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The Dry Garden: Water-wise birdbaths can create a backyard spa for wildlife

September 11, 2009 |  4:17 pm

Fountain

It has been my casual observation during the last decade in Los Angeles that dry years produce the best backyard birding and wet years the most marginal.

This being the height of migration season for Western songbirds, and conditions around Los Angeles being bone-dry or fire-scarred, here's a proposal for even the driest of dry gardeners: Get out your hoses.

There is no better time to set up a birdbath.

It doesn’t take much water, just well-managed water, to convert your garden to a wildlife refuge. Anything from a series of cannily placed dishes with stones to three-tiered fountains or even faux streams can attract a surprising array of birds. Or, in the words of Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: “If you put out bird feeders, you get seed-eating birds. If you put out water, you can get anything from a Cooper's hawk coming in to doves and small warblers, finches and sparrows.”

Fountain2 The birds use water to drink and bathe. So the object is to keep it fresh and set it up with pebbles and perching points. (Birds such as sparrows can drown if offered big tubs with bad access.)

Freestanding dishes with pebbles require a commitment to change the water every day or so. For larger fountains, the most efficient method is to reduce the water capacity using stones or some kind of fill, so the volume of water being circulated and replenished is reduced. You can refresh it by hand with a hose, or plumb it into most drip systems.

But avoid wasteful systems. In the greater scheme of things, these hurt birds: The water coming from your urban hose will be drawn from some taxed habitat in the wild.

The first thing that Garrett or almost any birder will tell you about setting up a birdbath is that moving water is preferable. This helps prevent stagnation.

Garry George, conservation chairman of Los Angeles Audubon, also thinks that the sound draws birds in. “I think they can hear it if you have running water," he said. "So if they’re coming into a tree near your house and hear that sound, they might come and check it out.”

George, whose backyard is home to a mix of goldfinches, has a streamlike setup from Avian Aquatics. Aesthetes who visit the website shouldn’t panic. Although these rigs have all the elegance of science fair volcano molds, they can be incorporated into gardens to look so naturalistic that you could swear it was a babbling brook, not a motorized system recycling L.A.’s finest tap water.

That said, birds are not design snobs, so express yourselves. While you’re at it, check out the range of solar-powered birdbaths and fountains on the market. Target has what looks like a good buy for a solar pump at $69.99. 

More important than the appearance of the birdbath or fountain is the position. David Fross of Native Sons in Arroyo Grande, Calif., has his fountain tucked up against shrubs, which in turn form banks against a tree canopy. Every fall, migrating Townsend’s warblers get shelter as they hop into and out of the fountain to shrubbery and trees.

The one place you don’t want to put a birdbath is in the proximity of a cat. So if you have an outdoor cat, it’s best to let the birds find safer gardens. Even if you don’t have a cat, be mindful of strays: Consider putting a fountain in the backyard rather than the more accessible frontyard. A backyard patrolled by a dog wouldn't hurt (assuming the dog doesn't have a taste for birds).

To learn more:

"The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America"

Audubon California

Friends of Ballona Wetlands

Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles

Shipley Nature Center in Hungtington Beach

Madrona Marsh Preserve in Torrance

Buena Vista Audubon in San Diego

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

— Emily Green

Green's column on water-wise gardening appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at www.chanceofrain.com.

Photo credits: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times

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