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Birds & Bees

Song bird talk

What: Wildscaping for Song Birds, a talk by Veronica Bowers before the Santa Rosa Garden Club

When: 1 p.m Monday

Cost: Free.; nonmembers welcome

Where: Luther Burbank Art and Garden Center, 2050 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa

Information: 707-537-6885 or gardenclubevents@yahoo.com.

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Where to Get Native Plants

California Flora Nursery: 2990 Sommers St., Fulton. Calfloranursery.com.

California Native Plant Society Milo Baker Chapter Fall Plant Sale: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 14 at Veterans Memorial Building, 1351 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa. Shrubs, Perennials, Bulbs, and Seeds. For information and a plant list visit milobaker.cnps.org.

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Best plants for bird way station


Toyon: berries in winter

Coffee berry: berries in fall

Coast live oak: insects, acorns, nesting and roosting habitat, safe cover

Ribes: nectar, berries

Mallow: nectar, insects

Coyote bush: insects, seeds, nesting material, nesting habitat, safe cover

Native grape: berries

Ribes: nectar, berries

Elderberry: nectar, berries in summer

Ceanothus: nectar, insects, roosting and nesting habitat, safe cover

Saltbush/Quailbush: tender tips of plant are gently pruned and consumed by finch and sparrow species all year, provides safe

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Cover and nesting habitat

Sticky Monkey Flower: nectar

California Fuchsia (various): nectar

Buckwheat (various): nectar, seeds

Goldenrod: nectar, seeds

Aster (various): nectar, seeds

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Resources

Native Songbird Care & Conservation: 707-484-6502; nativesongbirdcare.org

California Native Plant Society: Calscape.org. Website shows which plants are native to any location in the state, and helps determine which plants are best for your area, where to buy them and how to grow them.

California Native Plant Society Grow Native Gardening Program: cnps.org/cnps/grownative. Provides information about habitat gardening, how to plan a garden, tips for plant propagation and more.

Almost as soon as Veronica Bowers bought her property in rural Sebastopol 18 years ago she began making over the backyard. She ripped out rose bushes, hydrangeas and other strictly people-pleasing ornamental plants and began transforming her two acres into a comfortable way station for songbirds.

It’s a pretty place, with masses of native plants and trees for forage and cover, fallen logs that will host tasty insects and their larvae, berry bushes to fuel up for long migrations, multiple nesting boxes for extended stays and a large pond for bathing. She has arbors covered with wild grapevines, which also provide seating areas to watch the entertaining show of birds as they come and go.

Not everyone, like Bowers, can create a Club Med-style resort for songbirds. But the former pastry chef and chocolatier, who eventually gave up baking to devote herself full-time to maintaining a hospital for sick and injured songbirds on her property, maintains that everyone can do at least something to create a little sanctuary space for songbirds. For many native species, habitat is dwindling and they are under assault from multiple forces, from free-roaming house cats, to climate change to light pollution that confuses migrating birds on their nighttime journeys.

Even if you have only a small patio or balcony outside your apartment, you can put out native plants in a pot for food or cover, a shallow bowl for bathing or a nesting box not designed for cuteness but for the safety and comfort of nesting birds.

“Landscaped with native species, your yard, patio, or balcony becomes a vital recharge station for migratory birds passing through and a sanctuary for nesting and overwintering birds,” Bowers says.

Each patch of restored native habitat, she explains, is “a patch in the frayed fabric of the ecosystem in which it lies.”

“By landscaping, or wildscaping, with native plants, we can turn a patchwork of green spaces into a quilt of restored habitat. More native plants mean more choices of food and shelter for native birds, native pollinators and other wildlife,” Bowers stresses.

Bowers frequently gives talks on what she calls “wildscaping” to help people make their property, however small, more hospitable to songbirds. Her next talk is a slideshow presentation at 1 p.m. on Sept. 25 before the Santa Rosa Garden Club. The gathering is at the Luther Burbank Art & Garden Center, 2050 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa, and is open to nonmembers.

Every plant in Bowers’ garden has a purpose. And there are plants to serve different species at all times of the year.

