General Information

The Garden Patrol

Ten Birds That Help Control Garden Pests
By Sarah Boyle

AS A GARDENER, it can be your worst nightmare: watching helplessly as hordes of destructive insects attack your plants. With a little planning and simple landscaping, however, you can help moderate garden pests naturally in your yard. Your weapon: bug-eating birds. "During the late spring and summer months, insects make up the great majority of many avian species' diets," says NWF Chief Naturalist Craig Tufts. The trick to enticing these birds to your property, he notes, is to first learn which of them range in your area, and then to plant appropriate types of native cover that provide insect- and bird-attracting natural foods--leaves, fruit, pollen and nectar--to sustain both adults and their insect-dependent nestlings. Tina Phillips, project leader of Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bird House Network, adds, "The most important thing to do to attract birds to your yard is to provide an enticing habitat, not just a nest box. Birds choose a nest site based on its surrounding habitat."

Along with native vegetation, offer birds a water source and a few different nesting sites: brush piles, ledges, nest boxes, shrubs and various types of trees--including dead tree limbs and trunks. "As long as they don't create a safety hazard for people, dead trees provide nesting areas and are a great food source for insectivores," says Tufts.

Needless to say, birds will not completely rid your yard of insects, and even if they could, you wouldn't want them to do so. Some insects are imperative for a healthy garden, and birds do not discriminate between destructive and beneficial bugs. But they can help keep insect populations in your neighborhood at a stable, balanced level, benefiting both you and your neighbors. Subsequently, you'll have a nicer garden to show for it throughout the summer.

Which bug-eating birds are the best ones to attract to your yard? There's no simple answer. Scientists cannot say for sure how many insects a certain bird will eat in a summer day. But depending on where you live, the following ten species can be valuable allies in your efforts to sustain a vibrant garden:

Purple Martin:

Aerial feeders that forage over land and water, purple martins eat a variety of winged insects. These swallows range across the eastern half of the United States and parts of the Pacific Coast and Southwest. West of the Rockies, purple martins often nest in tree cavities and building crevices, while in the East they typically nest with as many as 30 pairs in hotel-like boxes or hanging, hollow gourds. The migrants often use the same nesting site each year. In addition to providing nest boxes in the East, attract the birds with ponds and wetland areas.

Other Swallows:  tree (summers in northern half of the United States), cliff (most of the country, except for the Southeast), barn (most of the United States, except for portions of the Southeast and Southwest) and violet-green (West) swallows

Red-Eyed Vireo:

Until recent population declines, red-eyed vireos were one of the most common woodland birds in North America. These migrants forage in trees, feeding mainly on crawling insects--especially caterpillars--but also on other invertebrates and berries. They range from the upper Northwest to the East Coast, nesting in deciduous shade trees. Plant Virginia creeper, spicebush, elderberry, blackberry and dogwood to supplement insect diet.

Other Vireos:  white-eyed (eastern half of the country) and warbling (most of the United States, except for parts of the Southwest, Texas and Southeast) vireos

Chipping Sparrow:

Well-adapted to various landscapes, chipping sparrows are common throughout backyards in most of North America, except for areas of Texas and Oklahoma. They eat insects and seeds from the ground, shrubs and trees. These common birds tend to nest in evergreens, making nests out of grasses, weeds, roots and hair. Attract them with pines, spruce, arborvitae and yew.

Other Sparrows:  lark (from central through western United States), vesper and savannah (both throughout the northern half of the country during the summer) sparrows

Downy Woodpecker:

Smaller than all other North American woodpeckers, except for the hairy woodpecker, downy woodpeckers readily visit backyards throughout the United States, excluding some areas in the Southwest. Their diet consists mainly of insects, though they also feed on sap, berries and seeds. The birds excavate nesting sites in dead trees and stumps, which are later used by other birds. They prefer deciduous trees such as aspen and willow, and may eat the berries of dogwood, mountain ash, serviceberry, Virginia creeper and poison ivy.

Other Woodpeckers:  hairy (throughout most of the country, except parts of Texas and the West) and ladder-backed (arid areas of Southwest and Texas) woodpeckers, as well as flickers (throughout the United States)

Yellow Warbler:

Known for their sweet songs, yellow warblers eat a diet that is about 60 percent caterpillars. They also eat moths, mosquitoes, beetles and some berries. Widely distributed throughout North America, yellow warblers range from Alaska to the majority of the lower 48 states, except for areas of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. They nest in small trees and shrubs and often prefer willow. Plant berry-producing plants native to your area.

Other Warblers:  American redstarts (eastern half of the country and upper Midwest), common yellowthroats (throughout the United States) and yellow-rumped warblers (throughout most of the country except in areas of the Midwest)

Eastern Bluebird:

With their numbers increasing due to nest-box projects along "bluebird trails," eastern bluebirds occupy semi-open areas east of the Rockies. They eat a variety of insects, other invertebrates and berries. Eastern bluebirds nest in tree cavities, old woodpecker holes and nest boxes. Plant elderberry, hackberry, dogwood, holly and redcedar to supplement their diet.

Other Bluebirds:  western and mountain bluebirds (both in the West)

Common Nighthawk:

In reality not hawks but members of the nightjar family, common nighthawks cover most of the continent, eating a variety of flying insects. Partial to open space, they nest on level surfaces, such as the ground or flat rooftops in suburban and city areas. Attract common nighthawks to industrial and corporate rooftops.

Other Nighthawks:  lesser nighthawks (Southwest), Chuck-will's-widow (Southeast) and common poorwill (West)

Eastern Phoebe:

Easily recognizable by their fee-bee song, eastern phoebes--members of the flycatcher family--oftentimes take up residence on buildings and bridges. Found throughout the eastern half of the United States (frequently near water), they eat many insect species, as well as other invertebrates and berries. Provide a nesting platform and plant native hackberry, serviceberry, poison ivy and sumac to supplement their diet.

Other Phoebes:  black (Southwest) and Say's (western half of the United States) phoebes

Baltimore Oriole:

Colorful migrants that readily visit backyards, Baltimore orioles eat insects, fruit and nectar. The songbirds range from the central Midwest to the Northeast and nest in hanging pouches in deciduous trees. Plant blackberry, serviceberry and cherry for food, as well as elm, sycamore, tupelo and other shade trees as nesting spots.

Other Orioles:  hooded (Southwest), Bullock's (mostly western half of the country) and orchard (eastern half) orioles

House Wren:

Regular backyard visitors, house wrens have diets that consist almost exclusively of insects and spiders. Not very fussy about sites, these birds may nest in nest boxes, mailboxes, building crevices--even in pockets of hanging laundry. House wrens range throughout most of the lower 48 states during parts of the year. Include low-lying shrubs (such as American beautyberry) or brush piles in your yard--sources for cover, nesting materials and food.

Other insect-eating wrens that regularly visit backyards include:  Carolina (East), Bewick's (southern half of the United States and Pacific Coast) and cactus (Southwest) wrens.

These ten birds, of course, are not alone in consuming backyard pests. Many other species--such as the northern cardinal and black-capped chickadee--eat insects or feed them to their young during the summer. Yet as summer winds down, your efforts to attract birds shouldn't come to a halt. "The natural foods you provide in your yard throughout the year will encourage these songsters to visit again," says Tufts. As a result, the birds may return and combat a new generation of insects the next year.