Every year, homeowners across the country arm themselves for battle and prepare for war. The battlefront is their lawns and gardens. The weapon of choice is an array of chemical pesticides. The enemy is a combination of chewing, sucking, stinging and biting insects that are both destructive and a nuisance. Wreaking havoc on everything in their path, burrowing, crawling and flying insects of every description imaginable annually sweep across the landscape. They attack plants and people from every direction, causing great economic loss and creating pain and misery for anyone who gets in their way.
American homeowners spend millions of dollars a year to stop the annual onslaught. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, the tally for home and garden pesticides came to $1.8 million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was far higher in the agriculture and industry/commercial/government sectors, according to the agency, which has the mission of protecting human health and the environment.
There’s another way to engage this persistent enemy. Instead of turning garden storage areas into an armory stockpiled and resupplied with chemical pesticides, the battle can be fought in a more environmentally friendly way. A bonus is that the cost of the battle can be paid for with a song. Landscapes filled with plants or other attractants that invite bug-eating birds, many of them songbirds, to your yard can go a long way to controlling troublesome insect populations.
Bill Thompson, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a bimonthly magazine for bird watchers, suggests that one way homeowners can use birds to their advantage in controlling bugs is by identifying their bug problem first. Once they identify the problem, he says, then they can take steps to attract those birds whose diet includes those insects. To help homeowners and gardeners achieve that goal, he suggests dividing insects into the general categories below. Included in each category are birds that will eat those insects and how to attract those birds to your yard.
If spiders creep you out, wrens can help you out! Both Carolina and house wrens are handy helpers in keeping spiders under control because their diets consist almost entirely of small insects with spiders and spider eggs being their No. 1 choice. Carolina wrens are year-round residents from Philadelphia south, while many house wrens migrate south in winter to warmer climates. A bonus is that both males and females will serenade you with their singing. Less of a bonus is their tendency to nest where you least expect — or want — them! Don’t be surprised to find them taking up residence in a discarded box or plant pot in a carport or even in pockets of hanging laundry!
To attract birds that eat spiders: Plant low-lying shrubs such as American beautyberry or leave sources of cover, nesting material and food such as brush piles on the edge of your yard or garden.
A huge flying insect will make a nice meal for this great crested flycatcher. (Photo: Seabamirum/flickr)
Large flying insects
When June bugs and Japanese beetles start chomping on the leaves of your favorite garden plants or their larvae turn into grubs that eat roots of grasses and start destroying your lawn, it’s time to fight back. The same thing goes for those annoying flying ants. You can do that by attracting birds such as tree swallows, barn swallows, purple martins, eastern phoebes and great crested flycatchers to your yard. Large flying insects comprise a significant portion of the diet of these birds.
To attract birds that eat large flying insects: Purple martins: Provide nesting with a martin house. Place the house in an open area at least 30 feet from human housing. There should be no trees taller than the martin housing within 40 feet, preferably 60 feet. Tree swallows: They will nest in bluebird boxes. Barn swallows: True to their name, they will build nests under the eaves or inside of sheds, barns, bridges and other structures. Phoebes: They typically place their mud-and-grass nests in protected nooks on bridges, barns, and houses, which adds to the species’ familiarity to humans. Great crested flycatcher: They are the only eastern flycatchers that nest in cavities, and this means they sometimes make use of nest boxes.
You’ve no doubt heard the saying "one person’s trash is another person’s treasure." Think about that saying in a different context regarding pests you encounter in your garden. What’s a pest to you is food to a bird. Or, insect-eating birds, anyway. These include cardinals, robins, catbirds and thrashers. Also remember that the sign of insects in your garden, no matter how small, is an indication of nature working the way it is supposed to. Destroying the insects with chemicals interrupts that cycle.
