Paul Cramer may live in a “typical suburban house,” as he says, but his garden is not. It is graced with color and movement that comes not just from plants, but from birds.
He bought the home when it was brand new and unlandscaped in 1976 and, over the years, has designed – and sometimes redesigned – the front and back gardens.
You can find citrus, abutilon, canna lilies, ferns, begonias, succulents, grasses, dahlias, and even a few evergreen topiaries in the landscape along with destinations.
In the front, there’s a secluded seating area, protected from the street view; in the back, a shade structure shelters a hot tub, a pair of chairs pulled up to a fire pit near the waterfront and a raised keyhole vegetable garden.
“My gardens are like individual rooms, each with its own character and ambiance,” he explains. “Music streams in with several volume controls all around the yard.”
An artificial lawn centers the back garden, separating the house and the deck from the lagoon where Cramer moors his boats and where resident ducks, geese and other water birds gather, feed and float.
It’s Cramer’s charming flocks of 125 exotic birds, mostly native to Australia and Africa — small elegant diamond doves, colorful Lady Gouldian rainbow finches, brightly hued red factor canaries and diminutive buttonquail — that are the garden’s main attraction, though.
“Each species has, of course, different and fascinating songs, plumage and courtship behaviors,” he says. “Some actually do a little dance to attract a mate. Like wild birds, some can also be rather aggressive to other birds, particularly when guarding one of the 30 nesting locations in the aviary.
“My 25 ground birds (buttonquail) are the tiniest quail in the world and are just fun to watch,” he says. “They live in a colony and rarely disturb each other or the fledglings on the floor still learning to fly. They are very cute scavengers that love sunning themselves and like a good dust bath.”
Cramer’s love of birds comes naturally. His grandmother kept 15 canaries in an aviary built by his grandfather; his older brother raised racing pigeons; and he and his dad built a large bird run for game birds such as Chinese and ring-necked pheasants, and California quail.
His own colorful collection began 35 years ago when he purchased a male red factor canary from the late Walter Murray from Healdsburg, a noted breeder of the species, and with whom he traded birds and shared information.
“I learned quite a bit from that long-running friendship,” Cramer says. “Walter passed away at 103 years old and I really think that his work with hybrid birds was a contributing factor to improving the species and also to his patient and friendly personality, and possibly his own longevity.”
Cramer’s finches, doves and quail are free to mate as they please but he acts as matchmaker for the red factor canaries to make sure that they produce future generations with a strong color, healthy feathers and are of a good size.
“These birds are my pets,” he says. “I sometimes trade birds with other collectors but only offer them for sale when it feels like I have too many of one species or another. It’s not easy to place these birds though, mostly because I’m really particular when it comes to re-homing them.”
Taking care of so many birds required Cramer to come up with a thoughtful design for his three connected aviaries, two of which serve as wire-and-wood built flyways.
The indoor aviary is an enclosed, walk-in space constructed in a side yard that runs the length of the house. A greenhouse-style roof brings in natural light and glass doors give Cramer access.
Besides being convenient, this location also offers an ideal birds-eye view from the dining room’s picture window into the aviary where birds perch on branches, stop for food, and flit back and forth.
Fairy lights, nestled into the aviary’s greenery, offer subtle illumination in the evenings and soft piped-in music is apparently an amenity that even canaries enjoy.
During the mating season though, the male birds break out into their own music.
“In October, the young males go off by themselves and start practicing a barely audible, somewhat jumbled song,” he says. “Only the males sing and some say they need the songs of the older dads to help imprint a new and unique song of their own.”
By late November, “it’s a non-stop concert of sweet songs in the garden, and by January, the males are all aiming their new arias directly at the females to attract their attention,” he says.
Tiny white birdhouses are clustered near the ceiling above the canaries’ nesting cages. A triple-seed feeder — filled with each species’ favorite food — is suspended near a long feeding trough where baby birds find their special baby food.
Nests hang on the other side of this walk-in space, too. Overhead, branches and swings beckon birds to congregate, mostly across species lines.
On the ground, busy buttonquail flip young lettuce leaves, almost as big as their are, over their heads as they tear off bite-size pieces to eat.
During the day, Cramer’s birds dart in and out of this space from two low-profile outdoor flyways, made of redwood-and-wire that diverge from the space into two parallel directions.
One flyway wraps itself from the left side of the room and tucks underneath an adjacent deck.
The other flyway travels from the right side of the room, extending outdoors into a 3-foot high enclosure that runs along the fence, toward the lagoon. This flyway provides a wide-angle view of the birds from the garden and Cramer has placed a pair of comfortable Adirondack chairs to take advantage of it.
Inside the flyway, birds can perch on an old bonsai juniper, nibble and feed, splash in the birdbath, or dip their beaks or feet in a shallow “stream” made by a depression in the aggregate floor that starts in the main aviary.
“The idea was to make this part of the aviary really enticing for the birds so we can get a close up view when they fly in for some treats or a bath,” Cramer says.
He deigned the outdoor structures so they would blend into the garden and be easy to maintain, and fortified them to protect the birds from predators.
“Keeping complex gardens and pet birds on this scale is definitely not for everyone but for me it’s always been a source of great joy and peace,” he says. “Now in my 70s, these creative projects also help keep me fit and my mind active while I continue to work part time from home.
“The miracle of new life is so amazing to observe, no matter how old you are.”
Cramer shares some tips when considering building an aviary:
• “The more natural space you can give your birds, the happier and healthier they will be.”
• An enthusiast “should carefully design the space for close up viewing and your own enjoyment.”
• “Know that this is a long-term responsibility requiring continuous care. You will need a helper to care for your birds when you are away from home.”
• “Draw up a plan that suits your location, your bird’s health and wellbeing, your budget and your own way of interacting with your pet birds.”
Cramer is available to help with free construction tips if needed. Email him at [email protected]
Show off your garden
Since so many of the popular home and garden tours are off the calendar this year, please consider this your invitation to share with fellow readers the images and description of your home garden.
Please send an email describing what you grow in your garden, what you love most about it, and a photograph or two. I will post the very best ones in upcoming columns. Your name will be published and you must be over 18 years old.
• Marin Art & Garden presents an outdoor pop-up marketplac, Wander and Wonder, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Shop Courtyard where indoor and outdoor plants and planters will be sold. MAGC is at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. in Ross. Call 415-455-5260 or go to maringarden.org.
• Join historian and author Victoria Johnson as she presents an illustrated lecture on her latest book, “American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic,” on a Zoom webinar from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6. The presentation is sponsored by the Marin Art & Garden Center and costs $20. Call 415-455-5260 or go to maringarden.org.
• The Garden Conservancy presents a Zoom webinar featuring Jennifer Jewell as she introduces 75 influential women in the various botanical fields in her talk, “The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants” at 11 a.m. Oct. 8. The cost is $15, $5 for members, or $25 for the webinar and one copy of the book with free shipping. Preregister at Gardenconservancy.org.
• Discover the design period of “The Regency Revival: From Deco Greco to Hollywood Glam” in an illustrated Zoom presentation by design historian Emily Evans Eerdmans at 11 a.m. Oct. 10. This free American Decorative Arts Forum of Northern California talk will touch on the works of Sibyl Colefax, Billy Haines, Dorothy Draper, Elsie de Wolfe, Albert Hadley, Anthony Baratta and Kelly Wearstler. Reserve an online space at adafca.org.
PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertaining topics every Saturday and also on her blog at DesignSwirl.co. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 412, Kentfield 94914, or at [email protected]