your sense of place

Photo © Keith Williams
Photo © YardMap

Caterpillar: It’s What’s for Dinner

This time of year, newly-fledged birds begin showing up at bird feeders, where their parents show them how to use this valuable resource. You might think that those chickadees who visited your feeders all summer were taking seeds back to their young, but more likely they were grabbing a quick bite for themselves before rushing off to find more insects for the kiddos.

A single pair of breeding chickadees must find 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of young, according to Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. Even though seeds are a nutritious winter staple, insects are best for feeding growing fledglings. Surprisingly, insects contain more protein than beef, and 96% of North American land birds feed their young with them. Although fly maggots and spiders might curl your lip, to a chickadee, these are life-saving morsels full of fat and protein.

Here, we offer some tips to help you plan your fall garden chores around birds and “beef up” your yard for next spring:

  • Don’t mow wild goldenrods; their seeds are edible, and they shelter insect larvae inside those hard round galls in the stems which chickadees and woodpeckers love to excavate.
  • Plant at least one native tree or shrub in your yard. Cooler weather is great for planting woody species.
  • Resist the urge to deadhead the last round of spent flowers. Let the seedheads provide food for migrating birds.
  • Phase out pesticides in your yard, and let the birds help with pest control.

If you’ve never seen a clutch of chickadees fledge, take two minutes to watch a video captured by Nancy Castillo of two Black-capped Chickadee nestlings making their first foray into the world. Now when you see fledglings in late summer, you can really appreciate how many insects are necessary to successfully raise these youngsters. Visit us online for more information on landscaping for nesting birds.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology