Home & Garden Columns
All right, the season’s over. Put down that polesaw. I don’t mean the pruning season, exactly. I mean the pruning free-for-all season: that season where a pruner’s only concern is the anatomy and physiology of the tree being pruned.
(If you don’t know from tree anatomy and physiology, you have no business pruning—just as, if you don’t know the anatomical differences between a dog and a squid, you have no business clipping your puppy’s toenails, never mind doing veterinary surgery.)
If you’re messing with a tree or shrub now, you’d better take a long close look within it for inhabitants first, because our local songbirds’ nesting season has begun.
Anna’s hummingbirds are year-round residents here. Two other hummingbird species are commonly seen in Berkeley: Allen’s hummingbird, which breeds here but migrates out in fall; and rufous hummingbird, a migrant that passes through on the way north in spring. (In fall, most of the rufous population migrates south via the Sierra, taking advantage of the summer flowers that bloom months later there than their brethren down here around sea level.)
Male Anna’ses have been putting on their aerial territorial displays since December, at least. We have a mad turf war going on at our place as a younger male is trying to usurp our longtime resident, Himself. This is made difficult by the fact that our feeders are on the front and back porches and not visible from any one point. Intense crazy chases around the house and around the house again occur daily.
More significantly, a female Anna’s—distinguishable by her more cryptic coloring, with no red throat gorget—was buzzing the windowframes and conifers last month and snatching up bits of spiderweb. She used these, along with lichens and bits of fuzz and her own spit, to build her tiny, neat, sturdy nest. We take care of our spiders here at the Blake Street Belfry, and that’s one reason why. Everything really is, as Muir said, hitched to everything else.
Now she’s snatching bugs, which she’ll feed her kids. They need the protein to grow. Hummers usually supplement their nectar diet with insects, but when you see a female going for them persistently it’s a safe bet she’s feeding chicks.
That’s quite an act to see. She thrusts that long bill down their eager little throats and pumps madly; it looks like a sword-swallower’s performance gone mad.
She might have built that nest, by our standards at least, any old where. The nest in the photo was built in an office-complex courtyard on University Avenue, just above eye level, over a well-trafficked walkway. Joe and I have run into Anna’s hummers nesting in several local plant nurseries, once on an eye-level twig (I’m five-foot-four) in a 10-foot-tall potted ficus tree that was indoors, in the office shed, maybe 10 feet from the cashier’s desk.
No shortage of traffic there, and lots of gawkers; the nursery managers had staked a card in the pot alerting everyone to the nest’s presence. The hummingbird was incubating her eggs, and as steadfast as Horton the Elephant. Every human there was on his or her best behavior, and didn’t get closer than, oh, arm’s-length, but we all looked and she looked right back, a fierce glare in her beady little eye.
The nest in the picture is small—half a walnut shell would stretch the inside—and easy to miss if you haven’t seen one before. Right now, when the leaves are most sparse on the trees, is the best time to spot them. Get up a ladder and look for them before cutting. If you can’t do that, at least watch your trees for a few days, and see if there’s hummer traffic to one particular place.
Remember: The bugs they’re all eating now are the ones that would otherwise be the parents of the generations that would spend next summer chomping on your garden.
Other local species are working up to nesting season, too. You might have noticed that the house finches and goldfinches are singing, and that the musical males have female audiences. Some of those robins you’re hearing are getting ready to migrate north, and working off their hormones; others will likely hang around and establish breeding territories in the next month or two. Still others will migrate in from farther south. Jostling will ensue.
Great horned owls might have great big chicks in the nest already; they start early. The Bewick’s wren that has been singing in our neighborhood all winter might be getting seriously amorous this month, and will nest early next month.
We’re not the only species that inhabits our cities, and we’d be much worse off if we were. The least we can do is to be aware of our neighbors, and behave well accordingly.
Photograph by Ron Sullivan
A female Anna’s hummingbird (Callypte anna) on her nest.
Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Green Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section.