Bringing the ‘burbs to life

When we started, there were plants, a bird bath and bird feeders. The plants for the most part did nothing to feed the birds. Native insects likewise did not come here for fine dining.

With this makeover, that’s all changed. The bird bath is now a recirculating fountain. The bird feeders remain, but now there’s a veritable smorgasbord for visiting birds, with insects buzzing around a host of new native flowers.

We didn’t touch the concrete paths, other than to add a looping access path of flagstones set in sand and gravel to service the fountain and resupply the bird feeders. To make the design look as though it were done at once, gravel mulch strips align to the existing steps, flowing back into the plantings.

Perimeter plants were left in place for screening, the white birches remained for shade and habitat, but most of the other plants were ripped out. If a plant didn’t feed pollinators, help restore butterfly populations or provide nectar it got chopped. The result is a seasonal display of successive blooms that support local bee populations and feed migrating hummingbirds. As plants go to seed, they’ll support seed-eating birds. Some plants, like the milkweed, may even supply downy nesting materials.

We did not choose a purely native plant list, since some of the best plants for honeybees are not native (neither are these bees, for that matter). As long as all the plants in each group used the same amount of water and sunlight, the design would work.

Indian paintbrush, unlike most plants, does not get everything it needs from sunlight, soil and water. It needs a host plant: bush monkeyflower. Growing paintbrush alone is unlikely to be successful, but once paired with monkeyflowers there’s a good chance you can grow this native wildflower in your garden.

Partial plant list

Although the plants had to provide some function, that didn’t mean that they were thrown together haphazardly. They’re massed to form swaths of color, partially screen one area of the garden from another, and make the garden seem more private near the house.

  • Milkweed: restore monarch butterfly populations
  • Indian paintbrush: hummingbird food
  • Bush monkeyflower: host plant for paintbrush, hummingbird food
  • Annual wildflowers: food for native solitary bees
  • Mexican lobelia: hummingbird food
  • California fuchsia: hummingbird food
  • Lavender: honeybee food
  • Red yucca (Hesperaloe): hummingbird food
  • Penstemon: hummingbird food
  • Russian sage: honeybee food
  • Woolly sunflower: bee food
  • Coyote mint: butterfly food
  • Mugwort: background plant, interesting fragrance (leaves)
  • Grasses: keep some green while natives are dormant, add texture.
  • Sundrops: great color, and feeds bees, too.

It was also accepted by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Garden for Wildlife, meeting the criteria for food (pollen, nectar, seeds), water (fountain), cover (perimeter shrubs), places to raise young (perimeter shrubs and birch tree) and sustainable practices (no pesticides or nasty chemicals).

Although the style of this garden differs a bit from the surrounding homes, it seems to be accepted by the neighbors. It was certainly accepted by the birds and insects! It will probably need to grow in a few more years before the milkweeds get large enough to attract monarch butterflies, but other benefits were immediate. Ground-nesting bees moved in, probably taking advantage of nearby abundant food. Hummingbirds zip through the flowers, searching for nutritious nectar and probably insects to eat. Then there’s the impressive palette of color to delight passing people.




Water the birds, too

California’s drought replaces regular water with bare creek beds and depleted reservoirs. For small birds, staying clean and hydrated can be a challenge. Here’s how to help them out. 

Designing a water feature for birds transforms a decorative garden feature into a survival aid. With food and water available in the same area, small birds save energy that would be wasted searching for water.

Many birds migrate. Right now, the lesser goldfinches mob the fountain, with frequent visits by yellow-rumped warblers, Anna’s hummingbirds and American robins. Earlier in the year, we had Wilson’s warblers and American goldfinches, along with black-chinned hummingbirds. Scrub jays and phoebes visit the fountain year round.

These features are good to have in a bird fountain:

Audible water
If located under a tree, a silent water feature is a hidden water feature to birds passing overhead. The noise doesn’t have to resemble a major waterfall, but there should be enough sound for birds to locate the fountain, even if it’s hidden under a tree. This works best for migrating birds who don’t know the area and have not memorized where they can find water.

Rough surface, curved edges and sloping sides
Many birds – especially hummingbirds – prefer to perch on the side of the fountain in a stream of running water. Sloping sides let them grab hold and still access the water. This also increases capacity for goldfinches and warblers.

