Destructive insects munching away on your garden plants can quickly wreak havoc on all your gardening efforts. But did you know that with a little planning and adding some native landscaping, you can get a handle on these pests naturally, instead of relying on harsh pesticides that can do more harm than good? Your weapon: bug-eating birds. While it might sound like pie in the sky, wild birds are highly evolved, motivated, and extremely efficient—all qualities that make them effective (and free!) methods of controlling insects in the garden.
“During late spring and early summer, when nesting birds need to find a constant supply of high-protein food for their offspring, insects make up the great majority of many bird’s diets,” says Craig Tufts, chief naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation. Tufts’ advice to gardeners is to learn which birds live and nest in your area and lure them in with bird-friendly, native landscaping. Talk with your local agricultural extension office to find out which plants will offer insect- and bird-attracting leaves, berries, seeds, pollen, and nectar that will appeal to and sustain birds and their insect-eating offspring. Adding a water source, brush piles, or shrubs for cover and protection from the weather and predators, nest boxes, and a dead tree or two (they provide nesting areas and harbor insects) will make your property irresistible to backyard birds.
Which backyard birds are the best bug-eaters? The truth is, most birds spend the breeding season combing your yard and garden for cabbage worms, cucumber beetles, whiteflies, aphids, earwigs, grubs, and other delectable insects. Out of necessity, they work morning ‘til night to fill the stomachs of their hungry offspring.
Below is a list of common backyard wild birds and some of the insect pests they eat. Depending on where you live, these bird groups can be your best allies in the fight to control garden pests.
Top Ten Wild Birds for Controlling Insects
Chickadees: All three species (Carolina, mountain, and black-capped) help control aphids, whiteflies, caterpillars, leafhoppers, earwigs, moths, and beetles. In the winter, they search tree crevices for insect eggs and hibernating adults, preventing insect blooms come springtime. Chickadees do not migrate, so they eat insects year-round.
Woodpeckers: Plots with lots of trees will find that woodpeckers are frequent visitors, even if they do tend to nest in more heavily wooded areas. With more than twenty species in the U.S. alone, they make short work of moth larvae, beetles, borers, weevils, caterpillars, and millipedes. The characteristic tap-tap sound of the woodpecker that you hear means it’s busy helping keep insect populations down.
Bluebirds: A striking bird with a sweet song, the bluebird is particularly effective at keeping grasshoppers under control. These prolific insect hunters also feed themselves and their offspring crickets, beetles, snails, sowbugs, larvae, and moths.
Nuthatches: Moving up and down the trees headfirst, nuthatches search for insects, insect eggs, and cocoons hidden in tree bark and branches. They also forage for borers, caterpillars, ants, and earwigs. Non-migrating, they provide efficient pest control during the winter months, seeking out and foraging on hibernating insects and their eggs.
Warblers: These small, colorful birds, known for their sweet songs, are extremely active insectivores, searching brushy areas, orchards, chaparral, parklands, and forest edges for caterpillars, larvae, aphids, leafhoppers, whiteflies, and spiders.
Wrens: Wrens have a great appetite for insects, snails, and slugs. Minimizing insecticides and pesticides in the yard will ensure a healthy, abundant food source for wrens. They will also pluck spiders from webs, and glean ants, gnats, and other insects from foliage and tree bark.
Titmice: These omnivores are common backyard visitors that forage the limbs and trunks of trees, sometimes hanging upside down, for aphids, leafhoppers, stink bugs, snails, treehoppers, caterpillars, and beetles.
Swallows: These insect lovers can consume hundreds of flying insects every day, from moths to mosquitoes, as they swarm across fields and meadows, providing exceptional pest control. They also forage on beetles and grasshoppers.
Cardinals: The official state bird of seven eastern states, cardinals live in a variety of habitats where they help farmers and gardeners by eating plant-harming pests including aphids, grasshoppers, slugs, snails, cotton cutworms, and bollworms. They also eat beetles, leafhoppers, cicadas, moths, and stink bugs.
Grosbeaks: Living mostly in wooded areas, grosbeaks forage in shrubs and trees and on the ground for larvae, caterpillars, beetles, ants, sawflies, moths, and grasshoppers. They also snag food while hovering, and sometimes fly out to grab insects in midair.
Of course, birds can’t completely rid your yard and garden of insects—and you wouldn’t want them to. Some insects are actually beneficial because they prey on other insects that can do damage to your garden. But attracting bug-loving birds will go a long way toward maintaining a healthy balance of “good” and “bad” insects. So the next time you see or hear a bird in your yard, you’ll know that your garden allies are hard at work, keeping your garden and landscaping healthy and productive.