Several years ago I planted a few California native Hooker’s evening primroses (Oenothera elata ssp. hookeri) in my front yard, between some of our fruit trees. This primrose is a biennial that grows two to six feet high (as high as some of our fruit trees) with bright yellow, three-inch flowers. It competes well with grasses, which we have a lot of (non-native) and has a very long bloom time in summer and fall. The seeds of Oenothera species are a part of some traditional Native American diets, and Judith Larner Lowry, proprietor of Larner Seeds, says they are delicious baked onto the outside of homemade bread or sprinkled on rice or breakfast cereal.
Little did I know when the flowers went to seed that first fall that they would become natural bird feeders. Every morning starting around November, these tall stalks are visited by flocks of lesser goldfinches diligently cracking open the tough seed pods to get at the tiny seeds. Lesser goldfinches are year-round residents of the California coast, including the entire Bay Area. Their strong, stubby beaks are characteristic of seed-eating birds and are perfect for cracking into the primrose seed pods.
Many people deadhead their flowers when they have gone to seed in order to tidy up the garden. But this has been a good lesson in gardening more in tune with how nature works. By keeping the seed heads on my primrose plants, the goldfinches get a good start on their day eating the nutritious seeds.
Because the plants are vigorous reseeders, I now have many primroses in the front yard that provide food for even more goldfinches. Even in late December, I am still seeing goldfinches flocking to the plants to get seeds when it is cold and rainy and they really need the protein from those seeds.
After my first experience with the primrose and the goldfinches, I was determined to make my garden a sanctuary for birds. And these days, they need plenty of sanctuary.
According to the National Audubon Society, “North America has lost more than 1 in 4 birds in the last 50 years,” including many backyard favorites. There are many reasons for this decline in bird populations, including habitat loss, pesticide use, insect declines, and climate change. As Doug Tallamy, an entomologist from the University of Delaware, points out, there is not enough undeveloped land to restore the health of our ecosystems, and it is therefore of paramount importance that we provide habitat for birds and insects (which are food for birds) in our developed areas. This is where our gardens come into play: in our gardens we can provide a healthy ecosystem that supports birds and insects (as well as other critters). As more and more gardens are developed in this way, more local ecosystems can be returned to health. As Dr. Tallamy says, in deciding to garden with natives that support native birds and insects, you “might just save the world.”
It is also possible that bringing birds into your garden will increase your connection to nature, which is critical to our mental and emotional health, as discussed by Florence Williams in her book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative.
In order to thrive, birds need habitat, which boils down to food, shelter, and water. Native birds and insects evolved with native plants, which means those native plants will provide the food and shelter needed to support them. And while you are providing habitat for birds and insects by growing natives, you will probably also be helping butterflies and moths, bees, other beneficial insects, and possibly reptiles and amphibians. Your garden starts to become a thriving ecosystem. Of course there are always critters you may not want in your garden, such as deer, gophers, and raccoons. But those animals can usually be held at bay with proper garden design and physical barriers.
Many native plants provide food for birds in the form of nectar from flowers, the flowers themselves, seeds, and berries. Providing a variety of native plants that bloom and set seed and fruit in different seasons helps birds have food year-round.
It is important to have many vertical plant layers in the garden for birds of different habits. Some birds forage for insects in the leaf litter on the ground, while others use the branches of bushes and trees to feed, shelter, perch, and even nest. Native bunchgrasses provide nutritious seeds, shelter, and nesting material too.
Hummingbirds need nectar from flowers, and they love natives such as California fuchsia (Epilobium sp.), pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum), monkeyflower (Diplacus and Erythranthe sp.), bee plant (Scrophularia californica), hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.), and honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.).
Many native plants provide berries for birds, including elderberry (Sambucus sp.), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), California blackberry (Rubus ursinus), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), creek dogwood (Cornus sericea), twinberry (Lonicera involucrata), and California coffeeberry (Frangula californica).
Many birds are seed eaters, and as long as you let your plants go to seed, many native annuals and perennials provide ample food. This is sometimes an issue with neighbors and even fire departments worried about flammable plants near houses. Where possible, let your plants produce seed for the birds to consume, and once the birds are finished with the seeds, you can remove the dried plants. This semi-wild garden aesthetic is important for providing healthy habitat. Native shrubs and perennials that produce seed include Hooker’s evening primrose, coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), ceanothus (Ceanothus sp.), gumplant (Grindelia sp.), goldenrod (Solidago sp.), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), California aster (Symphyotrichum chilense), buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.), and many flowering annuals as well as native bunchgrasses.
You can start gradually by adding a seed- or fruit-producing native in your garden and watch as birds start to appear. You will probably come to love the idea that your garden supports those birds, and you will want to continue to add more plants that provide food and habitat for them.
Have fun bringing birds into your garden!
Doug Tallamy, Homegrown National Park website
A grassroots call to action to regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function by planting native plants and creating new ecological networks. Includes many resources for home gardeners and more.
Nature’s Best Hope
Doug’s Tallamy’s keynote presentation for the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, April 2021. Discusses simple steps that each of us can take to reverse declining biodiversity and explains why we are nature’s best hope.
Native Plants that Attract Birds to Your Garden
From the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, a thorough guide to California native plants for birds, including the specific birds each species attracts and the resources it provides for those birds.
North America Has Lost More Than 1 in 4 Birds in Last 50 Years, New Study Says
National Audubon Society article about the first study, published in 2019 in the journal Science, in which experts estimated the numbers of avian losses in the Western Hemisphere.
Plants for Birds Program
From the CNPS Yerba Buena Chapter, a program with many resources on growing native plants for birds, including Bringing New Life to Your Garden: Gardening for Birds with Local Native Plants.
The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals, by Nancy Bauer, 2012.
A practical guide that explains how to transform backyard gardens into living ecosystems that are not only enjoyable retreats for humans, but also thriving sanctuaries for wildlife.
Gardening with a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes at Home, by Judith Larner Lowry, 1999.
This lyrical and articulate mix of the practical and the poetic combines personal story, wildland ecology, restoration gardening practices, and native plant horticulture—a classic in the fields of nature writing and restoration. Out of print, but a few gently used copies are available from Larner Seeds. Also available from used book sellers and as an e-book.
The Landscaping Ideas of Jays: A Natural History of the Backyard Restoration Garden, by Judith Larner Lowry, 2007.
Elegantly organized by season, this beautifully written yet practical guide to backyard restoration gardening offers guidance on how to plan a garden with birds, plants, and insects in mind.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, by Florence Williams, 2018.
Williams investigates the science at the confluence of environment, mood, health, and creativity. Delving into completely new research, she uncovers the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships.
— Robin Mitchell, Recording Secretary, CNPS East Bay Chapter