Bird Watching: How To Make Your Yard A Bird Magnet

Garry George is the chapter network director for Audubon California. He became a birder in 1993, which led him to dramatically re-landscape his yard. Here’s his account.
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I was at Descanso Gardens in 1993 with a friend when I was handed his binoculars and saw my first orange-crowned warbler. I was transported. What had seemed to be a brown blip became the most ornate, decorated work of art and motion, and I was hooked. It wasn’t long before I was driving and flying to see different shapes, colors and behaviors of birds, and returning home to my sterile lawn, in withdrawal. Why not bird at home I thought? In the summer of 1994 I planned my new habitat. At the end of summer I stopped watering altogether and watched the lawn die. In late fall, after removing the dead grass, I began buying and planting native plants, with guidance from the Theodore Payne Native Plant Institute, and installed a three-tiered stream.

Fifteen years later, now mature, my yard is a jungle filled with life: Almost 100 species of birds have come through. Here’s what I did.

For nesting and roosting, big, old trees are ideal for Southern California birds. Native oaks and sycamores provide food and canopy cover for nesting and perching above human habitat. Dead trees and limbs attract woodpeckers. Some non-native species such as jacaranda from Brazil produce canopy and blossoms that attract insects for warblers and flycatchers during migration. Ficus and other introduced species might provide nesting sites but little else. Native fruit and berry-producing shrubs like toyon, Mahonia, Ribes and even introduced species like pyracantha provide fruit for mockingbirds, jays, thrushes and cedar waxwings, which winter in Southern California. Salvias, buckwheats, and grasses produce seeds that provide food for mourning doves and finches, and flowers for hummingbirds.

Flowering plants, especially low-growing Epilobium californicum and Santa Cruz Island snapdragon, acacia, Ribes, and Buddleja davidii attract hummingbirds, which establish territories around their favorites. Santa Cruz Island lavatera does both with an abundance of insects and pink flowers. It’s the favorite spot in my yard for insect-eating birds every spring and fall, even though I have to stake up the trunk because the root system is adapted to clinging to rocky surfaces in strong wind. This backyard bonsai reminds me of Japan.

Species of ceanothus (wild lilac) in various growing patterns (ground cover, mid-level, and tall shrub) add colors, and mallows provide cover and the blossoms that bring insects, especially pollinators like butterflies and bees. We’ve found monarch butterflies in the milkweed that grows in the driveway and anise-loving swallowtails in the front yard. Research and buy plants and books at the Theodore Payne Native Plant Institute in Sunland and support this nonprofit. 

 Installation of a pond, water garden, stream, or birdbath is the most important element you can have in your garden. Recycling, gurgling water, especially if solar powered to conserve energy, will attract the most birds. Birds hear the water before they see it as they fly over, and resident birds will build a routine around your water. The sound of cascading water brings a calming element to any household, blocks street traffic sounds, and provides a visual element from windows behind which birdwatchers can be distracted for hours cataloging the passing parade of bathers and drinkers. Shelter over and near the water element provides a safe perch just before entering and for drying wings, and safety from predatory cats. A great source of inexpensive water elements that are easy to install can be found at wildbirdhouse.com.

Make a list of any structures that provide habitat elements, such as bird feeders, nesting structures, rock walls, or log piles. Install any of these elements if possible. Finally, consider the physical features of your yard such as sun and wind exposure and soil conditions. Augment your soil with a slightly sandy mix that might encourage the roots of natives to establish better than they might in Southern California clay. Plant in the fall and let the rains help establish the natives during this tenuous time. Don’t worry about watering once they are established. Natives don’t need it except maybe during the hottest parts of August or September. Warning: you will lose some!

Consider having your habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation so you can put a sign in your yard. Educate your neighbors. Keep data on what happens in your newly created habitat and join the Great Backyard Bird Count and put your sightings on ebird Answer the questions of the kids that stop and wonder why you have such a weedy yard.

Since we converted our yard in Mid Wilshire in 1995 we have enjoyed almost 100 species of birds. We keep a pair of binoculars at the front and back of the house to look closer at any movement we detect in the habitat. If you hear me say “can I put you on hold for a moment” it might be to look closer at a bird.

We also found breeding San Diego alligator lizards on the rocks we brought in, and raccoons have tried to fish in our pond but settled for earthworms. Opossums and introduced rats and mice occasionally come through but don’t stay.

You can protect your birds from feral and domestic cats by keeping cats indoors. If feral cats are destroying your property, including your birds, you can use a Hav-a-Heart trap with a permit from Animal Services. They will spay or neuter the cats you trap and offer to find them a home.

Kill your lawn and bring life to your yard!

Four reasons why your lawn is an ecological disaster:

  • Lawns have no ecological benefit. They provide no habitat or food or shelter for any life except introduced non-native isopods (sowbugs) and crows.
  • A lawnmower or leaf blower pollutes our air with greenhouse gases and other pollutants as much in one hour as a car does driving for 350 miles (EPA statistic).
  • Fertilizers and pesticides needed to keep our lawns green run off into our rivers and Santa Monica Bay. Seventy-eight million pounds of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides were sold in 1999 (EPA statistic) for homeowner application. The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition estimates 2 billion pounds per year.
  • In a single year, a typical suburban lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water over and above that provided by rainfall, with 30 percent to 60 percent of potable municipal water in the U.S. going toward maintaining lawns.

 For more information: Los Angeles Audubon’s Go Native program 

National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Program 

Audubon’s Audubon at Home program