The Loma Prietan - September/October 2009

Gardening Green

For the Birds

by Arvind Kumar

A female house finch snacks on blue elderberry at Lake Cunningham Park in San Jose. Photo: Stephen Rosenthal
A female house finch snacks on blue elderberry at Lake Cunningham Park in San Jose. Photo: Stephen Rosenthal

Birds make a garden come alive. They are a source of endless entertainment, dashing, fluttering, feeding, jumping, bathing, and eventually flying off.

Birds make a garden come alive. They are a source of endless entertainment, dashing, fluttering, feeding, jumping, 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 require regular cleaning and refilling. A complementary and sustainable approach is to plant shrubs with berries that our feathered friends find irresistible.

If You Plant It, They Will Come

Blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana). I call this plant an avian cafeteria for the sheer variety and quantity of songbirds that visit it in July and 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 feet.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). An evergreen shrub to eight feet that produces brilliant red berries in November and December. Flocks of cedar waxwings and other birds gorge on the berries until they disappear. Attractive in flower as well as fruit, this native, noninvasive alternative to firethorn or cotoneaster is a must for bird-friendly gardens.

Holly-leaved cherry (Prunus ilicifolia). You can train this lush green shrub as a hedge or allow it to grow to a 20-foot tree. Flowers attract insects (therefore birds) in spring; fruit attracts birds in late summer and fall. Slow growing, drought tolerant.

Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica). This handsome shrub looks good year round, with dark green foliage and stems that mature from mahogany to brown. 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 partial 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 brings red color to the leaves.

See below for photos of these plants.

The Necessities of Bird Life

In addition to food, birds need a steady source of water, especially during the dry summer months. Include a water feature in the garden: a simple fountain or a more elaborate stream or pond, or something as basic as a bird bath that is refilled by hand every few days. 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 range of options for nesting sites.

Interest in bird-friendly gardening is growing. For some time now, the Santa Clara Valley chapters of the Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society have been presenting a joint program at local libraries, called "Attracting Birds to the Garden." Toby Goldberg of Audubon explains ecological concepts and the bird species one can expect to see in the Bay Area; I talk about easy-to-grow native plants that will attract birds to the garden.

The attendance is always good, the audience attentive, and there is much Q&A afterwards. Toby and I are delighted to be speaking to the Guadalupe Group of the Loma Prieta Chapter on September 24 at the Saratoga Library. See the online calendar for details. You are invited. Bring a spouse, a friend, or a neighbor.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. He can be reached at chhaprahiya@yahoo.com.


Blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) has attractive flowers in spring followed by blue berries in summer that attract many birds. Photo: Arvind Kumar.


Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), one of the most widespread and beautiful of native shrubs, sports red berries in fall loved by cedar waxwings and other songbirds. Photo: Arvind Kumar.


Holly-leaved cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) is a dense evergreen shrub with berries in summer that feed birds and mammals. Photo: Arvind Kumar.


The berries of California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) have ornamental as well as habitat value. Photo: Arvind Kumar.


Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) has berries in summer and fall that birds find irresistible. Photo: Arvind Kumar.