One of the best parts of spring is the return of the avian chirps and trills that define our warm weather soundscape. I particularly love the return of the woodcocks to our fields in March and April. When I hear that plaintive ‘peint,’ I sit outside at dusk and listen for the male’s elaborate song and dance. But most entrancing is the aggregate impact of returning birds, manifest in sparrows darting through shrubs, phoebes flitting from nest to tree, chickadees chattering with friends, woodpeckers knocking themselves out on decrepit trees, and countless unseen songbirds twittering from the treetops. Their sweet sounds and cheerful motion literally bring our landscapes to life.
Birds, such as this Carolina chickadee, sometimes score more than one caterpillar per trip. Photo credit: Doug Tallamy
While I am blessed to live in a rural area rife with habitat ranging from hayfields and mixed woods to beaver ponds and babbling brooks, I want more birds in my yard! I live in an old cape surrounded by lots of lawn. We’ve added trees, shrubs, and perennials over the years, but the expansive lawn still feels…unproductive. Now, I’m planting mostly native plants. Why? Because I want more birds in my yard!
I’ve been learning more about the importance of native plants to bird life thanks to the work of Doug Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. In 2016, he gave a talk at Maine Audubon entitled, ‘A Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening.’ You can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zE1HsHHKTxU. If you don’t want to read his book or watch his 60+ minute talk, read on!
In summary, birds need food, places to nest, shelter from predators, and water. Our closely cropped, suburban lawns provide almost none of this. And, as it turns out, the non-native plants that we all love, with their bright colors and resistance to pests, don’t do much for them either. Certain non-natives do provide some benefits to birds, but they don’t provide for all their needs. Ultimately, native plants are necessary to avian success in our neighborhoods.
There has been a huge decline in milkweed – the only food monarch caterpillars eat and lay eggs on.
Insects are the backbone of many birds’ diets. They are especially key to migrating warblers and nesting birds. We think of birds as eating a diet of seeds and berries, but those foods aren’t widely available in spring when travel-weary migrating birds descend to refuel. And, seeds and berries aren’t as nutritious as insects and caterpillars. Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds in North America feed their young insects, and a lot of those insects are caterpillars. Why caterpillars? They are high in protein, fat, and carotenoids – essential to a healthy bird diet. And, they are soft and easy to shove into a young bird’s throat (what parent wants to spend all day trying to stuff a leggy grasshopper into its tiny hatchling’s mouth?).
Here’s the crazy part. Remember how much your teenage children ate? Well, Mom and Pop forage from 6 am to 8 pm while raising their young, averaging one caterpillar every three minutes. Researchers calculate it takes six to nine THOUSAND caterpillars to raise a brood of Carolina chickadees. And the parents do all this foraging within 50 meters (about 160 feet) of the nest. They won’t fly to the wooded lot a block away in search of food.
So, if you want birds around your house, you must create a landscape that will produce insects and caterpillars. (A bonus of having a caterpillar-rich yard is the moths and butterflies you’ll get from the hardy survivors.) For more on how to get caterpillars into YOUR yard, tune in to upcoming posts!
Full credit for the information in this article goes to Doug Tallamy’s presentation at Maine Audubon, his book, Bringing Nature Home, and assorted articles by Tallamy.