Plants that make the birds feel at home
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Matt Zlatunich is a full-time San Francisco fireman. But he still wants to build and run a fueling station. Not for you, not for your car. This one is for the birds.
Zlatunich and his wife, JoAnn, a nurse at UCSF, live in a home in the Inner Richmond neighborhood where they have jackhammered up a concrete patio, and converted it into a small haven for native plants and the birds and bugs that love them. It's a tiny slice of the traditional ways that prevailed for wildlife out here, centuries before the sudden onslaught of the Gold Rush, back when this area was an outland of rolling, windswept dunes.
As that type of local habitat over recent decades became more rare, according to the Zlatunichs, it grew much more valuable. And beautiful. And useful.
"If you go up in the tower of the new de Young Museum, you can see how near to Golden Gate Park the green Presidio areas are," Zlatunich said. "Our backyard is in a prime spot to give the birds a place to rest as they are flying back and forth between parks."
Long-time nature lovers and Audubon Society members, the Zlatunichs already knew of the decline of many bird populations when Audubon's national office released a report in June documenting a precipitant drop in many common bird species. Though survival of these species is not yet threatened or officially endangered, their plunge in numbers has the power to shock.
Evening grosbeaks, for example, went down by 78 percent nationally over the past 40 years, and by 96 percent in California. Nationally, nearly two dozen species have lost more than half their populations over the same period. In California, the northern pintail duck (a popular game bird), greater scaup duck, loggerhead shrike and horned lark were particularly hard-hit. The San Francisco Bay Area has seen drops in such common birds as cedar waxwings, white crowned sparrows and even house finches.
This suggests the same scenario that alarmed conservationists so much back when Rachel Carson published her seminal work, "Silent Spring," in 1962. Carson primarily indicted over-use of pesticides as a cause (especially DDT), in her prediction of precipitant loss of birds. Subsequently, DDT was banned in the United States; many other chemicals restricted. Yet the beat-down went on, not only due to toxic, man-made chemicals. The loss of nesting and feeding zones both here and abroad (in the case of migratory birds) are blamed, as well as generalized pressures like climate change and loss of food species.
Call it a silent spring by other means.
Newspapers reported on Audubon's new study on bird loss. Curiously, few papers also ran any of the information that Audubon provided on the potential solutions. Among the society's recommended remedial measures: preserving farmland, especially idled marginal land; saving grasslands and wetlands as open space; supporting sustained-yield, all-age forestry; battling invasive plants and other exotic species; restoring damaged habitats in public land, and private holdings as well - especially backyards - by landscaping with native plants.
The Zlatunichs were early adopters.
"We like hiking quite a bit," Matt Zlatunich said. "It was a natural process to take an interest in trees and other native plants, then look at these birds that are such strong indicators of health in our environment, since they fit in so many niches. So in that way, we became aware of all the species in decline, as well as the ones that soon might be imperiled if they don't get a helping hand."
When they bought their house in 1993, its 25-foot by 60-foot backyard was a sterile zone of concrete and non-native ivy. Now it is an expanse of gray-gold sand, with an eight foot-tall coyote bush, a big thatch of lupine, a russet manzanita tree and two dozen other types of native plants. Sitting outdoors, the Zlatunichs can watch Anna's hummingbirds, western scrub jays, golden-crowned and white crowned sparrows, California towhees, black phoebes, dark-eyed juncos, northern flickers and hermit thrushes all dropping by for visits. Native bumblebees, moths, wasps, beetles and butterflies are also making themselves at home.
"I'd like to see song sparrows start nesting with us," Zlatunich said, "but our cover isn't quite dense enough yet. It's a long-term project. We're already seeing a benefit on our water bills, though. Most of these plants are very drought-resistant. They don't require much watering to do well."
People like the Zlatunichs don't lack allies. Native plant programs flourish in places like the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, complete with starter nurseries, where volunteer gardeners can learn some chops. The California Native Plant Society sponsors annual sales, field trips and lectures. Tilden Regional Park above Berkeley has a native plant garden open for study, as does Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park.
Among the most remarkable resources is the Yerba Buena Nursery, located on the spine of the San Francisco Peninsula.
Drive just two miles west of Skyline Boulevard on a forgiving, well-graded dirt road to enter what can only be described as a native plant fairyland, presided over by Kathy Crane. She and her husband bought this place and inherited the mission of nature buff and long-time rancher Gerda Isenberg.
Back in 1995, when she came here, Crane says she knew nothing of native plants. But she still could sense their beauty and importance. Now, she greets visitors and waxes both enthused and voluble on the topic.
Yerba Buena provides visitors with a handy list of bird-friendly plants, and the Sequoia chapter of Audubon even identifies the nursery as a fabulous spot to go "birding" in the spring, if you happen to have only a few hours to do so.
The literal catering to wildlife is obvious everywhere here. From eaves of the shed where habitat-specific packets of seeds, knick-knacks and gardening books are sold, dangle thick ropes of California wild grape. "Birds just love it," Crane said. Then she sang the praises of hollyleaf cherry, flowering currants, monkeyflowers, coffeeberry, fuchsias and lawn substitutes like low-growing yarrows and manzanitas.
