Boundless Energy and Endless Ideas

Ask about anything that grows in their yard, and Neil and Carleen Zimmerman will soon be telling you what it does for birds.

Great clumps of bright red, hardy fuschia? "Last year, for the first time, we had an Anna's Hummingbird wintering here. It comes to visit these blossoms when most of the other blooms are gone." Rhododendrons they inherited when they bought the house? "Birds like to hang out here as a staging area. They use the rhodies to check things out, them move to the bird bath, then to the suet feeders." A tall, shining red and unpruned screen of photinia ranging across the rear property line? "The small birds travel across the property through the photinia rather than out in the open. Lots of birds forage underneath. It's a nice hiding spot."

You get the idea. The Zimmermans are ardent birders, with a 70-species list they've identified in their own air space on a city lot in the suburb of Brier, between Seattle and Everett. The backyard sanctuary they have created is non-toxic, low-maintenance, teeming with bird life.

Dead snags, gathered here and there and planted upright in the yard, offer splendid perches for songbirds and insect meals for woodpeckers. A Northwest favorite, the large, noisy Pileated Woodpecker, haunts the Zimmermans' backyard to feast on the bugs that live in the transplanted snags. So do Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and a family of Northern Flickers.

Many of the shrubs flourishing in the backyard sanctuary are throwaways from big landscaping projects. Neil's a carpenter who works on large commercial buildings, and when the landscaping work begins, "I buddy up to the head landscaper, so when they want to get rid of something they let me know."

The variety of botanical refugees is impressive. Red and blue huckleberry (bird food producers), red- and yellow-flowering currants (hummingbird attractors), wild-looking Rugosa roses (birds love the rosehips), and a half-dozen other species landed here instead of the county dump.

"Variety's the main thing. The more variety of plants you have, the greater variety of birds. We were part of the Washington State backyard feeder survey last year and we counted 18 species in just one day."

The Zimmermans are developing their wildlife haven into plant layers to provide clear sight lines for birding. Closest to their back door are the ground covers and low-growing shrubs: native kinnikinnick, Oregon grape (the short

Chapter 2, Audubon At Home in Seattle:Gardening for Life. Copyright 2003. National Audubon Society and the Seattle Audubon Society. Available online: AND


Neil and Carleen Zimmerman have created an inexpensive backyard sanctuary that is non-toxic, low-maintenance, and teeming with bird life.

Scores of species go for the Zimmermans' homemade feeders. Holes drilled in scrap wood are squeezed full of suet and seed.

Scores of species go for the Zimmermans' homemade feeders. Holes drilled in scrap wood are squeezed full of suet and seed.

kind), salal, and deer fern rescued (with County approval) from a wild area that was about to be bulldozed.

Fronting that lowest layer of plants is a simple and delightful water feature. Birds come to bathe here, where the water trickles musically over a smooth stone channel and falls into a 2-foot by 3-foot pond.

Beginning about halfway from the house to the rear border, you'll find red-flowering currant, serviceberry, scarlet willow, and other medium-height species. All meet the feeding and perching needs of certain groups of birds.

The end farthest from the house offers a shady border of Western red cedar, Oregon wax myrtle and the tall, unrestrained photinia. "The more layers we have the more birds we'll get because different birds like to operate at different layers," Neil explains. "From towhees on the ground, on up to warblers and woodpeckers and Band-tailed Pigeons who like to roost in the tops of the trees."

The layered effect also makes for fine bird sighting from a large breezy sun porch, where Neil and Carleen spend hours watching and making notes on the scores of species their garden attracts.

They had to get rid of the lawn before they could make the wildlife haven they wanted. An easy choice. "Lawns look great to some people but they're basically sterile. As far as bird life is concerned, they're OK for starlings and crows. But if you want a variety of birds, you need a variety of plants."

The lawn was also home to crane fly maggots, and when the lawn went away, Carleen recalls, the crane fly larva chewed their way through a lobelia border. "Once we took out the lawn, they seemed to think I'd set out a salad bar, and at first they ate everything."

The sight of the unseemly adult crane fly has led thousands of Northwesterners to reach for diazinon. Now banned, diazinon was for years one of the most serious bird killers on the market. Neil and Carleen never used it or any other chemical; still, the crane flies at their place have all but vanished. There's almost no lawn to harbor them, and there's a crowd of hungry birds to go after those few crane flies that persist.

They control aphids with water spray, and Neil sparingly hits a fenceline morning-glory infestation with Roundup. Those are about the only pests they get now that the lawn is nearly gone.

The variety of plants growing where the lawn used to be is a delight to the senses and a blessing to the birds. Blue star creeper, wood sorrel, maidenhair fern, wintergreen, campanula, and evergreen huckleberry are only a few of the plant species that thrive in a pattern so informal they might have been scattered by a spring breeze.

The Zimmermans go native when they can, but they aren't purists. They use several non-native species that have naturalized to the Northwest climate to provide fine bird food and habitat.

One example is pyracantha. This non-native adoptee curves gracefully over the front entrance to the Zimmerman's house. On a fine summer day, it's loaded with scented white flowers. "The birds love the red berries in the fall," Carleen says. "Last year we had eight robins in there cleaning it up, all at the same time."

"Natives are great because they've evolved in this area, they fit the climate and they need hardly any care after the first year," Neil explains. "We've tried to keep an emphasis on those that are at least close to natives. We try to get plants from similar climate zones, so we don't have to be watering constantly."

You can see in a few minutes what the Zimmermans' lawn-to-wildlife conversion has done for the birds. What's in it for the Zimmermans?

  • Hours of watching and making notes on the bird life from their comfortable sun porch in summer and a kitchen window in winter.
  • Free time to do the watching: "We don't have weeds to pull, don't have grass to cut," Neil says. "We have a couple of projects this summer, but

Tearing out a lawn can be mean work. The Zimmermans have the Seattle Times do it for them. They lay down many layers of folded newspaper and then cover it with three inches of soil. The grass dies, the newspaper dissolves into the soil. Planting flowers, shrubs or ground cover is a simple matter of digging a hole through the disintegrating newspaper. However, as Neil points out, their lawn wasn't much to start with. A thicker, heavier turf can require more severe treatment. Some lawn-to-wildlife conversions require cardboard and several inches of wood chips.

Wilson's and Townsend's warblers, bushtits and other birds that that don't ordinarily come to feeders drop in at the Zimmermans' for a bath.

last year we were sort of walking around looking for jobs to do."

♦ Sharing the avocation, person to person: "I think that when people see the way you live-that you're living outside even when you're in the house, and when you're out here it's like being in a home-that you end up sharing that when people come," Carleen says. "It becomes an immediate connection, and you interact with people in a different way."

"For us, this has been a way of promoting gardening in a way that would maybe make people think twice about using toxins."

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