Natural Insect Control With Birds

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A sharp-eyed blackbird on sentry duty.
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A woodpecker hollows out its new home.
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Diagram shows materials and method for making a coffee can bird feeder.
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A flicker moves into its seasonal home.
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A bird feeder made from a log with hollows.
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Natural nesting boxes provide good shelter.
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Diagram shows method and materials for making a bird feeder from two coconut halves.
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Suet bag feeders will attract hungry birds. A woodpecker hollows out its new home.
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A horned lark feeds bugs to its young.
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This male bluebird's nest is in a live evergreen, but these birds also like rough pine boxes.
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Neat and cozy: a natural avian nursery.
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Mama chickadee serves up a wormy meal

During the midsummer months, most gardeners find that the
struggle to protect their gardens from grasshoppers,
aphids, and the like rapidly escalates into full-scale war!

That needn’t be the case, however, because it’s possible to
keep your garden’s insects in hand without
introducing damaging chemicals into the environment. The
bug killer I’m talking about doesn’t come in spray cans or
plant tablets … but it does have a beautiful
package. And–best of all–it’s nontoxic, nondisruptive to
the ecological balance (in fact, it’s very much a natural
part of that balance), extremely effective … and free!

Birds–the ultimate method of natural insect control–have been feeding on
the earth’s insect population for millions of years (just doin’ what comes naturally!), but it’s up to you to
attract the “aerial bug bombs” to your land … and to
encourage them to eat the parasites in your garden. You’ll
be amazed at just how much the feathered foragers
do consume, too. A tiny swallow will devour 1,000
leaf hoppers in 12 hours … a pair of hungry yellowthroats
make short work of thousands of plant lice … a
Baltimore oriole can gobble up 17 hairy caterpillars per
minute … a cuckoo will polish off 217 webworms at one
sitting … and a house wren may feed 500 insects to its
young in the course of an afternoon.

Make Your Guests Comfortable

In order to attract birds to your homestead, you must first
make some reliable source of water available. In a humid
climate, frequent rains and morning dew may provide
sufficient moisture for your feathered friends, or you
might be able to rely on a stream or pond (if there is one
on your land) . . . but it never does any harm to set up a
bird bath. The receptacle can be as simple as a shallow pan
of water placed on a stump, or as elaborate as the carved
stoneware models sold at nurseries. The beaked bathers are
especially attracted to moving water, however, so you might
want to hang a leaky bucket (or a can with holes punched in
its base) over the reservoir, and let it drip into the
liquid below. (Make sure the “tub” is kept clean and the
water is changed often so it won’t spread diseases.)    

Chow Time! 

A flying cleanup crew will be most easily drawn to your
place if you can be counted on to provide a reliable source
of food in the winter … when insect treats are few and
far between. The key is to plan ahead: If you want birds to
de-bug your garden in the summer, remember to feed
them in the colder months. Just keep your end of the
bargain, and they’ll return the favor later in the year.
(As a bonus, the hungry flyers will provide you with an
entertaining acrobatic show when they visit your winter
“soup kitchen.”)

And remember: Once you start providing them with
cold-weather fare, don’t neglect the snowbound birds …
because they’ll come to depend on your for food and could
actually starve if suddenly forced to do without their
daily handout.

If you have a large yard–or an unused field–you might also
consider planting some seed- and berry-producing vegetation
that offers homegrown edibles to the winged
hunters. Any tree, shrub, or vine that holds its fruit
through the winter (cedar, holly, dogwood, or mountain ash,
for example) can be a lifesaver for bluebirds, waxwings,
and dozens of other species … while heavily seeded
plants (such as sunflowers, millet, and corn) will attract
sparrows, quail, and pheasants.

But even if you do have space to cultivate
standing crops, it’s a good idea to construct a feeding
station as well. The drawings accompanying this article
show several easily built feeder designs.

Many wintering birds (which don’t migrate) hunt
insect larvae and eggs. Nuthatches, woodpeckers, and
chickadees, for example, spend the cold months prying into
bark and heaps of dead vegetation in search of grubs. But
the hearty flyers can always use a little dietary
supplement … so you might add variety to their menu by
setting out a supply of sunflower seeds, suet (beef fat),
and peanut butter.

Home Sweet Home

Shelter is the final amenity that your avian guests will
need. Birds require cover in which to hide, sleep, and
raise their young … and there are both natural and
artificial ways to provide such “housing.” It’s often
possible, for instance, to work with your land’s existing
vegetation–or plant new shrubs–and create “island habitats”
on your property. You can form bushes into brushy tangles
surrounded by open areas … plant hedges along
fencelines … encircle your acreage (or just line the
driveway) with small trees … or put a rose thicket in the
middle of the garden. Try to leave as much “edge” as
possible between the separate plant communities, though … so each bird species can have its own private haven.

Be sure you supply a diversity of verdure for your
feathered friends, too. Orioles need to nest in tall trees,
meadowlarks prefer thick grass, and towhees and warblers go
for dense brush. You might also want to combine fruiting
plants with protective varieties such as hawthorn and
cedar, since the “armed” growth will offer secure nesting
sites.

And don’t cut down all your dead trees, stumps, or
limbs … they’ll eventually be hollowed out by
woodpeckers, and then used by dozens of “homesteaders” as
snug nurseries. Furthermore, if you see swallows arriving
on your land, be sure to dig a small watery mudhole for
them … they’ll need to use such “mortar” to construct
their adobe nests under roof eaves and wooden bridges.

If you’d like to dramatically increase the size of the bird
colony in your yard, you can often lure in entire feathered
families with specially made nesting boxes. The small,
comfortable structures will provide safe hatching spots,
and several handcrafted “maternity wards” in various shapes
and sizes can increase an area’s avian population
threefold!

