Sunday, June 5, 2011

Natural Bird Food

Birds flit back and forth constantly this time of year – criss-crossing my yard, the roads in my neighborhood and almost every small country road that I drive these days.  Even as I marvel at their acrobatic twists and turns, I know that many of their trips are all business – they are searching for food for their baby chicks.  And what is it that baby chicks love to eat more than anything?  BUGS!

Photo courtesy of Loret T. Setters

Supporting birds is a popular activity.  Most people love birds and attracting them to their yard is a goal that many folks have.  I envision that the evolution of a bird lover might go something like this:

  • "I’d like to support birds, I’ll get a feeder and some seed."
  • Several months later: "I sure like having birds around now, I’ll get a bird bath and some bird houses to help them out."
  • Several more months later: "I should support the birds more – I’ll plant some evergreen plants for nesting and some plants that get berries."

And that’s as far as most people go.  However, there is one more step that people should know about:

  • "I’ll plant some native plants to bring the insects in so that the birds will have what they need to feed their chicks."
Caterpillars on Pine - think bird food!
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Remember all that flitting back and forth that I mentioned? Those are birds looking for insects to feed to their chicks! Yes, bugs – a GREAT source of protein. In addition to feeding their chicks insects, there are some birds such as Warblers, Thrushes, and Robins that are “insectivores” in their own diet. If you look closely you will see that they have slender bills that are adapted for grasping insects.

Other birds, like finches and sparrows, eat seeds and nuts. Some birds, like cedar waxwings, are frugivores, and they eat primarily fruits and berries.  But all birds feed insects to their young.  So how do we help these birds?  We can provide “natural” bird food by providing an environment that attracts and supports the insects that they eat!

A tasty looking beetle!
A Jewelwing

There are primarily 3 ways to attract and support insects:

Plant native plants to host insect eggs: Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on plants that support their young (caterpillars).  The Monarch butterfly is a very well known example: they lay eggs on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) plants, those eggs hatch and the larvae grow into caterpillars that eat the milkweed.  They eat no other type of plant. For many other butterflies and moths it is the same story, but a different plant.  According to research compiled by Doug Tallamy, certain plants support more species than others, but native plants support the most species of all by far.  If you follow the link by clicking on Doug Tallamy's name, you will find a list of the top 20 plants, both woody and herbaceous, that support insects in the Eastern U.S.  The top woody plant is Oak (Quercus spp.) and the top herbaceous plant is Goldenrod (Solidago spp.).

On Hawthorn
On Oak

On Sassafras

Plant floriferous plants to attract pollinators: bees, wasps, flies and beetles all have a role in plant pollination.  Plants that have large amounts of flowers, even tiny ones, provide more nectar and pollen than others.  The bloom shown below is Decumaria barbara, notice the many flowers that make up the single inflorescence.  The more insects that are attracted to the flower, the more opportunities there are for birds and other bugs to snag one for a meal.

A beetle and a fly
A nearby spider waits for some prey

Look at all the cool bugs I've found in my yard!

A bug eating another bug!

Leave leaf litter on the ground to support insects that feed on dead materials: worms, snails, beetles, “roly poly” bugs, centipedes, and things we’ve never heard of!  We all have seen pictures of robins pulling worms from the ground: "The early bird gets the worm!"  Worms can be found in rich layers of decaying leaves.  Also found there are many other critters, including small snails.  Doug Tallamy says that snails provide an important source of calcium for birds when they are laying eggs.  The Brown Thrasher, the Georgia state bird, searches for food in the dry leaves on the ground.  When it comes time to "tidy up", leave the leaves for the bugs and the birds will be very grateful.

So when you think about supporting "the birds", I hope you will think about what you can do to naturally give them what they need - plants first!  The rest will come.


  1. Thank you for this piece, Ellen. I like how you stitch together the layers of the natural world, implying that they are all of one fabric! Our bio-destructive practices within our own landscapes is one of the factors in the accelerating decline of our avian populations over the past 50 years.

  2. *Excellent* post, Ellen. Very informative. To me, you are preaching to the choir, but I certainly hope that you've made others aware of how much more they can do to enhance their yards with not only birds, but butterflies, and other life as well.

    If you are not already a member, you really should check out Wildlife Gardeners forum (, you will fit in *great* there.

  3. I LOVE a good bug story. Well Done! Ellen :)