Wild and Exotic Birds of the Virginia Robinson Gardens

A hawk seeks water or an unsuspecting visitor at the cherub fountain on a warm March day.

The phrase, “Birds of a feather flock together,” is at least over 470 years old. It was in use as far back as the mid-16th century and was inspired by the flocking behavior of birds when foraging for food or flying in formation during seasonal migrations. This concept is sometimes applied metaphorically to people who act in similar ways.

One early spring morning, Friends members flocked together with a naturalist, Darrow Feldstein, who guided us on a garden bird watch. While we moved in predictable formation, we were singularly focused on observing “only” birds in the garden. It turned out to be a cognitive revelation. We enjoyed the garden for the first time with only one objective in mind -- to get acquainted with our feathered friends. Knowing in previous years that “birders” from the Audubon Society had sighted over 150 species of birds one New Year’s Day, we set out on this adventure with great expectations.

In order to see any birds at all, we learned quickly the importance of non-verbal communication. Our eyes and ears become acutely in tune with the environment as we sought out each new sighting. We learned the basic characteristics used to identify birds, such as bill formation, body size and shape, head feather groups, body feathers, wing feathers, and flight patterns. Behaviors can also be used to identify birds. Some readers may recall comedian W.C. Fields and his character’s aversion to children. In his films, he would reluctantly pat a child on the head while saying, “Oh my little chickadee.” This served as a metaphor for a hyper little child with unpredictable behavior – just like that of the chickadees we saw in the garden.

While scouting the front garden, we sighted yellow finches foraging on the ripe mallow seeds. Finches are a flocking type of bird (commonly 5 to 20 birds in a flock). These bright yellow-breasted finches were easy to follow as they systematically worked through the meadow eating the ripe seeds. Their movements seemed almost orchestrated by music that was audible only to them. We gleefully smiled as we watched the finches, but didn’t utter a word or move too quickly, afraid to spoil the moment.

By limiting our attention to just sight and sound, we saw birds that had colorful crown feathers on their heads, and we consciously heard the songs of birds, many for the first time. And it was most impressive when our guide could identify birds by only their songs as heard in a distant hedgerow. Many birds are named after the nature of the songs they sing. This is exemplified by the Mourning Dove’s mournful hooting ooAAH cooo coo coo.

Virginia with her toucan in the Loggia at VRG.

The experience of touring the garden with a naturalist with an emphasis on birds provided a soulful journey as we became acquainted with the many birds that inhabit the gardens. It gave a renewed appreciation for the many lifeforms dependent on the habitat provided by Robinson Gardens. We learned the importance of including plants that feed birds when planting a garden and of time pruning practices to avoid nesting periods.

We told our guide that several years prior to his visit, we had sadly lost one of our Great Horned Owls. A transit mylar balloon became tangled in a coral tree branch. The Horned Owl, attracted to the shiny balloon, became snared in the balloon’s string. Trapped and with no way to escape, the owl died from exhaustion. When the taxidermist from the Natural History Museum came to fetch the owl, he explained that Great Horned Owls mate for life, and that the remaining owl would soon leave to find another mate. He suggested we contact the Los Angeles Zoo. By chance, the zoo had an orphaned pair of Great Horned Owls from different parents.

When the owls were old enough to live in the wild, they were released one late afternoon in the King Palm Forest at Robinson Gardens. Now for almost ten years, they’ve claimed the six-acre garden as their territory. They have successfully raised multiple generations of young that collectively help control tree rats and other rodents that forage the garden. As night falls, you first hear the deeper hoot-like call of the male owl, with the female owl answering with a similar call -- only the last hoot ends on a higher note. And on rare occasions, you may see them in flight. But you will never hear a sound as they perform their stealth-like flight maneuvers to avoid alerting their prey. Owls are long-lived birds. They live 10-15 years in the wild. Because of their longevity, they are often characterized in children’s literature as wise old owls.

The Robinsons’ aviary was previously a prime garden attraction. In recent months, it has had many of the same types of exotic birds reintroduced. The only known exception is the colorful toucan. This was Virginia’s favored bird. It was surprisingly affectionate and inquisitive. It was the “star” of the cocktail hour when it was displayed in a special cage on the Loggia of the Main House. Guests were genuinely intrigued and entertained by this rare, brightly colored tropical bird.

Please click on photos to read the captions.

Next time you find yourself in the Garden, visit the aviary where you will hear the historic sound of the boisterous family of budgies (also called parakeets) and the pair of people-loving cockatiels. The newly reintroduced birds are once again the admiration of garden visitors, especially the elementary school children, who find the semi-tame birds entertaining as they frolic about and bade for their attention. While the children watch and listen, they are asked to guess the mood of the birds, as expressed in their songs and vocal clues which help indicate how they may be feeling. A cockatiel can imitate a human’s whistle and will use it to call to the person as they approach the aviary.

The many types of birds in the garden offer a wide range of stimuli to mentally synthesize. Ultimately, this can create an emotional response, “a moment,” if you will. These ephemeral moments can be carried for a lifetime. Intermittently bubbling up into our consciousness, these “moments” are then relived again. The idea of distilling your attention to a singular stimulus, such as the birds living in your garden, is a fantastic way to enhance the garden experience and make memories you carry for a lifetime.

A great bird guide that I recommend is called Sibley Birds West, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley, and I also recommend The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman.

Our bird walk, led by Darrow, was informative and excellent.

Post by Timothy Lindsay
Superintendent of the Virginia Robinson Gardens

Photos by Josh Johnston

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