A Place to Call Home

By Andrew Lyell

Cedar waxwings (photo by Teresa Seipel)

Native plants can turn your backyard into an oasis for local birds.

One of the best reasons to grow a garden is to attract different kinds of birds. Once they’ve arrived it is nice to offer them something to eat, drink, and maybe even a cozy and comfortable place to rest or raise a family. Few plants are as effective at attracting native and migratory birds as native species.

Not only do native plants supply the necessary nutrients, mature natives need little or no added water, pesticide, or fertilizer. One of the principles behind the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is to focus on natives when possible, and to avoid chemicals at all times, not only because many of the plants are fed to the animals, but because it’s safer for people as well.

Native plants that are properly selected for your climate zone will provide years of bird-watching enjoyment. If you take the birds’ needs into consideration, you can make good choices of plant material. For instance, oaks provide shelter with their branches, twigs for nesting material, acorns for food, and may even harbor insects, both beneficial and detrimental, such as beetles, bees, and aphids. Several Ribes plants, or currant, provide edible berries that feed many species of birds. Many salvias produce an abundance of nectar that will draw hummingbirds to them like a magnet. So too will the California fuchsia.

California fuchsia (Photo by Sandy Masuo)

Native plants have an added benefit of attracting many insects, which are in turn fed upon by the birds. Roses, snowberry, and sticky monkey flower are examples of “larval plants” that provide food in the form of insects that they host.

Margaret Huffman of the Santa Monica Audubon Society and the California Native Plant Society encourages the use of larval plants. “These are plants that feed the larvae of butterfly or moth caterpillars,” she explains, “and many caterpillars are good bird food.” The caterpillars will attract different birds to the garden, adding new members to the ensemble and further beautifying the landscape.

Another way to attract invertebrate food sources is by incorporating deadfall into the landscape. In addition to adding interesting visual features to your yard, the grubs and larvae that are often found in weathered logs and stumps will attract more insectivorous birds.

Huffman, the author of Wild Heart of Los Angeles: The Santa Monica Mountains, maintains that the most important way to get the birds to your yard is to incorporate water features into the landscape. Use shallow bird baths or small ponds with gently flowing water, she suggests.

Once the birds have a stable supply of food and water, they will probably look for shelter and set up nests in your garden. Betsey Landis, who serves on the State Horticulture Committee of the California Native Plant Society and has written extensively about California flora, emphasizes that the structure of a bird-friendly garden is important. “Tall trees such as California sycamores and coast live oak are wonderful hosts for many birds, from woodpeckers and hummingbirds to hawks and owls—if the garden is large,” she explains. “Both species of tree require a lot of space.

Either a hedge or a grouping of tall and short shrubs is necessary,” she continues. “These will provide a dense canopy for small birds to hide from predators, to nest in, and to use as a food source. Try golden currant, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, toyon, Mexican elderberry, laurel sumac, holly leaf cherry, or holly leaf redberry.”

Toyon (Photo by Bob Wickham)

In planning your own native garden, Landis suggests taking an exploratory approach. “If you want to see what to plant in your own garden,” she suggests, “you should go to the nearest healthy native plant habitat with similar soil and exposure to your own site and see what’s growing there.”

No matter where you live in Southern California, you won’t have to drive far to find inspiration. Landis lists a few possibilities: the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve in the San Fernando Valley near the intersection of the 101 and 405 freeways; Ernest E. Debs Park in Montecito Heights, south of Pasadena; Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park in South Central Los Angeles; Claremont’s Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden; and any of the parks in the Santa Monica or Verdugo Mountains. And don’t forget the native plant gardens here at the Zoo, and in our “backyard,” Griffith Park. “Visiting these areas will be fun and helpful in planning a native plant garden,” Landis says. “Most have non-natives as well, so take a wildflower guide and/or join a guided nature walk.”

Discover the joys of bird watching in your own backyard by growing native plants and know that by doing so you are being a good steward of the land and are protecting valuable resources such as water, soil, plants, and—of course—animals.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of Zoo View.

Native Plants for Bird-Friendly Gardens

These arc just a few suggestions of Southern California natives—there are many more available. These are among the easiest to find at nurseries and the easiest to establish.

Popular as food sources:

  • currants (Ribes spp)
  • beard tongue (Peristemon spp)
  • California rose (Rosa californica)
  • elderberry (Sambucus mexicatia)
  • toyon (Heterorneles arbutifolia)
  • Western sycamore (Platanus racemosa)
  • oak (Quercus spp.)
  • coral bells (Heuchera sanguina)
  • wild grape (Vitis. californica)

Important for providing shelter:

  • wild lilac (Ceanothus spp.)
  • manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.)
  • Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii)
  • sumac (Rhus spp.)
  • monkey flower (Mimulus spp.)
  • Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)
  • pine (Pinus spp.)

Start a Bird Garden

The Los Angeles Zoo is helping birds, and you can too with simple changes to your porch, patio, or yard!