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A Birder's Garden


April Garden Checklist

[photo of Carol Lawrence & Tom Cockle and dogs in garden]IT'S THE THRILL OF SIGHTING THE ELUSIVE PYGMY OWL, the drama of a sharp-shinned hawk swooping past a bird feeder to snatch its quarry, and the clucks, rattles and whistles of a shy, yellow -breasted chat that made Fieldbrook gardeners Tom Cockle and Carol Lawrence glad they transformed their garden into a home for wild birds.

Cockle and Lawrence are birders, people who take joy in searching for, locating and identifying wild birds. When they moved to Fieldbrook after retiring from fast-paced careers in the Bay Area, the couple decided to lure native wild birds to their new yard. And they've been quite successful. Aside from the pygmy owl, purple finches and woodpeckers have made their presence in the bird haven.

Since they have been birding and traveling to the Southwest and Costa Rica to sight the feathered beauties during the last 12 years, designing a garden for the birds became a natural extension of their passionate hobby.

"I guess it is a sense of satisfaction to give back to nature something that humans have taken away. It is good to try to give back to nature and to provide some habitat for the birds," Lawrence explained while standing next to a wild currant full of flowers. A tiny hummingbird sipped nectar from the dangling pink clusters.

It is not a garden of manicured lawn, flower borders gushing with color, or neatly trimmed hedges. This is home for the birds, a two and a half acre tamed wilderness, a natural extension of a surrounding second growth redwood forest, wild willows and berry brambles.

Looking at the garden today, it is difficult to believe that three and a half years ago the land was a sloping cow pasture covered with the giant stubble of old-growth redwood stumps. Now the stumps serve as habitat for the birds and the lumpy green pasture is gone. Instead, wide gravel paths meander around islands of native and non-native shrubs and trees. In this garden you will find rambling, thorny rugosa roses, curly willows, bushy native huckleberries, blue spruce and assorted dwarf conifers tucked in with a blanket of wood chip mulch. Above the main part of the garden stretches a grassy slope where the couple dug a large, six-foot-deep pond that is visited regularly by wood ducks, herons and kingfishers. It is a wild area where deer and raccoons are welcome.[photo of a grosbeak]

When attracting birds to a garden, Cockle said one must offer the elements that birds need such as cover, water and food sources. "Things like berries, seeds and plants that have a lot of bugs are important. Plant all of those things and the birds will come," Cockle said.

Because wild birds require a reliable water source, the couple came up with a creative solution to meet this critical need. Above the main garden they built a French drain to channel excess water off the hill above. The water is diverted into a man-made gravel stream bed and empties into a natural-looking pond. Another gravel bed emerges from below the pond and drainage water flows in and out of the bed down to the bottom of the garden. The area is landscaped with water parsley, sedges and willow. Several yards of gravel and hand-picked river stones, transported by wheelbarrow, went into the stream bed and garden paths. Another creative way to entice wild birds with gurgling water was to line the drainage ditch separating their front yard from the main road with carefully chosen river stones. After a rain the water spilling into the ditch sounds like a natural stream.

"We went down to the Mad River and hand-picked every stone so we could get red ones and green ones and white ones. We didn't want plain old gray ones," Cockle said.

[photo of garden]In landscaping the garden with both native and non-native shrubs and trees, the couple has learned that various plants attract different species of birds.

"We have the native willows which provide food for warblers. They love the bugs and stuff off willows. We have some ceanothus which birds like, more bugs and the flowers too. We really are not too anti-bug, because the birds do get to eat them and they keep bug populations down in a garden. Conifers are wonderful for attracting birds like evening grosbeaks. They like spruce. Conifers are wonderful for the birds because they like the cones, and the trees provide a lot of cover," Lawrence explained.

In addition to providing natural food sources for the birds, the couple also has platform feeders scattered throughout the yard, each blanketed with seed, especially black sunflower. Cockle built the feeders out of discarded slabs of redwood and roughhewn fence posts. Lawrence explained that it is important to provide birds with seed in addition to elements in native habitat "If you provide an artificial source like feeders, the birds will come and investigate your yard, so it is important to have an artificial source. It is nutritious for them, " she said.

A problem associated with a seed feeder platform is that band-tailed pigeons tend to come in droves and hog all the food, forcing other birds away. Cockle remedied the problem two ways. First he covered the feeders with 2-by-3-inch fence wire, a mesh wide enough for smaller birds to get through, but not the pigeons. Then he placed a feeder exclusively for pigeons in a far corner of the yard. "We love the pigeons. They are one of the most beautiful birds around, but they don't share, so we said `We'll give you guys one way over there,' and it works," he said.

"And birds eat lots of other stuff," Cockle added. The couple has witnessed wild birds eating flowers.

While watching the birds in their garden, Cockle and Lawrence have become familiar with bird behaviors that they did not know existed.

"A lot of the seed feeders will sit on the feeder and eat and eat and eat. But the chickadees won't. They pick one seed and take it off somewhere else, eat it and then come back for another," Cockle explained. "Another thing we've learned is that the robins that visit here in the winter are not the same ones that come in the summer. The whole population sort of shifts," Cockle said.

While the couple has learned much about birds in the past three and a half years, they have also learned a lot about gardening. "We had not any experience gardening," said Cockle. "We lived in a condo, then we had a little house in Alameda with a 20 square foot yard," he said, laughing.

[photo of couple with feeder platform]Bird-watching led them to gardening in a natural way, Lawrence explained. "One of the things about birding is that usually the people you hang out with know a great deal about plants, so you begin to feel like, `Gee, I'd like to know all this too.' It sort of encouraged us to learn," she said.

"First we planted two oak trees, much too close to the house, but they are good bird trees because of acorns and bugs," she explained.

"Right now we are fine tuning and replacing the things that don't make it," said Cockle who has learned about how to deal with a heavy, wet clay soil. "We're still learning what things work and what things don't," he said.

Since Cockle and Lawrence have three frisky greyhounds, there is no need to worry about deer eating the plants or neighborhood cats eating the birds. A tall fence surrounding the property keeps the deer out of the main yard. And while birds are the primary inhabitants of the garden, the couple also encourages butterflies and bumblebees. "Of course you have to throw in butterflies, because birds and butterflies go together.," Lawrence said.

The skippers love the Mexican lilies and dame's rocket and lavender," she explained. "I love it when I see the bumblebees crawling all over the Pieris flowers, sipping the nectar from the flower. I just love all that sound of nature," she said.

A long list detailing the sighting of some 70 different kinds of birds attests to Cockle's and Lawrence's success in creating a suitable habitat for wild birds.

"We started out with nothing, and now the garden is just getting to where you can stand in it and have plants surround you, as opposed to having a lot of little plants in a desert," Cockle said of the young garden.

"We have more and more birds coming in here. We have twice as many birds coming in here this year as we did last. And actually there are more birds here during the winter. They hang out here all winter. Then those go away and we have a different crew."


1. Carol Lawrence, Tom Cockle and their dogs watch the water flow through their garden. Photo by Marilyn Rothé

2. A grosbeak perches on a limb. Photo by Ron LeValley

3. Garden scene. Photo by Marilyn Rothé

4. Carol Lawrence and Tom Cockle built one seed feeder platform just for greedy band-tailed pigeons and others with wire mesh to screen out larger birds. Photo by Marilyn Rothé.

April Checklist

April is the month of apple blossoms, rosebuds and the scent of fresh mowed grass wafting in a late afternoon breeze. It is also time for chores. Here's what you can do to make your garden sparkle for the spring and summer to come.

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