Sharing the Bounty

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Birds love fruit, but there don't seem to be a lot of fruit growers who love birds. Don Norman is an interesting exception. He does everything he can to attract birds to the same land where he grows abundant apples, pears, cherries, kiwi, grapes and raspberries. Somehow, for Don, it works.

Other than the occasional flock of starlings, the birds don't take enough of his fruit crop to worry about. And whatever they take, there's plenty left.

"This is half an acre; even on a quarter-acre you could produce far more fruit than you'd ever want to eat. I compost ten or 20 big buckets of fruit every year because I can't give it away before it rots."

He offers some ideas for lessening the competition that can turn a fruit grower into a bird chaser.

"Part of it's providing alternative food for the birds, and timing it so that it works with your orchard," Don says. "If there's Indian plum or service berry or mulberry coming ripe at the same time as my fruit, then I won't get much predation off the fruit trees."

A professional environmental toxicologist, Don doesn't merely admire birds as they pass through; he bands them and studies their migration habits. He meticulously records sightings, bandings and recaptures, and analyzes the data to discern seasonal patterns for both resident and migratory birds. More than 70 species have stopped in his sanctuary since he began keeping records in 1980.

A burgeoning frame of fruit trees, wax myrtle, serviceberry and nut trees provide fine mid-level structure for the constant bird visitors and nesters at Don's half-acre place in Richmond Beach, a few miles north of Seattle. Now he's working to make the lower-level bird habitats more welcoming. He's planting snowberry, red-flowering currant, and small Oregon grape, directly under and adjacent to his fruit trees.

At the same time, he's mixing these native plants with his summer vegetable garden. "I'm growing zucchini squash, snowberry and red-flowering currant together. Or you could put potatoes in the row with natives, and have a great place for the birds to scratch around in."

Don buys native shrubs from a Bellingham nursery at a bulk rate. A hundred snowberries for $30; 50 red-twig dogwood for a dollar each. He's interested in setting up a native-plant buyers' club so that gardeners converting from lawn to backyard wildlife habitat could save still more money by ordering more plants at a time.

This orchardist/ornithologist offers some tips for a flourishing native plant landscape:

  • Grow the bare root plants in pots for the first year in a central, shady spot where it's easy to water. "That way you don't have to dig 100 holes the first day. You've got a full season to decide where you want 'em and get the holes ready."
  • Use big pots, ten inches or more across. Those in the smaller pots get rootbound in the first year.
  • Buy small plants. They'll grow faster and put down better roots than the bigger ones.

Don's twenty-plus years converting from lawn to orchard to lush wildlife habitat have whetted his appetite to learn more. For example, he'd like to know about successional tree and bush plantings to provide more bird food throughout the seasons.

"How do we know what to plant so that there's food as the birds move through? Here's a cascara; it provides a lot of fruit for birds. And it comes later than Indian plum. Where does serviceberry fit in there? How about tall Oregon grape? This stuff is important to know, but I've never seen a real good paper on the best succession for the bird life in a region like ours. Someone needs to do that."

He's justifiably proud of the ripening pears and sparkling red apples that hang in extravagant bunches in September. But after all these years of

Don mixes native plants with his summer vegetable garden—here, squash and snowberry.

getting to know the birds up close, fruit production is clearly secondary. If harvesting fruit conflicts with encouraging birds, the birds will win, every time. It's not even close.

Money-saver, too: What's the difference in cost between maintaining a lawn and maintaining the same area as wildlife habitat? Don Norman thinks the comparison would be pretty amazing.

"By the time you put in the lawn, put in the irrigation system, and add the money you spend on water and fertilizer, you have spent thousands of dollars. Then you spend hundreds more to have a garderner come and take care of it, or that much worth of your own labor to care for it."

"Compare that to others who put in a wildlife habitat area instead of lawn, establish it and let it grow— and just enjoy it."

"I bet the difference would be huge."

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