Like most people, we have had very quiet holidays, which turn out to suit us surprisingly well. On Friday morning my brother and I companionably texted back and forth, exchanging images and recipes and tips as we prepped and cooked holiday meals for slumbering companions. We reminisced about how our mom considered cooking to be beneath her interest, and we both felt grateful for the gift of appreciation from our dad’s interest in real food. My grandkids love to cook with me and we too have had fun enjoying meals together by live-video on the phone. For the holidays, they shared a recipe for making hummingbird elixir to go with their gift of a lovely vintage-style glass hummingbird feeder. I removed a flagging fuchsia basket with just a few forlorn flowers left, hung my handsome new feeder on the same hook and almost immediately the hummers were buzzing in for a quick snack.
When we humans hunker indoors, staying warm and cozy and eating ridiculous amounts of holiday specialties, the poor birds are working harder to keep themselves fed. They definitely appreciate gardens like mine, where plants are allowed to ripen seed and stalks are left to be cut back as spring arrives. Even a tiny garden like mine is alive with birds, mostly towhees and juncos, sparrows and chickadees, goldfinches and house finches. Bigger birds like to poke around the yard as well, from crows and ravens to Steller’s Jays and the occasional flicker. Apart from the jays, most are fairly drab, and certainly none outshine the gorgeous hummingbirds, which zip and zoom with a buzz of little wings.
By midsummer, hummingbirds are everywhere in the garden. They especially enjoy visiting hanging fuchsia baskets and they return over and over to sip the rich nectar from the long necked flowers. In summer, we get visits from several kinds, notably Rufous hummers, the males sporting bright red bandanas and coppery heads and backs. By winter, only the Anna’s hummingbirds are left in our cold, sometimes snowy region. The males are showboats, with iridescent, shocking pink-to-rosy throats and crowns, the ladies smaller and greeny-gold. Both have prodigious appetites and once they find your feeders, you’ll be refilling them at least a few times a week. I was fascinated to learn from an Audubon post that these charming little jewel birds were first seen over-wintering in Seattle in 1964, though they now nest and breed on Vancouver island and up into Southeastern Alaska. Though climate change may play a part in this migration, it also owes something to humans, as enough of us provide nectar feeders to keep a lot of hummers happy.
Hummingbirds also need protein, which is why they favor unkempt gardens, where insects, spiders and bugs are more often to be found than in sterile, over-manicured landscapes. Throughout the Northwest, I notice with sadness the constant habitat loss. Houses replace forests and roadside sweeps of native vegetation give way to tidied up verges replete with lawns and fruitless trees. It is sad to watch healthy stands of native fruiting trees and shrubs (which nourish native birds and other creatures) be replaced with non-natives and sterile lawns that don’t nourish anybody. As suburbs spread, tidiness destroys the last remnants of the wild. Birds and other creatures suffer hunger and higher death rates when they have no place to live. What can we do? Happily, quite a lot, even in tiny urban spaces.
Sharing Gardens With Birds
Though average lot size is shrinking everywhere, yet yards still host multiple activities and features. Fortunately, it’s easy to provide functional bird habitat along with privacy screening by creating layered perimeter plantings. What makes a garden a good place for birds? Food and water, shelter and nesting opportunities. To provide a steady supply of food, we need to plant both flowers and fruiting shrubs. Native salmonberries, huckleberries, and salal can be supplemented or supplanted with garden plants like raspberries, blueberries and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Many viburnums provide ample bird food, as do crab apples, barberries, and flowering cherries.
It’s also helpful to design more naturalistic, less formal gardens. Layered, unclipped hedges offer privacy and provide places for birds to build safe nests and hide from cats. Tightly sheared hedges don’t work, since dense foliage prevents bird penetration. Avoid shearing by choosing plants that mature to an appropriate size. This simple concept makes less work for you and is far less stressful for the plant. Twiggy dogwoods (Cornus sericea and C. sanguinea) are beautiful screening plants that also give birds plenty of protection. Snowberry and buffalo-berry offer multi-seasonal beauty and bird food. Shrubby California lilacs (Ceanothus) offer shelter for birds and food for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Small trees like apples, pears, wild cherries and vine maples and large unsheared shrubs like barberry, escallonia, and Oregon wax myrtle (Myrica californica) all offer good nesting opportunities.
Offer Water Even In Winter
Water bowls will bring in many kinds of birds, especially in winter, when natural streams and puddles may be frozen solid. Change water bowls daily and scrub them out well to avoid creating a health hazard for visiting birds. Always place water features and birdbaths where birds can see marauding cats clearly. Quietly moving water may be more attractive than wild splashing. One friend whose garden is always full of happy birds stuffs her decorative, multi-tiered fountains with moss and water-loving ferns. Instead of gushing, they drip and trickle in a manner that birds find utterly enticing.
As for filling those feeders, always use the classic Audubon-approved recipe. Never use alternative forms of sweeteners, none of which are good for birds (and some of which are outright harmful). Never add red dye, which can be harmful; the feeder’s bright color is attraction enough. Always wash the feeders between fillings, but in winter, dry them well before putting them back outside; one sad day, we found a tiny female Anna’s hanging by her feet from the feeder, frozen to the little perch. We brought the whole thing indoors, set if gently in the sink and spread a towel over the whole business. In a few hours, she thawed out enough to get free and flew straight out the door to the second feeder hanging outside. That’s why it’s wise to wipe the perches dry!
4 cups warm water
1 cup cane sugar
Mix well to dissolve sugar and fill feeders immediately. Mix fresh elixir each time you fill your feeders. Onward!