Caterpillar Cuisine: How to Grow Bugs and Feed Birds

Professor Douglas Tallamy came to town last summer and gave a great lecture, with stunning bird images, at Toledo Zoo on the valuable role we can all play in providing clean, native garden spaces for butterflies, which lay eggs, which hatch into what I call picky-eater caterpillars, (they much prefer to eat certain native plants), which are then fed to hungry baby birds.

Native bugs have evolved over time, along with native plants, to co-exist with their toxic defenses.  Such bugs are called ‘specialists’ by the entomologists.  Native plants, such as Milkweed which has a special relationship with the Monarch caterpillar, are vital to the survival of these specialist insects.  Other plants, like the native Oak tree can host over 100 different species of caterpillars.  But 90 percent of butterfly and moth larvae eat only particular plants or groups of plants.  Desiree Narango, a doctoral student with the University of Delaware says: Nonnative trees may support insects, but they do not support the insects that the native birds want and need to feed to their young.
So I’m sorry to be losing my spectacular alien Tree of Heaven bug (Ailanthus Webworm), see photo below – such is the price of progress!

The key fact is that we need to have native plants if we want native insects to survive.
Tallamy says: While adult birds may eat a wide variety of seeds and insects, their babies only thrive on fresh insects and caterpillars.  According to Dickinson (Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1999), 96% of the terrestrial North American bird species feed their young with insects and other arthropods.  So if we plant only lawns of alien green grass, or if we spray a hybrid cultivar flower garden with insecticides, we will have no butterfly eggs, no caterpillars and hence no food for the next generation of baby birds, and therefore no more adult birds.

Some of the butterflies are spectacular, as are some of the caterpillars.  Here are a few that I found in my native garden last summer:

Incidentally many of these hairy ones should not be handled. Their hairs are like glass or asbestos fibers and could reportedly harm us!

Some are very hard to find, but when you see holes in leafs, or empty chrysalis cases, then you know some nibbler, or its metamorphosis, can’t be far away.

This little one went totally unseen, until it moved – like an inchworm – along the flower stalk.

The caterpillar camouflages itself with flower parts stuck to its back.

This colorful caterpillar was not so lucky:
While I was trying to get a good photo, a wasp (alien European Paper I think) landed, stung it, stripped off and rolled up the caterpillar’s skin, leaving the digestive system full of fresh leaf juice on the leaf, and then flew off with the meat, presumably to its nest, all in the space of a few minutes.
There is no end to the variety:


I’m told this one is an Ohio native Giant Silkworm Luna Moth caterpillar.  It was at a nature show and not in my garden. I’d love to see it there:
Farmers are prisoners to the economics of cost-effectively producing the food that we so selectively and cost-consciously purchase.  They fertilize and spray as needed to produce a commercially viable crop.  By contrast, we home-owners have a totally free choice as to what we can do with the little bits of vacant land around our houses – or perhaps it is not a ‘free’ choice but rather a huge moral obligation to do the right thing: stop poisoning the earth and stop driving species into extinction at a rate greater than that of the great asteroid impact crater: Chicxulub, Gulf of Mexico, about 66 million years ago, and start saving our native species before they are lost forever.

The answer is simple: make room for native plants by removing the aliens.  The native plants will grow native bugs which will be fed to the native baby birds. You don’t need artificial fertilizers (nobody is measuring the cost effectiveness of your yield) and you certainly do not need insecticides.  Yes, there will be considerable manual work involved but we will all be physically and mentally the better for doing it.

So I’m extirpating (by hand) Myrtle, Chinese Tree of Heaven, Japanese Honeysuckle, English Ivy, Wild Strawberry and more before they cover my garden.  Replacements with Jewel Weed, Milkweed, Wild Senna, Cardinal Flower, Jacobs Ladder and others are slowly taking deep root.  Another blog will show some more of the colorful fauna they have already encouraged.

This moment made all the work worthwhile.  A local Junco was so happy to find native Prairie Dropseed grass seeds in the snow covered garden:

If you need more details I happily recommend Doug Tallamy’s classic book on the topic: “Bringing Nature Home” or “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”, published by Timber Press.

What a Difference a Month Makes

By March 14 this year I’d had 30 individual days of superb cross-country skiing in Perrysburg, the bees had survived a very cold winter and had reappeared from both hives, and the ice on the Maumee as well as this ice carved winged creature on Louisiana Avenue had both started to melt (She really belonged in my previous blog on Winter Fliers)

Ice Carving Flying Lady

I’ve no idea what this mallard thought she was doing in the snowflakes one of my bee hives?


This year the spring thaw coincided with high wind and water.  Garden Island was soon covered, like last year,

Garden Isl Ice jam r

though the water did not reach the high water marker stake from last year.

Ice Garden Isl W 2015_r

And the ice piles at the Boat Club easily exceeded the previous year’s accumulation.

2014 PBYC ice_3401

But the West wind jammed ice in front of the turnpike bridge and then drove the ice, piling floe upon floe ever higher to make the greatest mountains anyone could remember. Ryan Bannister took this photo.

