overstory trees with shrubs and perennials, a hedgerow or thicket with twiggy and thorny plants, and open areas with seasonal wildflowers and grasses can accommodate a variety of species.

Needless to say, pesticides have no place in a habitat garden. An often-ignored element of nurturing birds and the insects crucial to their survival is nighttime darkness. Studies have shown that artificial light causes significant declines in insect populations. Use motion detectors instead of all-night floodlights, and consider adding blackout curtains on windows.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at [email protected]

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