Noe Valley Voice April 2008

How Green Is My Valley

The Birds and the Bees

By Hilary Gordon

Now that spring is here in full force, the trees and shrubs are blooming to the music of the birds and the buzzing of the bees. While we are hopping on the bus or walking to the corner store, the wild creatures in our valley are busy attending to their breeding season. Even in our congested urban environment, the birds still nest, hatch out their young, and feed them until they are old enough to fly. And during this demanding time, they look to our gardens and parks for their nests, food, and water. They also reward us with their brightest plumage and sweetest songs.

To Welcome a Hummingbird

Flashing through the air like jewels, hummingbirds are among the most magical of our garden residents. They speed from blossom to blossom, reaching their beaks deep down into the flowers for the hidden nectar that is their only food. The blooms they like best are long, hanging, or trumpet-shaped, like fuchsias. Red is apparently their favorite color--I have often seen a curious hummingbird hanging in the air, puzzled, when I've worn my red cap in the garden.

Hummingbirds are very territorial, guarding their plants from rival hummingbirds. If they see an intruder, they soar high up into the air, and letting out a single enraged peep, dive-bomb the offending bird. Then you can watch the two hummingbirds quarrel until one escorts the other out of their "yard."

Hummingbirds build their nests--which are tiny, just big enough for a single egg--out of fine material such as hair and spiderweb. Because the birds are so small, and so active, they depend on constant sources of nectar for the huge energy drain of egg-laying. That's where we come in, because hummingbirds must rely on the plants growing in our gardens, decks, and planters for their food supply.

To attract a hummingbird, plant a nectar plant. Some good choices include the strawberry tree (there were several planted on 24th Street last year), the butterfly bush, fuchsia (which blooms all year long in our climate), and sages of many varieties. California lilac, blooming now, is another good nectar plant, and is a drought-tolerant native.

Finches Forage for Seeds

Each morning, a lively crowd of yellow, purple, red, olive-green, and brown birds chatter and argue on the birdfeeder outside my kitchen window. These little songbirds, in the finch family, include two kinds of goldfinches, purple and house finches, and English sparrows. They all have stout beaks for cracking seeds, and if you provide them with Niger thistle seed--also known by the brand name Nyjer--they will trill your praises.

Seed mixes that include larger seeds, like sunflower seed, tend to attract jays, who intimidate the smaller birds. By hanging just the slender thistle seeds in a fine mesh bag (known as a finch sock), you can feed the little birds without subjecting them to bullying. (Finch socks are available at garden centers and at pet stores, such as the Animal Company on 24th Street.)

Among your bird visitors you might also see ground-feeding birds--such as white- and gold-crowned sparrows or brown towhees--picking at the fallen seeds under the feeder. These birds will forage in the seeds, fruits, and berries of the plants in your garden. Goldfinches seem to particularly love the seeds of rosemary and verbena.

One part of the finches' life cycle you don't want to miss is when the baby birds just out of the nest make their first flights to the birdfeeder. They don't yet have their adult feathers, so they look like a bunch of punk teenagers, all awkwardness and insolence. They arrive in gangs, and often plunge awkwardly in their attempts to perch on the feeder. They knock each other down and jockey for position. It may take several tries for them to settle down into a calmer rhythm.

Bees Like Lilac

Like the birds, bees depend on our yards, parks, and street trees for their sustenance. Noe Valley is blessed with several beekeepers, who tend hives in their back yards. In addition to the European honeybees in these hives, we have native Californian bumblebees, which are solitary creatures living in burrows in the soil. Bees provide us with honey and pollinate our food plants, and they add a lovely buzzing, bumbling presence on a warm day in the garden. In our mild climate, bees are active on sunny days year-round, but now they are extra busy, building up the numbers in their hives for the summer ahead.

To befriend the bees, nurture some of their favorite plants. Blooming now are rosemary, lavender, California lilac, and California poppy. Suzi Palladino, a beekeeper at Garden for the Environment, has observed that the European honeybees prefer European plants like lavender and rosemary while the native bumblebees frequent native plants like California lilac.

Gardening for Wildlife

Unfortunately, my favorite book about local gardening to support wildlife is now out of print. But Nancy Bauer's The Habitat Garden Book: Wildlife Landscaping for the San Francisco Bay Area is still available in some branches of the public library. If you can find it, you are in for a treat. The author describes the birds, bees, and butterflies of the Bay Area, and their food plants, as well as many useful tips for attracting and supporting wildlife in the garden. Some of her most important suggestions include growing diverse plants with year-round fruit and flowers, providing a birdbath or other source of clean water, and avoiding pesticides, which may get into the food chain.

In one of my favorite paragraphs she writes, "Habitat gardens are for people, too. Reconnecting with nature, healing a small piece of the earth, and being surprised by the unexpected are just a few of the rewards."

Check out these websites for moreon the birds and bees: www.goldengate or

Hilary Gordon is a Noe Valley resident who has spent two dozen years in the gardening field. She works and teaches organic gardening at the nonprofit Garden for the Environment at Seventh Avenue and Lawton. Meet her there on any open garden day: Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; or Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Fabulous Noe Valley Plant of the Month: California Strawberry

Birds and bees--but especially humans-- love the California Strawberry tree, Latin name Arbutus unedo. The specimen pictured above is among several planted on 24th Street (near Noe) last year as part of a street greening project. In March, its branches were hanging with clusters of pink bell-shaped flowers, which will soon be followed by green fruit that turns red as it ripens. Hummingbirds and bees were hovering close-by to sip the flower nectar. The Strawberry is a well-behaved street tree. It is drought-tolerant once established, and interesting in every season. What a fabulous plant!