“I’m always thinking about not only if a plant provides nesting and cover,” she says, “but what time of year is it providing a vital food source for our birds.”

One food source that the birds are filling up on now in the early fall is the native Catalina cherry.

“It’s evergreen and provides cover all year round,” Bowers says. “But also, the fruit ripens in the fall. So when we don’t have any more wild blackberries and all of the native grapes are spent or consumed, this starts ripening up. And then when we get into November and December, the toyon ripens.”

Among her favorite native plants is Coyote Bush. It is green all year round and serves as vital nesting habitat. When the blossoms are spent, birds such as goldfinches and hummingbirds will use it to build nests. Buckwheat also is a staple of the North Coast songbird garden. They attract insects and pollinators and the spent blossoms provide seed for juncos, finches and different winter sparrows.

Bowers for years has headed up Native Songbird Care & Conservation, which rehabilitates sick and injured songbirds and releases them where they were originally found. This season she and a small team of volunteers introduced 626 birds back into the wild. But these wounded birds that are her patients are kept safe in a series of aviaries on her property. The Songbird Sanctuary Garden is there to keep those still on the wing healthy, fed and breeding.

Over the last 30 years she has documented more than 30 species of songbirds that have nested on her property and more than 70 species that have visited, either in winter or summer.

Landscaping for birds means thinking in a new way about everything in the garden. Bowers has actually lined her pathways with small logs. Instead of recycling logs when she trims her trees in late fall — long after the last nesting birds have fledged — she saves them and they become habitat. Lizards sun on them, towhees sit on them while they get the lay of the land for hunting, and insects inhabit them and lay eggs within their crevices, which become food for birds.

If you have a diseased tree or one that needs to be cut, Bowers recommends cutting it enough for safety but leaving enough of a snag to provide some habitat. If you have a brush pile of cuttings, don’t recycle it. Leave it there for the birds, who will find within it cover as well as food. Bowers keeps her pile in a hidden area in the back of the garden near her fence.

“We call them habitat brush piles. They are there by design to provide ground cover for a lot of our ground-dwelling species like quail,” she says. “During fall and when we have our golden-crowned and our white-crowned sparrows, they love the piles. During the summer the wrens love to glean insects in there.”

This is the time of year when there is a changing of the guard in her garden. Many migratory birds are departing for their wintering grounds in the south while migratory species that breed in the north are coming to spend the winter in Sonoma County. The garden is also populated by many local “resident species,” like scrub jays and song sparrows, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and crows that hang around all year.

Songbirds need cover for protection. That means thickets, masses of shrubs and hedgerows with a variety of plants that also provide food.

Birds also need a water source for bathing. Bowers has a large 20-by-20 foot pond that over the years is naturally developing into a riparian habitat. Birds have delivered seed for cattails and other plants that are essential water filters.

The pond is designed in a natural way, with a little rocky beach and several different water levels, from an inch and a half for goldfinches to slightly deeper for robins. The water is pumped to another small pond that acts as a natural filter.

The pond is a hive of activity.

“We have robins who collect wet root materials for nest-building and frogs who live in it. We have a hopeful kingfisher who checks it out several times a week,” she says. “We have a great blue heron who hunts frogs out of it, a bobcat who drinks out of it several mornings a week and raccoons who wash their paws and their food in it.

But even if you don’t have a pond, you can place a birdbath, a shallow bowl or even in plastic plant saucer in the garden. Just make sure to change the water daily to avoid diseases and mosquitoes. About two inches deep is ideal for most birds.

Bird boxes for nesting are helpful, but only if they are built with birds in mind. The cute birdhouses frequently sold are merely decorative. Not only will they not be useful to birds, they may be harmful. Look for reliable sources online to build your own or buy one from a business that specializes in birds, like Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Rosa.

Among other things, you want to make sure you can clean the box out at the end of the season, that it has good ventilation and drainage and that the entry hole is the proper dimension so it won’t attract non-native species. Install it well out of the reach of cats and raccoons.

Bowers believes that every little bit helps, and becomes part of that patchwork of habitat.

“The bottom line,” she says, “is that creating habitat in your backyard with native plants is one small thing you can do to save some lives.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @Megmcconahey.

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