You Need a Lot of Caterpillars to Raise a Chickadee
There was a column by Douglas Tallamy in the New York Times about a week ago. Tallamy, you probably know, is the entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home, which makes the case for native plants as a foundation of a healthy garden ecology. All right, I know I write about this stuff a lot, but just hang on. At a minimum you might find some interesting factoids in this post.
Anyhow, Tallamy writes about the huge number of caterpillars it takes to raise a clutch of chickadees. Both the mama and papa chickadee stay busy from 6 am to 8 pm fbringing their offspring an average of one caterpillar every three minutes. Baby birds in general need insects for the protein – seeds and berries won’t cut it.
So the Chickadee parents need to find 350 to 570 caterpillars every day, depending on the number of chicks. Multiply that by the 16 to 18 days it takes to fledge, and that’s a total of 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to bring a clutch of chickadees to maturity.
Tallamy then returns to his familiar argument about how native plants support more insect life. He says that when he examined a native white oak, he found 430 caterpillars comprising 19 species. On a nearby Bradford pear, he found just a single caterpillar.
You don’t have to be a botanical nativist to accept the lesson here: if you want chickadees or other birds, you need plants that support insects – not just with flowers, but with digestible leaves as well. Perhaps these are not necessarily native plants, especially in parts of the world where plants have been migrating around for a much longer time. But if you want a garden full of birds, you may want to think about your selection of plants a little differently – and keep away from the pesticides.
Incidentally, I find it is impossible not to be fond of chickadees. They are little birds with a big personality, bold and lively and relatively comfortable with people. They also have a “gargling” call that can take you by surprise. Here’s a link to the songs and calls of Chickadees. Listen to the last two calls at the bottom to see what I mean.