Wild birds are a traditional Christmas motif. Medieval carols describe wondrous flights of birds; Victorian Christmas cards depicted wrens and robins; contemporary holiday themes feature cardinals and chickadees. It’s a tradition for many to extend the holiday’s spirit of peace and good cheer into the garden by putting out suet, seeds and fruit for wild birds. Local birds don’t face the same winter challenges as species in cold weather areas—December and January are peak bird season in the Santa Monica Mountains, and the area is the destination for many migratory species. That doesn’t mean, however, that local birds can’t still benefit from a little human kindness, at the holidays and all year long.
In 2016, Topanga became a registered National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Community Wildlife Habitat, when residents committed to creating and maintaining habitat throughout the community and is currently offering tips on how to make the holidays merry and bright for backyard birds this year. The nonprofit organization recommends opting for a cut tree rather than an artificial tree. “While purchasing an artificial tree is a one-time investment and doesn’t require cutting down trees, they are manufactured from unsustainable fossil fuels and will persist for centuries in the landfill when they are ultimately disposed of,” the NWF website states.
“Real trees, on the other hand, are typically grown in the U.S. or Canada on family-owned tree farms. There are 16 species that we commonly use as “Christmas trees” and many of them are native species. While the trees grow, they provide wildlife habitat, produce oxygen and sequester carbon. After trees are harvested, new trees are planted to replace them and keep the cycle going. Tree farms can help sustain rural communities and keep land from being developed into suburban sprawl.”
The NWF recommends selecting trees that are grown without pesticides. As long as they haven’t been flocked or treated with fire retardant, Christmas tree branches and needles can be chopped up and composted, or used as mulch when the holidays are over.
Christmas decorations often include artificial berries, but local gardeners can grow the real thing, providing colorful living decorations and food for birds. Holly isn’t a great choice for the Santa Monica Mountains, but toyon, the red berry that is said to have given Hollywood its name, thrives throughout the area and is an ideal garden plant.
Adding a source of water can help attract resident species and migrants. Birdbaths and nest boxes are available in every shape and size and make ideal gifts for gardeners and bird lovers. The catastrophic wildfire in Ventura County could result in a higher concentration of overwintering birds in this area, as displaced species seek resources. Adding water, food and shelter may help more than we know this year.
To learn more about how to help birds over the holidays: blog.nwf.org/2014/01/recycleyourtreeforwildlife/.
Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org