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Winter’s Visiting Birds Need Our Bugs By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday December 13, 2005

Last week Joe and I took a detour onto Fourth Street, to cruise Cody’s and a couple of dry-goods stores. We were just going to dash into the Vivarium for turtle chow, but I found a free parking space on Fifth and felt that was occasion to celebrate, and besides, the sun was out.  

It always takes me a moment to re-focus when I exit a bookstore (and inside, too, if I need to avoid walking into a fixture) so I wasn’t sure at first that the movement I saw in the half-leafless Japanese maple outside the door was something real. But a familiar “chip!” repeated every second or so told me who was there, and I saw him then: a gimlet-eyed ping-pong ball in gray-green feathers, a ruby-crowned kinglet, working the twigs for little bugs and talking to himself as his kind does. Maybe it’s a whistle-while-you-work thing.  

Kinglets are pretty fearless when they’re concentrating on a meal and they’ll let you get close, or they’ll even approach you. I’ve been scolded at close quarters by several while I was working in trees. You won’t see that ruby crown unless your bird is male and chooses to flash you, as it’s normally hidden by the dark head feathers; if you do see it, you’ll be impressed, as it’s bright enough to leave an afterimage in your eyes.  

You rarely see one in summer here, but they’re ubiquitous in winter. They come down from the mountains and from Canada, quite a journey for a being who weighs less than an quarter of an ounce. (You think driving I-5 is bad? Imagine doing it under your own power at that size, in the air and against the prevailing winds. Imagine crossing the great migration of hawks and other predators, too, and then dodging them all winter.)  

So what are they doing here? Why, they’re eating bugs, mostly. So are the black phoebes that breed here in our own yards if we’re lucky, and then spread out to catch flies on the wing and call “Hey there, hey you, hey there, hey you”—once you know the call, you’ll notice them all over town. They’re quite dapper, with their upright posture and black-and-white suits.  

We saw a couple of black phoebes on the way back to the car, and a yellow-rumped warbler too. They eat berries more readily than most warblers do, but they’re here for our bugs in winter too, and so are other warblers like Townsend’s. Look into those sycamores along San Pablo whenever you hear an anonymous chirp, and chances are you’ll see one or two of them.  

So how do we get this privilege, handsome little birds right here all winter? Well, it helps if we’re not too fussy in summer. Lazy (or thoughtful) gardeners who leave some insect pests alive in their trees and shrubs get rewarded by winter’s birds. 

That doesn’t take effort so much as it takes care and observation. Gardening is unlike housekeeping or interior decorating in that you’re not supposed to be perfect, or completely thorough, or completely in control. This goes for how you treat your trees, too. A really well-pruned tree doesn’t look manicured; it looks natural, as if it’s doing exactly what it had in mind all along. Accomplishing this actually doesn’t take more effort than wholesale butchery, and you can do it without things that go vroom. You do have to know your tree, though. 

That same for the bugs. The best pest control is just reduction, not sterilization, partly because wiping out a whole pest population starves its predators, so the next pest generation can breed and eat in perfect safety. The vicious cycle here is well known to gardeners and pest-control folks.  

Those cheerful bundles of fluff might not look predatory to us, but they’re very good at what they do. They’re small, but high-energy, and in cold weather they need to keep their metabolisms stoked. So after all the work they put into getting here, the least we can do is make sure they have a nice bug buffet.  

Think twice before doing even “organic” dormant oil spraying on your trees. If they were OK this year, let the system—conspicuously and cheerfully, those birds—do the job. We’ll all have better holidays if we learn, live, and let live.