Among 600 plant species ardently cultivated on five acres of this 40-acre preserve, Yerba Buena offers mixes designed for high elevation or low, shady zones or bright. The piece de resistance is its wildflower meadow, a riot of color and avid insect life, the epitome of Yeats', "bee-loud glade."
"Look at all those pollinators, roaming around out there," Crane murmured. "When you have lots of native plants, you also have lots of action, lots of life."
"Just about anyone can help out," said Gary Langham, director of bird conservation, and the lead scientist for California's Audubon Society. "You start by fostering things that are not pavement, and not your typical lawn. Think about giving wildlife back the food, water and shelter that creatures need. Leaf litter to scratch around in. Shrubs for cover. Maybe a few nesting boxes. Build it, and they will come."
"Habitat improvement is something we constantly recommend," said Elizabeth Murdock, director of the Golden Gate chapter of Audubon. "Even a big city like San Francisco is a mosaic of natural areas and intensely urbanized zones. The greener we can make that mosaic, the better it gets for our resident birds, as well as all the migrants.
"People should realize that the Bay Area is not only a home for butterflies that may only move a few hundred yards in their lifetime, but also birds who pass through on their way from Latin America to Alaska," Murdock said.
The essential wisdom here blends archdruid David Brower's motto, "Think globally, act locally," and Voltaire's, "Cultivate your own garden." Of course, there are plenty of folks who are not fortunate enough to have their own postage stamp of earth where they can nurture some edible messages of support for the wild world. But for those, there's an alternate venue to administer their blessings. The creek corridors, wild grasslands and oak woodlands on public land are also sorely in need of advocates, site stewards - and loving green thumbs.
Native plant resources
-- In San Francisco, the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council Recycling Center sells organic native plants from local seed, Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sun. noon-4 p.m., at 780 Frederick St. (near Kezar Stadium). Nearby is the Garden for the Environment center, at 755 Frederick, which teaches classes in gardening and composting, (415) 731-5627 or gardenfortheenvironment.org; the center's own garden is at Seventh Avenue and Lawton Street, with volunteer hours, Weds., 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
-- In the Greater Bay Area, native plant nurseries include: Yerba Buena Nursery, near Woodside, (650) 851-1668 or yerbabuenanursery.com; Flowercraft Garden Center, on Bayshore, below Highway 101 near Interstate 280, carries some key native items, (415) 824-1900; Sloat Garden Center, three locations in San Francisco and seven more around the bay, about 10 percent native plants, (415) 566-4415, sloatgardens.com; Larner Seeds, on the Mesa in Bolinas, strong emphasis on natives, (415) 868-9407 or larnerseeds.com; Mostly Natives Nursery, the name says it all, on Highway 1 in Tomales, (707) 878-2009, or mostlynatives.com.
-- Demonstration native plant gardens include: Strybing Arboretum at Golden Gate Park, (415) 661-1316, sfbotanicalgarden.org; the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, on Wildcat Canyon Road in Tilden Regional Park, above Berkeley, docent tours, annual plant sale, (510) 841-8732 or ebparks.org/parks/tilden or nativeplants.org; the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, (510) 642-3343 or botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu; The Forrest Deaner Native Plant Garden at Benicia State Recreation Area, (707) 747-6204 or cnpsjepsonchapter.homestead.com/botgard.html; the UC Davis Arboretum, (530) 752-4880, or arboretum.ucdavis.edu.
-- Books on the topic include: "California Native Plants For The Garden," by Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien, $27.95, Cachuma Press, (805) 688-0413 or cachumapress.com; "Designing California Native Gardens," by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook, $27.50 (paperback) or $65 (hardcover, UC Press, Berkeley, (510) 642-4247 or ucpress.edu/books; "The Landscaping Ideas of Jays - A Natural History of the Backyard Restoration Garden," by Judith Larner Lowry," $24.95 (paperback) or $60 (hardcover), by UC Press, contacts above; the Master Gardeners of Sonoma County make available an array of relevant pdf files, at groups.ucanr.org/sonomamg/Master%5FGardener%5FDocuments/.
-- Other resources include: The California Native Plant Society at cnps.org (use click-able map to find local chapters); the Calflora database at calflora.org; the Native Habitats database at nativehabitats.org; the National Wildlife Federation information at nwf.org/backyard; and the Audubon Society information at goldengateaudubon.org and Audubon.org. Experience in propagating and working with native plants can be gained by volunteering at one of the five nurseries operated in the GGNRA by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, (415) 561-3077 or parksconservancy.org. SPAWN, which works to restore habitat in Marin County, has a native plant nursery in Lagunitas, and frequent volunteer opportunities; click on upcoming events and habitat restoration at spawnusa.org, or contact Paola Bovey at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (415) 488-0370, ext. 102. The San Francisco Department of Parks and Recreation has a Natural Areas and Habitat Restoration program going at 30 sites around the city, utilizing plants from a natives nursery in Golden Gate Park; potential volunteers should contact Suzanna Buehl, (415) 831-6328 or email@example.com
This article appeared on page D - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle