Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
April, 2006
Regional Report

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Mourning dove nests in a backyard Baja red fairy duster shrub.

A Bird in the Bush

I'm an Auntie! A few weeks ago, I noticed that whenever I walked by my favorite plant, a Baja red fairy duster, I startled a mourning dove into a flurried exit. I scanned the plant for a nest, but didn't spot anything. I assumed a bird or birds had found the shady respite of my Fairy Duster on Steroids. When I planted the puny shrub back in 1990 from a 1-gallon pot, I was told these plants mature at about 4 feet tall and wide. Today, a local reference states 5 feet tall and wide is typical. My fairy duster doesn't read plant descriptions, so it feels free to grow with wild abandon. It towers past the roof line and is almost as wide. I stopped watering it years ago, so it survives on rainfall and blooms year-round, in no need of my attentions.

Nest in Hiding
One day when I again startled a bird out of the shrub, I was delighted to finally spy a nest: two white eggs were practically shining in the sun at face level. Duh. The nest couldn't have been much closer had it been perched on the end of my nose! I looked up the description of mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) in Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Western Region (Little, Brown & Company, 1996; $17.95). It states eggs incubate for 14-15 days, but I wasn't sure when she'd laid them.

The shrub is immediately adjacent to the narrow passage to the backyard, so I have to pass it unless I want to go around the front and climb over the cement block wall. I'm not really that spry, and such behavior would be a little too peculiar for my neighbors, anyway. Instead, I try hard not to startle the nesting bird, making "approaching noises" so she knows I'm coming. I stop a bit before and let her see me. We make eye contact. At least I think she sees me. I imagine she's thinking, "Here comes that loud, clumsy human again." I say silly things like, "Hello, pretty mommy bird" in a soothing voice, then skirt quietly around the shrub, taking care not to brush against it.

This method allowed us to coexist without commotion, until a couple days ago, when my mind was on a leaky irrigation valve, and I reverted to the big-footed human in a hurry mode, startling her off the nest. It allowed me to see two fluff balls the size of my thumb! I ooohed and aaahed for just a moment and retreated to the house so she could quickly return to her babies.

I chose to plant fairy duster because it's a terrific hummingbird magnet. Indeed, over the years I've enjoyed dozens of close-up views of hummers plundering its nectar. Author Mary Taylor Gray writes in Watchable Birds of the Southwest (Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1995; $14) that mourning doves mate for life, but there was no mention of nesting or territorial habits. I wonder if my favorite hummingbird plant might also become a permanent nursery site for this pair of doves?

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