By Stephanie Walquist
Over the past week, I have been watching a pair of Downy Woodpeckers take care of their young. They are incredibly dedicated. They are up early in the morning flying back and forth to bring food to their babies, who never stop peeping, and they are still at it in the evening. They also have to worry about a squirrel that seems interested in their nest, and they expend a lot of energy protecting their babies from this marauder.
A Different Bird Feeder
Until now I have never had the experience of actually watching parent birds at work, though I had learned from Doug Tallamy, scientist and author of Bringing Nature Home, just how important insects, particularly caterpillars, are for parent birds. He tells us that 96% of bird species feed their young solely insects, mostly comprised of caterpillars because they are easy to eat and contain the right amount of fat and protein. In his amazing, must-read article, The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening Tallamy tells us that a pair of chickadees feed their babies 6,000-9,000 caterpillars for a single clutch. The Downy Woodpeckers most likely would need to find even more insects to feed their babies.
The best place for these birds to find caterpillars are in native trees and shrubs because these woody species have co-evolved with insects. Over the millennia, the insects have developed ways to overcome the plants’ savvy chemical defense systems and many are specialized in their food plants. If you take a Spicebush caterpillar (a beautiful butterfly in its own right!) off of a Spicebush and put it on a Callery Pear (non-native, invasive tree) leaf, it will die. I could go on with examples like these. Unfortunately, Oak Park and surrounding areas are brimming full of these non-native and, even worse, invasive shrubs and trees.
If we want to have beautiful and useful birds around such as chickadees and woodpeckers, as well as butterflies and bees, we need to be sure that we are providing for all of their stages of life. If there are no caterpillars and other herbivorous insects, there are no birds.
Upcoming Opportunity to Add Native Shrubs and Trees to your Landscape
This fall, Green Community Connections, in partnership with West Cook Wild Ones, will make it easy for you to purchase native trees or shrubs, through a special sale devoted to local native trees and shrubs. These woody species are grown by Possibility Place, a nursery in Monee, Illinois, that specializes in the propagation of native trees and shrubs. Orders begin August 5 at this link, and the pick up date will be September 24.