This Backyard Is for the Birds.

Jul 22, 2019

By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County


Gardening is fun, of that there is little doubt. It begins with a trip to the nursery, picking out those perfect plants from the multitudes of foliage. Then the dirty work begins.


Digging, planting, pruning and harvesting all make up an experience that speaks to something ancient within us. Gardening has been shown to reduce stress and have long-term positive effects on depression. And, of course, it brings the potential for increasing the beauty of your home and yard.


When planning a new garden, or considering changes to your existing one, take a moment to consider the wider world beyond. The choices we make in our home gardens have an effect on the world around us, more than most of us think about while having fun playing in the dirt. Garden structure, plant choice, and management practices all affect our environment and the health of our communities. One way to think ecologically about your garden is to plan to support native wildlife such as birds.


Many of our urban and suburban areas are sorely lacking in habitat options for birds. Birds need trees and shrubs to nest within, protect them from the elements and shield them from predators. While trees provide some habitat, many California native birds prefer shrubs and hedges for their homes.


This preference is convenient for us, as these plants are more accessible and easily integrated into our gardens. Myrica californica is a great California native with dense leaf growth that provides shelter for birds. What's more, this shrub is a nitrogen fixer, improving the health of your soil. It also grows well in our clay soil, so there is no need to do any amending or berming as you would with some other plants. Left to its own devices it can reach twenty feet in height. Unless you need a privacy screen or noise break, you may want to keep it pruned to a more manageable size.


Muhlenbergia rigens, a native bunch grass, also makes a great bird habitat. It also brings a softness and sense of motion to a garden.


The urbanization of wild areas has also reduced the availability of food sources for birds (the health and prosperity of crows notwithstanding). Choosing plants that provide seed, berries and nectar, as well as those that attract insects, can have a beneficial impact on your local ecosystem.


Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) is an attractive, drought-tolerant shrub that will also provide food for birds. Manzanitas produce pinkish-white flowers that produce nectar for hummingbirds. Later, the berries left by the flowers will provide a tasty snack for other birds.


If you like succulents, Dudleya species, also called “live forevers,” are whitish rosettes that add some flair to a native garden. Their yellow flowers are held aloft by pink stems, and hummingbirds often visit them.


Pesticides can sicken and kill birds so should be used sparingly in a bird-friendly garden. Many times people feel the urge to act, often in the form of chemical bombardment, at the discovery of an unknown insect in their garden. Often such an encounter requires no interaction from us. A booming insect population will soon draw the attention of other insects, lizards and birds that will be glad to do the extermination work for you.


If you decide that using chemicals is absolutely necessary, a specific, targeted response will be least damaging to wildlife. Broad-spectrum insecticides sprayed indiscriminately around a garden can give dramatic results. They also greatly disrupt your garden's ecosystem, leaving the door open for new pests who may want to move in. A pest-specific approached, applied conservatively, will cause the least collateral damage, keeping your garden a safe and healthy habitat for birds.


Pruning and other maintenance should also be done with care. Many birds build their nests inside shrubs and trees, nests that can be damaged or disturbed during pruning. You can avoid this calamity by careful observation prior to pruning.


Whatever you do in your garden, just keeping birds in mind will help you make decisions that benefit them. In the end you will find that this mindfulness benefits you as well, bringing the beautiful sights and sounds of nature to your home.


Next workshop: “Cool-Season Vegetables: Now is the Time to Plan and Start” on Saturday, August 10, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Repeated on Sunday, August 11, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in Yountville. For more details & online registration for the Napa workshop: Or call 707-253-4221. For the Yountville workshop, go to Online Yountville registration or telephone the Parks & Recreation Department at 707-944-8712.


The UC Master Gardeners are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website ( or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.