Although backyard birding in the city is not as thrilling as in more natural landscapes, it can offer conservation lessons. I began to bird in Slide Hill Park in Davis in 1986, when the park was fairly new and the vegetation was still young. I have watched the various groves and lines of trees grow tall and widen into continuous canopies, as parts of the park shifted from open, sunny savannah to shaded urban forest.
Back then, flocks of crows and killdeers foraged on the playing fields in winter. Western kingbirds nested in isolated trees, and barn swallows hunted over the grass and nested on the porches of nearby homes. At the same time, passage migrants that are common in forested settings, including warbling vireo, Wilson’s warbler, and Pacific-slope flycatcher, were scarce. Today, the open-country birds are gone, and the groves are magnets for migrant vireos, warblers, and flycatchers. In 2013, Cooper’s hawks nested for the first time, possibly because the trees got tall enough to meet their requirements. As elsewhere in the city, wintering black phoebes took to nesting under the eaves of a local building, and now stay all year.
Nearly all the plants in Slide Hill Park are non-native. The many conifers and casuarinas have reliably attracted species from the high mountains, including red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, and pine siskin. In late April, when the locust trees flower, the migrating songbirds crowd into them. There are many reasons to prefer native plants in the Central Valley, but urban bird diversity is not one of them.
However, note what urban parks of this sort do NOT provide. Slide Hill Park is all trees and grass. Thus, it has little for the sparrows, towhees, house wrens, and MacGillivray’s warblers found in ornamental shrubbery in the neighborhood during migration or winter. Of four local species of woodpecker, only Nuttall’s nests here. No rare, declining, or wildlife agency-listed small birds have ever nested in the park, and doubtless never will. Where small land-birds are in trouble in the Valley is on their nesting grounds, and city parks are no help.
So, backyard birding can be rewarding, especially if you keep at it. Go out and cover your local patch of ground at least once a week, and tell us what you find.
— Michael Perrone, Conservation Chair