“Where have all the Marin birds gone?” lamented one of the guests at a garden party I recently attended in Kentfield, “There used to be many more years ago.” I was surprised to hear this, as my own garden is teeming with a variety of birds, putting on quite the show for us each year. I decided to write this article on attracting birds to your garden here in Marin County.
We are fortunate that we live in a climate and area that is very welcoming to birds. With more than 80% of the county protected from development, there are many wooded areas where they can thrive and build their nests. Many of us like to attract them to our gardens, and to do that we have to create the right conditions to make an environment that is welcoming to our avian friends.
In my own garden here in Marin County, I see a variety of birds, from the Hooded Oriole (pictured at left) to dozens of Hummingbirds, to Mourning Doves to big hawks that fly overhead. To tell you the truth, I am not a bird expert, and don’t know the names of all the birds that visit, but I do enjoy hearing their song as they forage in my garden, building nests in the trees and raising their offspring each year.
The Hooded Oriole is a recent addition over the past few years. I planted banana plants — their favorite places to build nests — several years ago and they finally discovered them. They build a round ball-like nest of straw inside the banana plant leaf, “sewing” the leaf shut around the nest. They return each spring from their winters in the south to build their nests and raise their young. I sometimes wonder if the birds that return each year are the offspring who have somehow imprinted on where they were raised. Their colors and calls remind me of birds I have seen in Hawaii and Bali.
When we moved into our house more than 10 years ago, we noticed a pair of Mourning Doves would build a nest in the carport and return each spring. When we remodeled the carport and turned it into a garage, we installed dove houses (available on Amazon) to provide an alternative. The dove houses remain empty — so far — but they do return each year and have built their nests in a secret location unknown to me.
The hummingbirds, which are very territorial, entertain with their speedy flight around the garden. I once had a hummer hover inches from my face for a good five seconds, seeming to check out this interloper in his domain. I used to maintain hummingbird feeders but found that boiling the sugar water and constantly filling the feeders was too time consuming and they often ran dry, especially during peak real estate season, so instead I planted an assortment of flowers that hummingbirds find desirable. Their favorites in our garden seem to be the long-blooming Abutilon and Aloe.
Welcoming Marin Birds to Your Garden: The Flowers
While we see flowers as an attractive addition to our landscaping, our feathered friends see them as food, whether it’s the insects they attract or the nectar and seeds they produce. One of the secrets of maintaining a bird-friendly garden is to encourage biodiversity by planting lots of different flowers and plants that flower and seed at different times. Your local garden center (one of my favorites is West End Nursery) can give you great advice on flowers that will bloom and seed at different times. You might also want to check out this article “Native Plants Are For The Birds” about planting an assortment of California natives to provide food and shelter for your garden visitors.
Marin Birds Love Water
Since we live in a Mediterranean climate, there is little fresh water for birds to enjoy for almost half of the year. I designed a water garden (above) for my courtyard that’s deep enough to keep raccoons out but has proven to be popular with all the Marin birds that visit. A side benefit is that bees also drink from the water — I often see them lined up at water’s edge late in the day.
Birdbaths and even pots of water are also great for birds — just be careful not to create an attractive nuisance for raccoons, who love to throw mud in shallow water features to harvest and eat the grubs within. You may wish to read this article on pond predator control.
The Dark Side of Bird Feeders
This is a rather unpleasant topic, but in the interest of sharing helpful tips I must cover this. When you place bird feeders out, which is a noble thing to do, you may not realize you are also likely feeding other creatures, such as mice and rats. “But my feeder is squirrel proof,” protested one of my friends… until I showed her all the seeds on the ground under the feeder that her avian friends had dropped while feeding. One of my neighbors had a major rat problem until she finally made the difficult choice of getting rid of her bird feeders and instead focused on providing birds with an organic garden in which to feed.
Keeping It Organic: Don’t Feed Marin Birds Pesticides
Before I learned about organic gardening, I used a myriad of sprays and poisons to control pests in my garden. However, I found that the more I used the more problems I had — it was a vicious cycle as my garden became more and more out of balance. As I moved to a more sustainable organic model years ago and eliminated chemical pesticides and herbicides, I began to see the natural cycle of my garden take hold. Yes, the aphids arrive every spring, and feed for a while before the ladybugs arrive to do their work. If there’s an especially bad infestation, I might use a little neem oil spray to help combat them and other pests, especially on my roses which seem to always have an issue that needs tending.
Remember, if you are poisoning the insects, you are poisoning the birds that eat those insects.
What About Bird Houses?
Bird houses are attractive and can provide shelter especially in yards without many trees and shrubs. Our garden is surrounded by trees and backs up to open space, so my bird houses remain forlorn and vacant. Your local garden center sells a variety of bird houses and can advise you on which to select based on the birds you want to shelter. Not all bird houses are created equal, which brings us to….
Owl Boxes – Give A Hoot
Owl boxes can be an environmentally-friendly way to control rodents around your home. The Hungry Owl Project here in Marin County is a great way to have owl boxes installed and maintained for a nominal fee. As they say on their website, “Installing Barn Owl boxes can be a very cost effective and eco-friendly way to help with a rodent problem. A single Barn Owl family can consume 3,000 rodents in a single 4 month breeding cycle. In many areas Barn Owls have multiple clutches a year, raising the total for possible consumed rodents to 6,000 – 9,000 a year per owl box!” For more information please visit their website.
My cat Hudson would rather nap than chase birds. Thankfully, in the rare moments he spends in our fenced outdoor garden, he is much more interested in gophers and moles than birds. However this is not often the case and cats can be disastrous to the bird population in your yard. The first rule is to try to keep your cat inside, to protect him from coyotes as well as to protect birds. If that is not always practical, make sure your cat wears a bell to warn birds he’s nearby, and ideally fence your yard so you can keep an eye on your cat, and can also keep coyotes and other predators out of your garden.
Birds in Marin County (and everywhere else!) Love Trees
I will end with the fairly obvious — birds love trees. They provide shelter and protection from predators. Pictured above are California Live Oaks and Robinia Pseudoacacia Frisia trees, which the birds in my garden love.
In summary, to attract Marin birds to your garden:
- Provide a source of water for them to bathe and drink
- Plant a variety of different kinds of plants, flowers, trees and shrubs to provide food and shelter
- Keep cats inside
- Practice organic, sustainable gardening practices to provide insects for birds to eat
- Provide landing areas and perches for birds to seek refuge when menaced
- Consider using bird feeders until your garden can sustain birds naturally, but be mindful of rodents
We are so lucky to live in an area as beautiful as Marin County. As always, I am here to answer any questions you might have including of course your real estate questions. Feel free to call or text me at 415-847-5584, or use the contact form below and I will be in touch right away.
What have I missed? Do you have your own tips on attracting birds to your garden? Please leave them in the comments below.