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Gardening for Birds Means Gardening for Caterpillars

Photo Group
House Wren
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek

“It takes 390 to 570 caterpillars a day to feed a growing clutch of four to six chickadees in the 16 days from when they hatch to when they fledge. That can be more than 9,000 caterpillars to make one batch of chickadees, we know they’re not flying five miles down the road to forage. We know that almost all of a chickadee’s foraging happens within 50 meters [164 feet] of the nest. That’s why you need so many [caterpillars] in your yard.”- Audubon Magazine, July 2013

How many times have we witnessed an American Goldfinch pulling seeds from the seed head of a Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)? When people think of gardening for birds, it may bring an image like this to mind. We may also think about Cedar Waxwings with a viburnum berry in its mouth? Or maybe a House Wren pulling a small twig from a tree? But what about that image of a Baltimore Oriole returning to the nest with a plump caterpillar? Or a Robin pulling a worm from the ground? Gardening for caterpillars and insects is an important step in attracting birds to your yard.

Recently there was a post on a Kansas City gardening page asking about how to stop the holes that were appearing in the gardener’s Echinacea leaves. Responses immediately started to flow about which pesticide to use. All I could think was STOP!! Along with Black-eyed Susans, Sunflowers and Asters are larval food for the Silvery Checkerspot caterpillars. The small, black, fuzzy caterpillars feed on the leaves of their host plants and then wander off to make a chrysalis. A few days later they will emerge as Silvery Checkerspot butterflies. Pesticides will kill the caterpillars and bring this amazing life cycle to a screeching halt.

Gardening for birds also means gardening for their food. Landscapes filled with non-native plants can be beautiful, but offer little value for wildlife. ‘Grow Native’ is more than a nice slogan for plants that tolerate the drought well, but a survival requirement for the birds. The key to attracting and sustaining birds in your yard is to attract and sustain their food as well- which means caterpillars and insects. That also means eliminating pesticides from your gardening program.


We thought you might like to know some of the plants that birds rely upon for food and shelter, but also for the insects and caterpillars they host.

  • Native Honeysuckle – great for the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and host for the Bumblebee Clearwing moth.
  • Sunflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Asters and Purple Coneflowers attractive seed heads for finches and host plant for Silvery Checkerspot caterpillars
  • Trees are fabulous for open and cavity nesting birds and host for the following caterpillars:
    • Oak-Polyphemus caterpillar
    • Elm-Question Mark caterpillar
    • Pawpaw- Zebra Swallowtail
    • Willow- can attract nesting Yellow Warblers and Viceroy caterpillars.
  • Tulip Poplar- Great trees for attracting warblers during migration and host for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

By Mary Nemecek