It’s possible to build simple boxes out of scrap wood (such
as rough, one-inch pine), but don’t skimp by using
thin lumber, tin, or plastic … since birds
often reject flimsy housing. Also, to prevent the
birdhouses from becoming overheated, you should paint their
outside walls a light, earthen color. Leave the insides of
the shelters natural, however, and don’t use any toxic
preservatives anywhere on the nesting box. (Consult the
accompanying table for the exact dimensions and
specifications of nesting boxes for different species.)

You’ll want to position the wooden hideaways all over your
land: Hang some in mature trees, nail others to
fenceposts in the pasture, hoist a few 20 feet in the
air, and place some only three feet off the ground. Be sure, too, that the entrance holes face away from prevailing
winds … so that the nestlings won’t be exposed to
chilling drafts and rain.

Usually, you won’t have to “furnish” the interior of the
houses at all … although woodpeckers will appreciate a
padding of sawdust or wood chips in their shelters. Most other
species prefer to bring in their own bedding, but you might
want to place a few slabs of tough bark inside the shelters
… just to make your guests feel at home. And like any
good landlord, you’ll need to clean out the boxes after each
nesting to eliminate any parasites that may have been
left behind, and to make the “apartments” more attractive
to their next tenants.

Once your winter visitors are well fed, watered, and
housed, you can be pretty sure that they’ll stick around
through the summer to help limit the bug populations in
your garden. And you can’t beat the dependability-or the
safety-of such natural pest control!  


Nesting Boxes and Their Tenants

House Wren and 
Bewick's Wren(4)
 Floor Size:            4" x 4"
 Depth:                 6" - 8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:       1" - 6"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/8"
 Height Above Ground:   6' - 10'

Carolina Wren(4)
 Floor Size:            4" x 4"
 Depth:                 6" - 8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:       1" - 6"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/2"
 Height Above Ground:   6' - 10'

Bluebird(3)
 Floor Size:            5" x 5"
 Depth:                    8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          6"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/2"
 Height Above Ground:   3' - 10'

Chickadee(4)
 Floor Size:            4" x 4"
 Depth:                    8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          6"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/8"
 Height Above Ground:   3' - 15'

Downy Woodpecker(1,4)
 Floor Size:            4" x 4"
 Depth:                    8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          6"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/4"
 Height Above Ground:   5' - 20'

Titmouse(4)
 Floor Size:            4" x 4"
 Depth:                    8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          6"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/4"
 Height Above Ground:   5' - 15'

Nuthatch(2,5)
 Floor Size:            4" x 4"
 Depth:                    8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          6"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/4"
 Height Above Ground:   10' - 20'

Tree Swallow and
Violet Green Swallow(6)
 Floor Size:            5" x 5"
 Depth:                    6"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          4"
 Entrance Diameter:     1" - 1 1/2"
 Height Above Ground:   8' - 15'

Robin(8)
 Floor Size:            6" x 8"
 Depth:                    8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          *
 Entrance Diameter:        *
 Height Above Ground:   5' - 15'

Barn Swallow and Phobee(7)
 Floor Size:            6" x 6"
 Depth:                    6"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          *
 Entrance Diameter:        *
 Height Above Ground:   6' - 15'

Song Sparrow(3)
 Floor Size:            6" x 6"
 Depth:                    6"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          #
 Entrance Diameter:        #
 Height Above Ground:   1' - 3'

House Finch
(4)
 Floor Size:            6" x 6"
 Depth:                    6"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          4"   
 Entrance Diameter:        2"
 Height Above Ground:   6' - 12'

Purple Martin(3)
 Floor Size:            6" x 6"
 Depth:                    6"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          1"
 Entrance Diameter:      2 1/2"
 Height Above Ground:  10' - 20'

Crested Flycatcher(5)
 Floor Size:            6" x 6"
 Depth:                    8"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          6"
 Entrance Diameter:        2"
 Height Above Ground:   8' - 20'

Hairy Woodpecker(1,5)
 Floor Size:            6" x 6"
 Depth:                   12"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:         10"
 Entrance Diameter:      1 1/2"
 Height Above Ground:    5' - 20'

Golden-Fronted and
Red-Headed Woodpeckers(1,4)
 Floor Size:            6" x 6"
 Depth:                   12"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:         10"
 Entrance Diameter:        2"
 Height Above Ground:  10' - 20'

Flicker(1,4)
 Floor Size:            7" x 7"
 Depth:                   14"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:         12"
 Entrance Diameter:      2 1/2"
 Height Above Ground:   5' - 20'

Screech Owl and
Sparrow Hawk(1,4)
 Floor Size:            8" x 8"
 Depth:                   12"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:         10"
 Entrance Diameter:        3"
 Height Above Ground:  10' - 30'

Barn Owl(4)
 Floor Size:           10" x 18"
 Depth:                   16"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:          4"
 Entrance Diameter:        6"
 Height Above Ground:  10' - 20' 

Wood Duck(1,6)
 Floor Size:           10" x 18"
 Depth:                   14"
 Entrance Height
     Above Floor:         12"
 Entrance Diameter:        4"
 Height Above Ground:  10' - 20'

* Leave two sides open
# Leave three sides open.
1 Place wood chips or sawdust in box as nesting material
2 Rustic style house is best. Use bark slabs.
3 Place box in sunny location in open meadow.
4 Place box in open area with scattered trees
5 Place box in wooded country
6 Place box near water on the edge of timberland.
7 Place shelf under roots or eaves.
8 Place shelf in trees in yards or meadows.