Recirculating water
It’s a drought, so using potable water flowing from a pipe is not only wrong, it’s probably illegal, too. Recirculating the water also keeps it moving, allowing filtration and oxygenation.

Deep reservoir
The bottom basin should be deep and ideally buried in the ground. This limits evaporation – as do plants growing on the surface of the water. Our fountain uses sedges to shade the water, keeping it cooler in the summer and further reducing water loss.

This process uses natural systems to purify the water. Bacteria convert waste provided by the birds into nutrients for the plants growing in and on the fountain. The inside of the pot is filled with broken pots, increasing the surface area for the bacteria. The outside has become covered in moss, increasing surface area and feeding on the nutrients. The water needs to keep moving, since the bacteria involved need oxygen to thrive.

No chemicals
Obviously, adding chemicals would defeat the purpose of a bird refuge. The biofiltration system – bacteria, plants and moving water – will keep the water clear.

No fish
Even one goldfish will turn the water green and opaque, at least until a passing egret devours the fish. If you see mosquito larvae, add mosquito fish. These fish are too small to attract herons and will multiply in the fountain. If the filter system is strong enough to prevent mosquitos, it might be strong enough to suck up mosquito fish, so don’t add them unless you see mosquito larvae. Predatory insects, such as dragonfly larvae will move into the fountain over time, further reducing the risk of breeding mosquitos.

Nearby perches
As you can see in the photos, having perches available near the water allows birds to wait for their turn. The perch is also a place to look for potential danger before flitting down to the water.

Nearby shelter
Where the perches should be open and have good visibility, shelter shrubs and trees should be more opaque, better for hiding. Birds use these areas to preen their feathers after taking baths and sometimes watch the perching area to see if it looks safe.

Our birds
A benefit of fountains is that they attract insect eating birds as well as seed-eaters. Birds that would be difficult to attract to to a feeder will readily visit a fountain for a drink. These birds are common visitors, depending on the season:

  • black phoebe
  • western scrub jay
  • lesser goldfinch *
  • yellow-rumped warbler *
  • Wilson’s warbler *
  • Yellow warbler *
  • American robin
  • Northern mockingbird
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • Black-chinned hummingbird *

* migratory, not around all year

The meadow at it’s messiest: butterfly paradise

After summer’s growth, the asters have come into flower, bringing clouds of hungry butterflies. This is when the meadow is tallest, where it starts looking wild and unkempt. Asters arc in all directions, visited by multiple species of butterflies: skippers, buckeyes, blues, sulfurs… Beneath the asters, native goldenrod blooms following earlier waves of flowers now matured into fuzzy brown seeds.

Soon, the flowers will fade, the stalks will bleach to browns and tans and the plants begin to release seeds, hopefully for goldfinches to dine upon. The meadow’s summer yellows and greens will transform to light tans, muted greens and rusty browns as it prepares itself for winter.

Next year, we’ll mow the straw-colored stalks to the ground, and begin an aster thinning regime to ensure that they don’t completely dominate the meadow, leaving more room for grasses, goldenrod, Indian hemp, sedges and milkweeds.

With spring rains, the sedges will shoot from the ground, greening the meadow. Grasses will grow and flower and the cycle will begin anew.

Six requirements for a successful hummingbird garden

Attracting hummingbirds to a garden requires a few simple design elements to create an area they can call home (when they’re not migrating). Their needs are simple enough: water, food and shelter.

Some birds are much more timid about jumping in, needing to hover over the water first
Some birds are much more timid about jumping in, needing to hover over the water first

There’s nothing like having breakfast outdoors while hummingbirds buzz around the garden. In the summer, it will need to be an early breakfast, since the birds are most active between dawn and a bit after sunrise. At other times of the year, the birds keep later hours. They’re active again at the end of the day, but nothing like during the time before the morning sun descends from the treetops. This might be because carpenter bees raid nectar from their favorite flowers – but the bees, being cold-blooded, can’t fly as early as the warm-blooded hummingbirds.

This is a simple list of things you can plan into your hummingbird garden. They’re just a start – the more diversity you have, the better. The birds tend to nest where they like, so designing something where you’ll think they’ll nest may remain empty while the birds build their nest on an outdoor lantern or other unanticipated feature.