Ryan Bannister Ice Jam

Further upstream icebergs knocked over the railing and most of the tombstones at Maumee Sidecut cemetery.  The bergs stripped off enough bark from many, many riverside trees to essentially kill them by slicing their supply lines of water and sap.  (All tree nutrients run at the skin of the trunk.  The heart wood in the middle of a tree’s trunk is lifeless).

Tree damage 5113

Some riverside trees also have a tough time from what looks the return of the beaver.  (I’ve not seen it yet but this looks like its work).

Beaver damage_5108 r

The last of the skittish winter ducks (not so many this year) began to leave as it got warmer.


The bees came out of my West hive to pack the yellow pollen of the crocus

Crocus 4717

and blue of Siberian squill on their hairy legs.

Squill n Bee

The East hive fooled me by not showing a single bee though it had been full only a month previously.  I waited 5 minutes and not  one came out.  In desperation I lifted the lid and was immediately jumped on by hundreds of them who’d being lying in wait to play just such a trick!  As I dropped the lid and ran I could almost hear them laughing (sorry, no photo of that).

The daffodils also look great now, but this non-native flower seems to do very little in the way of supporting the local pollinators.   I’ve only seen a single bumblebee once that looked to be big enough to tackle the task.

Bumblebee in Daffodil_r

Hal’s magnificent Bloodroot came up for their brief glorious week, as seen in this picture by Rick Barricklow:

Bloodroot front yard - Rick B

Our summer task is a weekly ‘monitoring’ of the first blooming of native flowers along two walking trails in two local parks.  Easier said than done: the first two bloomers we’ve seen have been so small it’s been hard to i.d. them. Each was barely 25 mm (an inch) tall.

Draba Verna r

Persian Speedwell_4924 r

There are banks of yellow  and white Trout Lily.

Yellow Trout Lily 5939


White Trout Lily 5047 r

They come out so early in the  spring and last such a short time that it is often too cold for the pollinating insects. So these flowers often don’t have nectar. They can self-pollinate but the resulting seeds are not as vigorous as when insects which  perform the cross pollination while gathering pollen for their brood.

We are already back to digging up aliens and planting  native flora to support the native fauna, here represented this month by a magnificent 280 mm (11 inch) long Map Turtle.

Map Turtle_r

It climbed up on a riverside rock at the bottom of the garden and sunned itself for 3 days.  It ignored offered wriggling worms. I think it might have needed crayfish which are unavailable right now.

I doubt if any of the summer months to come will offer such a contrast as these last two.

Escaping Extinction

It may look like a small item but it meant a lot to us:

Northern Prairie Dropseed_9057

After trying to grow some original prairie meadow grasses, in the face of severe competition from alien Bermuda Grass, English Ivy and others, a few native Northern Prairie Dropseeds seem to have taken hold.

The real joy came when the native Junco fed on it. First the hungry bird hopped vainly many times up to the seed heads.

Junco seed close 4331

At last, it was able to catch on in its claw and hold it down on the snow to eat it.

Junco on seed 4340

While neither bird nor plant is in immediate danger of extinction, the pressure is on as the aliens steadily take over this fine continent.

An interesting item in last week’s New Yorker says how it was not until 1796 that Georges Cuvier was able to conclusively put forward the concept of extinction. Up to that time many strange fossils had been found but they were thought to be simply records of animals that still lived in areas not yet explored. Everyone then thought that all species essentially lived forever.  Georges could very easily have beaten Darwin to discover evolution by nearly 100 years, but he could not manage that huge next step.

Two magnificent Bald Eagles are waiting in the trees on the small island as I write.

Two Eagles_8979

The amazing, far reaching, effects of DDT were recognized just in time to save the Eagles and many others from needlessly disappearing forever.

A fast shrinking local population of Cross-Country skiers has me fearful for the extinction, here at least, of this delightful sport.  Last week I (not we!) had 5 days of excellent green and blue wax snows.  There is an old map of the trail under the key word “ski” near the top of this blog. Meanwhile here are shaky, one-hand held, iPhone shots of two pretty sections of the trail.

Cannon Canyon

Belazi’s Bowl

For now, the only company I have on the trail is deer hoof prints on the track a day after I set it.  Nice to think that my layout of the trail is somewhat ‘natural’ enough for them to want to follow it:

Deer print 4392

I’m still looking for coyote paw marks.

The alien (Russian queen with Italian workers) bees have been wrapped with insulation (by their alien Irish beekeeper) for the winter. One hive is warm enough, from the cluster of bees inside, to melt snow on the roof:

Melted roof snow_9114

But not the other:

Snow not melted_9115

Both are throwing out their dead. Under the microscope there is nothing strange to be seen on their bodies, but I’m told it is a good sign of a healthy hive. Only spring will show if that is true.

Dead Bees_9116

It’s cold. But I’m sure the squirrel will survive if it can remember where it buried the nuts.


Many holes in the snow show lots of digging. I wonder how they ever remember where those walnuts are.

I hope my Kingfisher has moved south to warmer climates.


He (it looks like a male?) was still here at the end of November when this image, with iPhone held up to the eyepiece of a spotting scope, was taken.