Home & Garden Columns
Never mind that it’s caught me unarmed and ill-prepared, as usual; I love this sample of early spring we’re getting. We didn’t have it quite the same way last year, I guess. As happened, I was ‘way out of town and in another climate for most of last February on a most urgent and unfortunate errand, so I’m only guessing.
The last two weeks, though, I’m feeling rewarded, compensated for missing that time here. All of a sudden, Bang!, the plums started blooming and the glorious trend is rolling across town in its syncopated way. They’re overlapping with the winter manzanita and magnolia blossoms, with the flowering quince who can’t make up their minds whether they’re winter or spring bloomers, never mind what the books say.
The purple-leaf plum that overhangs our yard from the east fenceline is so floriferous that its scent fills the lot. Plums aren’t strong-smelling flowers and their effect is usually subtle; this one just has such an abundance of blossoms they create a mass scent chorus, like a choir of soft voices that becomes orchestral by sheer harmonizing numbers.
There’s such abundance that the birds who nibble the petal bases for that bit of sweetness—taste one and see!—make no discernible reduction. They just leave single, clipped barely-pink petals all over the car parked underneath, along with what the tree sheds on its own. We drive off down the street merrily trailing floral confetti like a bridal procession. You can’t buy that kind of accessory at Kragen.
The English sparrows nest under eaves or in any handy hollow, damn them. (They’re invasive exotics and have played hob with North American natives like bluebirds by taking over nesting spots, sometimes outright killing the bluebirds to do so.) The housefinches and the goldfinches, two species of them, nest in trees and therein lies the rub of our early warm weather.
There’s a male lesser goldfinch sounding his querulous-to-inquisitive call notes in one of the plums out back as I write this. He’s great company, never mind the whining, and I hope he and the female I startled off the back porch a few minutes ago decide to set up housekeeping here this year. It’s worth tolerating shade on the garden beds to leave enough of that eastern row of undistinguished yellow-fruited plums for birds to feel welcome.
He’s sometimes on a branch near an old nest, probably last year’s, maybe his or a family member’s. It seems to be a good homesite. But I haven’t quite finished pruning that tree of its overhang, and we’ve barely started on the lady Banks rose that climbs up to the second-story kitchen window. There was a bushtit nest in that one last year, a complex construction that looked like an old gray woolly sock. I love having bushtits around; aside from eating bugs, they’re just so merry on their rounds.
There’s a hummingbirds nest somewhere but I haven’t found it yet; I know it’s there because we have both male and female Anna’s hummers at the feeder (and once, in the house: safely caught and released) and they start nesting in January. Last year’s nest was in the culinary-bay laurel, not five feet from the back stairs.
The Lindsay Wildlife Museum (www.wildlife-museum.org) in Walnut Creek issues a plea every year for care and kindly attention to birds and squirrels nesting in trees we’re pruning. The best time for pruning most trees and shrubs—birds like towhees and song sparrows tend to nest pretty close to the ground—is before nesting season, but there’s overlap between early nesters and available time, for most of us.
That includes professionals. You don’t get to call yourself doing “sustainable landscaping” if you’re not taking care of the householders in your clients’ trees. Doublecheck any snags or dead trees you’re asked to remove, as those are ideal sites for woodpeckers and other hole nesters.
The Lindsay folks advise looking first, which is easier in bare trees. Make noise; don’t try to sneak up on a nest because panicked birds might injure eggs or young. Watch for birds flying out of a tree, a clue there might be a nest there.
If you find an occupied or new nest, hold off pruning that plant till the young are grown and gone. If you’ve dislocated a nest, put it back and tie it in if necessary. If it’s structurally damaged, put it into a small bowl, box, margarine tub or somesuch with drainage holes in the bottom. Don’t use a berry basket; they snag nestlings.
If you’re sure you have abandoned nestlings, wait another hour or two; you might be wrong. Then put them in a box or paper bag; keep them warm and quiet. Don’t offer food or water. Call the Lindsay Wildlife Museum Hospital for advice: (925) 935-1978.