To attract birds that eat garden pests: Rule No. 1 is don’t use chemicals, including lawn chemicals, to control insects. Save the money you might spend on pesticides and let the birds do the pest control work for you. Another rule is to plant native species, especially those indigenous to your area rather than exotics from far-off lands. Studies have shown insects are attracted to native plants in far greater numbers than they are to non-natives. One easy thing you can do to attract insects is to resist the urge to rake leaves under trees. Fallen leaves not only make excellent hiding places for insects like grubs, but they also are an excellent source of nutrients for the trees when they decay.
Flowering plants like bee balm attract hummingbirds that like to eat tiny insects. (Photo: Linda Carlsen Sperry/flickr)
Tiny flying insects
What’s worse than swatting and slapping at the annoying no-see-ums of the insect world? Getting lucky enough to smush a few. You may think that’s a good thing, but birds that like to eat small insects pests such as gnats and fruit flies will think otherwise. Those include hummingbirds, kinglets, vireos and warblers. The smallest of insects are among their favorite foods.
To attract birds that eat tiny flying insects: Flower gardens with a variety of flowers that bloom at different times provide not only nectar but attract tiny insects that hummingbirds will devour. Hummingbird-friendly flowering plants include azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), bee balm (Monarda spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia spp.), columbines (Aquilegia spp.), coral bells (Huechera spp.), foxglove (Penstemon spp.), jewelweed (Impatiens spp.), sage (Salvia spp.) and trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans).
Kinglets love to visit coniferous trees such as spruce. Warblers also are attracted to conifers such as cypress and pine, but prefer "messy" areas on the edge of your lawn or garden such as brush piles or overgrown areas where they can find shelter, especially during their fall migration. Another way to attract warblers is by including in your landscape berry-producing plants such as honeysuckle, sumac, blackberries, dogwoods, wild grapes, junipers, mulberries and bayberry or trees such as oak, sycamore or willows. And if you have some poison ivy that’s not in a traffic pattern, consider leaving it alone. Warblers love the berries it produces. Plant birches, willows, mulberries, and Virginia creeper to attract vireos.
Tanagers love fruit and berries. Lure them to your yard and they will also eat wasps and yellow jackets. (Photo: Rohini Mehta/flickr)
Wasps and yellow jackets
The first thought most people probably have when they find a wasp or yellow jacket nest in their yard is to nuke it. This likely is especially true if you’ve been stung by one (or more!) of the nest’s residents. There’s another way to even the score. Create a habitat that will attract tanagers. Wasps and yellow jackets are a favorite food of tanagers, especially summer tanagers. These birds will find a hive or nest, sit right outside and get emerging wasps and yellow jackets before they can get you — or help to ensure that pests returning to the nest won’t get you again.
How to attract birds that eat wasps, yellow jackets: Tanagers like to be high in the canopy of older, taller shade trees. Your chances of attracting them to you yard are greatly improved if you have these types of trees on your property. They’ll serenade you from the tops of the trees and glean annoying pests on the way down. Another way to attract them is to plant berry bushes such as blackberries and blueberries, because tanagers love fruit. Putting fruit on feeders is another great idea. Fruit choices include over-ripe bananas, sliced apples and oranges, cherries, and raisins. You can also try suet. Because tanagers like to be high, placing feeders higher than normal will increase your chances of attracting them. Possible feeder sites include an area outside a second-story window or a high branch you night even need a ladder to reach.
Cedar waxwings snatch insects right out of the air. Attract them to your yard with plants that product fruit. (Photo: Rodney Campbell/flickr)
Small flying insects
Your yard and garden probably also have other small flying insects you might not always see. These include mayflies, small moths and various beetles. Cedar waxwings, probably best known for their love of berries, are among the aerial acrobats of the avian world that are adept at taking advantage of insect hatches and snatching small flying insects out of the air.
How to attract birds that eat small flying insects: Plants that produce fruit that will attract small flying insects (and the birds that eat them) include wild cherry trees, crab apple trees, black raspberries and Virginia creeper. Virginia creeper fruits in the late summer and early fall. Watching cedar waxwings flock to this climbing vine, which fruits just before the first hard frost, is a sight worth waiting for and a signal that winter is not far off.