Creating Creature Comforts

'Please feed the animals' could be the motto of these gardeners, whose backyards are wildlife habitats.

May 24, 2001

By Robert Smaus
Los Angeles Times

The Long Beach garden of Tina and Jim Vince builds in their backyard like an ocean swell--with plants favored by birds rising to the eaves and above before crashing over the house and into the frontyard, spilling greenery across the sidewalk and into the street. It's a wild froth of a garden that is as much for the birds and butterflies as it is for the Vinces, and just in case you can't figure out why it looks this way, there's a small sign in the frontyard that states "Official Backyard Wildlife Habitat."

There are 1,249 gardens in California that have been officially certified as backyard wildlife habitats by the National Wildlife Federation. This means that creatures of various kinds can find food, water, shelter and safety in a garden, maybe even a place to rear their young.

The $15 certificate is a bit like an honorary diploma. It doesn't protect the creatures or the garden, or entitle the owners to anything special (except the little sign, which costs an additional $15).

Gardens can be as small as a city window box or encompass acres. Because the Vince garden is on a small city lot, much of their planted habitat is actually in the frontyard. The 20 or so feet between the street and their 80-year-old bungalow is stuffed with plants like the tall, lacy anise, chewed here and there because this is fodder for the larva of the spectacular swallowtail butterfly. Several other kinds of butterflies flit from flower to flower on the colorful lantana and pentas. Hummingbirds with iridescent ruby- colored throats are attracted by the various tubular flowers in the yard, especially by the honeysuckle that threatens to overwhelm the house, and the bright red Lobelia laxiflora from Mexico.

In the backyard are several bird feeders and a variety of bird baths, including one shallow dish filled with water and a few pebbles. "Birds actually line up to use this one," despite the fact that it sits right on the ground, said Tina Vince.

The family therapist said the garden didn't get this way overnight. It "wasn't like we got up one morning and said, 'Let's build a garden for wildlife,' " Tina explained. After raising four children, the couple began replacing the lawn with plants that birds like, because, well . . . they like birds.

It's trash collection day when I visit, but over the hydraulic noises of the garbage trucks, all the birds in the garden can be heard. I can pick out the cooing of doves (and see one looking at me from its eye-level nest by the back door), the copycat songs of mockingbirds, screeches from jays and the chatter of kinglets searching for bugs in the birch trees. There are other calls I do not recognize because the Vince garden attracts some unusual birds, such as the little hermit thrush and the black-masked, bright yellow Townsend's warbler. There are so many interesting birds that a friend, wildlife photographer Peter Knapp, has taken a number of prize shots of birds here.

Not just birds and butterflies visit. A small pond filled with aquatic plants in the back is regularly ravaged by raccoons, "but it bounces right back," Tina assures me, and, anyway, that's OK in a wildlife habitat garden, where creatures come first. As hard as it might be for some of us to accept, those devilish raccoons are wildlife too.

Skunks are regular visitors to the 2 1/4-acre Riverside garden of Nan Simonsen. "We don't often see the skunks, but we can sure smell them." She and her husband, Bob, do see rabbits, squirrels and coyotes in their recently certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Once Bob even saw the kittens of a bobcat. Quail and red-tailed hawks nest on the property. Frogs and dragonflies--creatures you don't see in city gardens--make the Simonsen garden a different, wilder kind of habitat. It is filled with tough native plants, has paths that are more like trails and, incredibly, a natural spring-fed stream runs through it.

"I love having movement in the garden," said Nan, who teaches gardening at a community college and for the UC Riverside Botanic Garden. Part of her garden is elegant and formal, filled with roses and iris, but it is the wild half of her property she most likes, as much for the animals as the plants.

She and her husband own a large Tupperware franchise, which is what brought them to Riverside and to this property--a model home for a tract of large properties. They immediately knew what to do with all the land. "While we were still in escrow, Bob said, 'Let's make this a park,' " said Nan. And that's exactly what they did, planting mostly native trees and shrubs while preserving and augmenting the stream bed and its plantings of willows and other riparian plants.

While some native plants are mostly for show, such as the spectacular flannel bushes and the clambering morning glory, many were chosen because something eats them. Native oak, toyon, manzanita, ceanothus, gooseberry, elderberry, buckwheat and verbena are all known food sources. Even the prickly opuntia cactus have fruit relished by the birds.

"I'm all right with nibbled leaves," said Nan, who, like Tina, does not spray for pests but actually plants things that she knows will be eaten.

Other plants provide habitat, such as the wild roses, which birds like to hide and nest in. Even dead plants can be useful. In the wild these would be called "snags," dead trees left in place that provide perches, shelter, cover and lots of delicious bugs for wildlife. Biologists say that snags may be more important to wildlife than live trees.

In their Riverside garden, the Simonsens have let several dead willows remain for this reason, and in their more citified Long Beach garden, the Vinces have not trimmed the dead branches from an old avocado. It was on one of its ghostly gray limbs that Tina first saw a rare Cooper's hawk--quite a sight for city folk.

For information on Backyard Habitats, contact the National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Program at 11100 Wildlife Center, Reston, VA 20190, phone:(703) 438-6586, Web site: http:// www.nwf.org.