Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Praise of Unkempt Gardens

Peering outside from the kitchen window, I consider how much longer I can delay mowing the grass and forbs patch that we call a lawn. I notice movement, and start counting one, two, four, seven birds gleaning seeds off the dandelions, now gone to fluffy seed. I watch one bird as she pops up and with one foot grabs a stem below the seed head. She pushes the seedhead to the ground, quickly picks through the tuft of seeds, and moves on. Although their motions vary, each member of this guild is moving just as quickly, intent on filling up on its share of the plunder. (Eat hearty friends, the larder is FULL in this garden!)

Of these birds, some are clearly Golden-Crowned Sparrows - we’ve been seeing and hearing them pass through for a while now. They are a big gray sparrow with an unmistakable head - a black cap with a yellow patch running as a wide stripe from the forehead back across the crown. In fresh breeding plumage and in the right light, as is my view from this window, the yellow is a strong color and the bird is aptly named. Its call too is unmistakable, almost tedious for its constancy - a few wheezy notes sung like a morse code operator falling asleep as he keys. Daaah dit dit Daaah dit dit dah daah, and over again. No resonant Song Sparrow he, his song nonetheless assures me, for a few weeks anyway, of his presence. Soon these sparrows will fly north to mate and raise young in mountain and tundra areas.

This is, however, a mixed sparrow flock and within the flock is a different bird of noticeable contrast. My eye is caught by a much smaller strongly striped buff-brown sparrow, at most two-thirds as big as the larger Golden-Crowned. As attention-getting as its size is its own distinctive crown. Like many sparrows, it has a colored stripe from its forehead back: on this little sparrow, the crown stripe is a bold rusty brown. Janet, who has joined me at the window, agrees that this is a Chipping sparrow. It is named not for its color pattern, but for its voice. As flocks of these birds move around, they keep in contact with each other by using a distinct chip note, hence their name.

Chipping sparrows are considered a fairly common sparrow, but it is a first sighting in our backyard. It too is passing through, looking for open lands to nest, and gratified to stop in our backyard for a traveling meal of dandelion seeds.

Here in early May, this flock of mixed sparrows is probably in migration. Kind of like us humans who stop off the freeway at the food mart and gorge on nuts and chocolate, (burgers and fries), before getting back on the road, the sparrows have located some high-energy food before resuming their flight. The birds are moving through, quickly grabbing quality snacks to restock their stores of fat, then taking to the skies again, searching for prime breeding habitat. We may well not see them again this year.

Though observing this particular mixed flock is a first for us, watching birds glean dandelion heads in our under maintained garden is something we have seen before. While I do make some effort to weed and mow, I know that an overzealous attempt to pare down our garden to just the most disciplined plants, and to impose too much order, also pares down the number of wild visitors to our garden. Janet insists on keeping some dandelions; in her other life as an herbalist we pick the flowers and infuse them in olive oil, making a wonderful remedy for muscle pain. In early spring I like to nibble the tender new flower buds still tucked tightly at the base of each plant. It is easy to keep some dandelions, (hard not to). As we watch this flock today greedily gulping down the seeds, we are reminded of other uses of this plant, and its role in feeding the wildlife around us.

Here’s to unkempt gardens!

Glen and Janet

Sparrows and Buntings by Byers, Curson and Olsson
• closeup sparrow photos from and

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