Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Got a yard? Then you, too, can provide for birds

The valley oak provides habitat for a lot of different kinds of birds.
The valley oak provides habitat for a lot of different kinds of birds.

Mike and Annette Heacox realized they could make a big difference for their feathered friends when they saw a satellite image of their Sacramento County neighborhood.

“All around us, there was nothing but big lawns,” said Annette, who lives near Mira Loma High School in the Arcade Village area. “It was very sterile.”

Added Mike, “It was very striking in the satellite photos. You see a few big trees and all this lawn. Our (home) was one of the only habitats for birds and wildlife in several blocks. (In any neighborhood), you see birds and you’ve got to wonder: Where are these things living?”

Often, they’re living, eating and nesting in suburban backyards like the one created by the Heacoxes. Husband and wife landscape artists, they own Luciole Design, well-known in Northern California for sustainable landscaping. From San Francisco to Paris, the Sacramento couple share a global reputation for thoughtful, environmentally sensitive garden design.

For their own home, they decided to find ways to invite nature into their backyard.

“We wanted to create a whole wildlife habitat,” Mike said. “A lot of birds need insects (as food), including some hummingbirds. In making a habitat, we wanted to get everybody in there.”

How the Heacoxes accomplished their goal will be part of Saturday’s eighth annual Galt Winter Bird Festival. Held at McCaffrey Middle School, the event has become a major celebration for both beginning and veteran bird watchers, with tours and workshops for the whole family.

Most of the festival’s focus is on the Pacific Flyway and the millions of birds that visit the Central Valley each winter as they migrate to somewhere else. This year, the event has a new component: How do you make birds happy year-round at your home?

Backyard habitat is a big start, said the Heacoxes.

“We’re trying to bring back nature to urban areas,” Mike said. “It’s really cool, and really necessary. You can’t keep extending development into wild areas without creating habitat for nature.”

As garden designers, they focused on plants. They added sedges, fennel, sages, asters and penstemons. They made sure their bird-friendly buffet would have plenty for visitors to eat, from holly berries to acorns.

As the diversity of their garden grew, so did its bird population. About 20 species started making their landscape a regular part of their rounds.

“The biggest surprise for us, the thing the birds like most – water,” Mike said. “More than any plant, it attracts them year-round, including hummingbirds. The birds all need water. They love birdbaths, ponds, fountains, just about any water feature. We watch the goldfinches fighting over the fountain.”

“It’s so funny when you really start watching,” Annette said.

As a biologist, Corey Shake has spent many years seriously watching birds. Like the Heacoxes, Shake also will discuss bird habitat in suburban settings at the Galt festival.

“Habitat loss is the biggest factor in the decline of our bird population,” said Shake, a partner biologist for Point Blue Conservation Science in Woodland. “We know the human population is growing; We’re taking up more space. Putting habitat in backyards – or front yards – is one way for some species at least to help reduce the losses. For those species, it’s very important.”

Shake works primarily with Valley farmers and ranchers to mitigate habitat loss. He always recommends native plants; they attract native wildlife and often offer another bonus – water savings.

“It’s coming into the public eye a lot more the idea that the lawn is not compatible with environmental protection – especially in a drought,” Shake said. “You can replace (lawn) with drought-tolerant plants, especially those that are native and well-adapted to our area. Those (plants) are also attractive to wildlife. This way, you’re taking out two birds with one stone, so to speak.”

In creating habitat, Shake recommends some planning.

“What plants are you interested in? What do you like? What type of wildlife might like it, too?” he said. “Whatever you pick, make it diverse. Have plants with different shapes, sizes and colors. The more flowering plants, the better.”

Shakes has found some plants work better than others in attracting birds.

“Everybody loves to watch hummingbirds,” he said. “Hummingbirds love California fuchsia and California honeysuckle. They need good sources of nectar and both plants will provide that.

“Among the shrubs, I love California wild lilacs, Ceanothus,” Shake added. “Bees like them, too. Coffeeberry is preferred by thrushes and robins, who will stay and nest. One of my favorites is the cedar waxwing; it’s an especially beautiful bird and it loves to eat toyon berries. That’s a very attractive plant, too.”

Probably one of the best urban plants for birds is Sacramento’s favorite native tree.

“The one plant that probably supports the most diversity in our area is the native valley oak,” Shake said. “If that’s an option in your landscape, those trees offer a lot of habitat for a lot of different kinds of birds.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at


Where: McCaffrey Middle School, 997 Park Terrace Drive, Galt

When: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free; tours $15-$65

Details: (209) 366-7115,

Bird lovers flock to this family-oriented festival, dedicated to our visitors along the Pacific Flyway. Learn about birds (including how to create a bird-friendly habitat) and see some, too. Several tours offer a chance to get a glimpse (and take photos) of birds in their habitat. Make tour reservations online in advance, although some will accept participants at the festival.

Note: At 9:30 a.m., landscape designers Mike and Annette Heacox will present their bird-friendly ideas. At 10:15 a.m., biologist Corey Shake shares how native plants can help restore lost habitat for birds.