Written By Josh VanBrakle.

Posted on April 25th, 2017.

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Take away bugs, and it doesn’t matter how much seed you put out. You aren’t providing what birds really need. 96% of North America’s terrestrial birds depend on insects, spiders, and the like to feed their young.

My wife hates bugs. Insects, spiders, you name it. I think a big reason we have a cat is because he mercilessly hunts down any invertebrate foolish enough to wander into the house.

Unless there’s a bee loose inside, I’m pretty accepting of nature’s creepy-crawlies. And outside, I’m fine with them (ok, maybe not ticks). In fact, it’s great they’re around, because it means more food for birds.

A lot of folks try to get rid of “pests” in their gardens. They might spray insect killer, or plant ornamentals that are “bug resistant.” But there’s a serious downside to that approach. Apart from the risk of harm to important pollinators like bees and butterflies, it also keeps away birds.

Why? Because birds eat insects.

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Like most North American terrestrial birds, common yellowthroats eat insects. If you want to feed birds and attract them to your property, encourage insects with native plants.

Now I know what you’re saying. “I can just put out a feeder. Then who needs the bugs?” It’s not that simple. Even seed-eating birds depend on the high protein content in insects to feed their young. According to Doug Tallamy, author of the excellent book Bringing Nature Home, 96% of North America’s terrestrial birds raise their young on a diet of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates.

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Even hummingbirds rely on insects to feed their young. The adults catch insects in midair or pluck them off spider webs.

Take away bugs, and it doesn’t matter how much seed you put out. You aren’t providing what birds really need.

How do you make sure there are plenty of bugs around for neighborhood birds? It’s easy. If you want to feed the birds, first feed the bugs. In your yard, remove non-native plants and plant native ones wherever you can. Insects like caterpillars need native plants to eat. In general, they can’t eat non-native ornamentals. Their digestive systems can’t handle the defensive chemicals these plants produce. We have some resources on starting a native plant garden here on MyWoodlot, and I also recommend Bringing Nature Home.

In your woods, encourage a diverse range of native plants at multiple height levels. As counterintuitive as it might sound, harvesting a few trees might help you bring in more birds. The increased light will stimulate new plant growth on the ground, which in turn supports more insects for birds to eat. If you decide to go this route, I recommend following the steps in our Harvest Trees section to give you the best chance of a good harvest.


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