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Yard Is Where the Wild Things Are

June 27, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

John Becker of Garden Grove lives the way we all should live. He plays golf most days, visits with the neighbor kids, works with his hands. He's retired, and he enjoys himself. He takes it easy.

And he's a naturalist, although he'd be the last one to tell you that. The way he figures it, all he did was set up a nice little back yard many years ago. Fruit trees, lots of foliage and shade, a little fish pond with cascading water, some bird feeders. He was a gardener, not a park ranger.

But when he heard, back in 1973, about the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, he decided to see whether his yard qualified. It did, and today his framed certification--No. 132, the oldest of the 23 back-yard habitat certifications in Orange County--hangs from one of his patio beams.

As it happened, Becker had assembled an almost ideal back yard habitat for local wildlife, particularly birds. In addition to the four recommended features--food, water, cover and places to raise young--Becker, a former Navy communications electrician, had installed a series of bird feeders to accommodate any visiting fowl from doves to finches to hummingbirds.

"The birds come through here and feed like mad," he says, smiling at the thought. "In spring, they migrate through here and hear the water in the pond running and come right in. They'll be sitting on the fence there at 5:30 in the morning, dozens of them, waiting for me to put the feed out."

And feed he has, two big plastic trash cans full of it. And every morning he pulls one coffee can full of the coarse stuff out for the big birds and a slightly lesser amount for the sparrows and finches. And a pair of hummingbird feeders are always kept full.

Still, if Becker didn't lay out the a.m. equivalent of the Bird McMuffin, it's likely his yard still would attract all sorts of wildlife. Here's how he has satisfied the NWF's criteria:

Food: Birdseed, yes, but the yard also abounds in insects that feed a large population of lizards and toads. And, for bees and other species that are attracted to sweet plants or fruit, there are those in abundance; orange, tangerine, avocado, peach and even apple trees grow in Becker's yard, alongside many brightly flowering plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Water: Wildlife needs to drink and bathe, and water can be supplied through a dripping hose, a birdbath, a small pool or even a shallow dish. Becker has a fish pond that does the trick nicely. The sound of the falling water, he says, alerts migrating birds that the pond is there, and several dozen tiny mosquito fish that share the pond with goldfish gulp any eggs that the occasional visiting mosquito might lay.

Cover: The idea here is to provide places for wildlife to escape harm, and the more varied the cover, the more varied the wildlife that will visit it. Densely branched shrubs, hollow logs, rock piles, brush piles, stone walls, evergreens and water do the trick, and it's best if they're of variable size and density. Becker has everything from a nicely pruned series of evergreens to an avocado tree that would shade a jumbo jet.

Places to raise young: A bit trickier. Animals, like people, do their best courting and mating away from prying eyes. Heavy cover will often suffice, but such amenities as birdhouses and squirrel boxes must surely be appreciated during the annual spring madness. And if you want frogs, salamanders and other reptile or insect species to hang around, water, again, provides a fine trysting place.

And a few further suggestions from the NWF:

* Try growing a few native plants. They provide the best food sources to native wildlife and require less fertilizer, water and effort in controlling pests.

* Don't grow a big lawn. Lawn grass provides little or nothing of value to wildlife, and it consumes large amounts of water and fertilizer.

* Cut down on pesticides or eliminate them altogether. Few pesticides kill only a single target organism. Besides, just about everything in nature is eaten by something else. Let the predators have their way.

The bottom line: Keep things as natural as possible. And if you think that makes for an uninteresting yard, please take my word that John Becker's yard gives the lie to that. When he's not visiting another favorite place that provides the necessary food, water, cover and places to make wildlife whoopee--the golf course--he's on his patio, the Thoreau of Garden Grove.

"I really enjoy it here," he said. "I just sit back here and have a soda and watch them all come through. You can't go golfing all the time."

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