Sebastopol woman transforms yard into a way station for feathered friends
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.