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.

Chickadee at the bird bath.
Chickadee singing at the bird bath.

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.

Chickadee
Chickadee

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.

42 Comments on “You Need a Lot of Caterpillars to Raise a Chickadee

  1. I had a pair of chickadees nest in my wren house last summer and they were two busy chickadees. i could sit in my garden and watch them for hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them fledge. Friendly birds, the bird house was close to the back door and walk.

  2. We often forget that for every beautiful butterfly there have to be hundreds of caterpillars as many are eaten. We want the birds and the butterflies but must also provide food for the caterpillars even if that means a few ragged plants. Nature is about allowing balance and harmony with as little intervention from us as possible.

  3. I love that first photo – it is beautiful! Yep, as for pesticides, I definitely steer clear – a garden that is full of wildlife will always be healthy, even if a few plants get some chewed leaves.

    • I do the same, though on very rare occasions I have used herbicides. I find that a healthy population of insects tends to keep itself in check.

  4. I like these little birds too. Our Carolina chickadee looks much the same but has a smaller black bib, with more gray and less buff on the sides. Tallamy did a nice job with this piece; it resonated with non-gardeners as well as those who already share his concerns. In fact, about a dozen people forwarded it to me. Have you read The Living Landscape by Darke and Tallamy yet? I would love to go to the Wiliamsburg (VA) symposium where they will be speaking in a few weeks, but guess I need to stay home every once in a while.

  5. A lovely post, what delightful little birds, I wish we had them here. And you set off a lively breakfast- time conversation about the word ‘ factoid’.

    • Well, thanks to your comment I have now found out that ‘factoid’ is in the OED but the definition is not what I thought it was. It is in fact an unreliable but widely repeated bit of information. I thought that it meant something obscure or trivial but factual. So now I know.

  6. An important message indeed. We don’t have chickadees, but the blackbirds are singing their hearts out at the moment and tugging at worms the rest of the time. I wonder how many worms a baby blackbird needs…. πŸ˜‰

  7. I love seeing chickadees and I remember reading the Tallamy article with concern last week. I know I don’t have 300 caterpillars for a chickadee chick, and I do have lots of natives. It defies understanding that they are managing in most of urban and suburban areas, and yet we see them. I don’t know what to think.

  8. Mid-sized and large birds attract our ooh’s and aah’s, but the little birds are our constant companions and entertainers. Now I know what they are doing for pest control. Your posts are a font of information.

  9. I agree with you about chickadees–so much personality and just too darn cute! Tallamy has made a splash with his work–hopefully others (besides those of us who are already “on board” ) will listen.

  10. Different Order, Families and Genus between White Oak and Bradford Pear. Also different and specific species of insects and birds visiting them for food. It is not surprising he may have seen a different number of or species of insect. The Rosaceae Family does have their own insects that use those plants. But he failed to mention that Callery Pear, yes invasive in some areas of the country, have some varieties cultivated to be sterile. The fruit of the tree does provide for birds long into winter when other plants have been stripped. The reason is, after a hard freeze the tiny (sterile) fruit will soften and darken to become palatable to birds. Woodpeckers also find hibernating insect larvae in the bark. While planting native might be preferable as you mentioned, at least the argument should compare apples to apples. I never read where Black-capped Chickadees are threatened being widespread and common in a wide range of wooded habitats, maybe habitat itself is what is threatened. That is what people can do to help the bird, ensure wooded habitats.

  11. Great post. Many of us (myself included) think only about seeds and berries when we want to attract birds.
    The chickadee hatchlings come just in time for the parents to snatch up all the hungry tent caterpillars too!

  12. I’ve just followed your link to the bird song Jason, it was wonderful to hear the Chickadee. Growing organically and not using pesticides is really key. As for natives and non natives, thats an interesting debate that will go on and on I am sure.

  13. I remember back when I read Tallamy’s book the first time. What an important message and it really made me look twice at the “pest resistant” plants in my garden.
    I’m not going to give up the peonies, but I sure do give the oaks a lot more respect and I wouldn’t mind it one bit if a few of the maples die and the oak seedlings can take over. (I think we can work that out)

    • I’m not giving up my exotic favorites either, but I do try to make sure at least half of all my plants are native to the Midwest.

  14. Thanks for posting this. I read the column in the NYT. Chickadees must have charmed their way into our hearts from the beginning, as they show so little fear of us.

  15. Great post. Thank you. Tallamy is one of my heroes. His writings were the catalyst behind choosing native plants for my garden. I had no idea chickadees were so voracious!

  16. Chickadees look a little like are black-headed tits, or our blue tits. What sweet little birds. Wow, that is a lot of caterpillars, and yes, if we want the wildlife we have to give consideration to planting and use of pesticides. Feeding chicks in the rescue is exhausting, I do pity patent birds, they do such an amazing job. A timely post for spring!xxx

  17. I have loads of chickadees in my garden. They’ve been busy house hunting and checking out all the birdhouses I have. I had no idea they needed so many caterpillars to live! It’s amazing they don’t drop dead from exhaustion.

  18. I agree these birds are just too cute and I love when they announce their presence with their call. It is for the birds that I went organic and planted natives….and now I have lots visiting in spring and summer and finding all sorts of insect food for their babes in my garden…great psot Jason!

  19. An interesting and enjoyable post. So very few people are aware of the role that native plants play in supporting insect life and even the importance of insects to other species. We should all talk about this much more often.

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