Why We Garden: Reason # 45 - Popcorn Birds

Last spring our neighbors suffered one of those irrepressible fits of gardening that occasionally seizes otherwise reasonable people. They rented machinery, ground up their entire front lawn into homogenous green paste, and started wildly planting: tomatoes, hebes, barberries, blueberries, grasses, phormiums, random 4" groundcovers.

It was glorious; it was like leaping off a cliff with all the components of a parachute in your backpack and assembling them as you fall.

Of course they couldn't fill the whole space with plants, so when summer came around there were several areas of bare dirt, baked by the sun.

For about two weeks, every evening after work, my girlfriend and I watched a flock of sparrows bathing in the dirt, which we learned basically involves squatting, wiggling, and flapping your wings like a maniac.

Then the neighbor's blue fescue went to seed, and we were treated to a different and far more entertaining show. Our 'dirt birds' became 'popcorn birds'.

Each bird took his or her turn trying to land on the stalks supporting the seed heads, with predictably hilarious results. The stalks couldn't support the weight, and the little birds slid off. A few tried the hummingbird approach, wildly flapping their wings to stay in place while pecking at the seed heads. Others tried the popcorn technique - bounce up from the ground, wings flapping, and snap at the seeds on your way down.

Eventually, a few of the wiser heads among them hit on the idea of cooperation. Clearly the concept was foreign to the sparrow brain, and required lots of practice, concentration, and vicious squabbling (in this way, they're not so different from humans). Gradually more and more birds caught on to the trick, and soon everyone was taking turns holding down a stalk for his or her neighbor, and then shoving each other out of the way to be the next in line to eat.

The next day, the whole cycle started all over again: slapstick, bewilderment, aerobatics, anger, lots of chatter, and (perhaps with an air of resignation?) eventually, teamwork. Given the amount of effort involved, I suspect the meal yielded a net loss of calories, but I like to think the whole experience brought the flock closer together.

Perhaps for my next career I can find a way to parley the popcorn bird spectacle into a corporate team-building workshop and charge massive consulting fees. Something involving trampolines . . .

Blue Fescue prefers full sun and is drought tolerant when established. The blue-silvery foliage grows about 8 - 12" tall and about 12" wide and is followed in summer by buff-colored flowers.

It pairs nicely with low-growing sedums and silvery plants like Stachys (Lamb's Ears) and Dusty Miller.

It's a great container plant and easy to maintain.

If the foliage starts to brown after a cold winter, it can be cut back in early spring.

Clumps of Festuca 'Elijah Blue' can also be divided if they start looking tired (again, best done in early spring).