This Anna's hummingbird will start bobbing and dipping
This Anna’s hummingbird will start bobbing and dipping


This is the one thing that brings them back. They’ll drink and take baths, even if they’re not looking for nectar. The water should be shallow, and ideally flow over a curved surface where the birds can sit.

Flowing water is important for several reasons. Birds can hear it from above, telling them   that there’s a place to drink even if they can’t see it. Flowing water is probably cleaner water since unless you live on a spring your water will be recirculated with a pump. Having some basic filtration – both mechanical and biological – will keep the water clean. Keeping the water moving discourages mosquitoes, too. Moving, oxygenated water also seems to favor the growth of moss in the water over algae.

This bird isn't just looking for predators; he's checking for other hummingbirds.
This bird isn’t just looking for predators; he’s checking for other hummingbirds.

Inspection perches

These are near the water source. They’re places for the birds to sit and check out any potential dangers before moving down to the water. Locating open perches above the water but not far away encourages birds to move in gradually before they commit to a bath (this works even better with jays, goldfinches and warblers than hummingbirds).

Thoroughly damp birds fly into a nearby twiggy shrub to finish preening.
Thoroughly damp birds fly into a nearby twiggy shrub to finish preening.

Preening perches

These are farther away and higher up, in areas that a predator would find difficult to access. Brushy small trees or large shrubs seem to work best. The birds here like an open yet twiggy branch structure so they can see out.

Red yucca (Hesperaloe) is a hummingbird favorite (the leaf-legged bugs like it too, it seems)
Red yucca (Hesperaloe) is a hummingbird favorite (the leaf-legged bugs like it too, it seems)


We don’t have a hummingbird feeder. Instead, we planted a succession of nectar sources for the birds to visit. There’s a succession of blooms: penstemons and culinary sage, Mexican lobelia, red yucca, native sages, California fuchsia. This mimics what the birds would find in nature, where one species of plant blooms, only to be replaced by another. Since we don’t have feeders, we’re free to spend a few days away from the house without interrupting the birds’ food source.


If you tried to live on nothing but sugar water, you’d die of malnutrition. Hummingbirds are the same way. They require insects and spiders for protein, and consume a fair amount of these creatures as sustenance. Hummingbirds are related to swallows, so you might say that eating bugs is in their bloodline. Spider silk is a component of hummingbird nests, so having some spiders around is a good thing. Having happy birds means no pesticides. Besides, I’d rather the bugs went to the good cause of feeding hungry birds than died uselessly, twitching from some toxic product.


This point is perhaps obvious, but these birds only live in the Americas. If you’re reading this somewhere else, your garden might attract other nectar-loving birds – just not hummingbirds. Not to worry, since most nectar-loving birds are quite beautiful.


Got birds?

Can you have a Big Day? A good wildlife garden can have a lot of action on a good day, no bird feeder required. 

Mockingbird 0033Mockingbirds arrive several times per day, landing in the birch to survey the area, then descending into the holly bush to gobble a couple of berries. He only takes two or three berries at a time, then flies off.

Birch finches 9669


These finches sit and talk in the upper branches of the river birch.

FInch 0095They explore the branches, but there’s nothing for them to eat here at this time of year.

Finches crape 0212So they head for the crape myrtle trees, where it seems that they have developed a taste for the seeds, held in capsules at the tips of the branches.

Woodpecker 0121Meanwhile, back on the birch, a woodpecker searches for insects under the peeling bark.

Hummingbird 0259Early morning is a good time for drinking and bathing. Birds never just head for the fountain. There could be a predator lurking nearby! So, they light on a nearby tree, then move to a dead branch placed over the fountain for their comfort, then touch the water. They immediately fly back to a branch to take another look. Once they’re comfortable, they head for the water for a quick drink and a bath.

Finch bath 0269The fountain is just a modified pot, filled with 3/4″ crushed rock that serves as a biofilter, the top just beneath the water is small river pebbles. Birds prefer shallow water for bathing, and the pebbles let them judge the water depth – and give the top of the fountain a more natural look.

Finches bath 0278At times, the entire surface of the fountain is covered with birds, with others perched nearby to await their turn. It’s kind of like people at a major sale event, with pushing, shoving and squawking.