Fathers’ Day: For the Birds?

Entomology professor Doug Tallamy probably never imagined he’d be teaching so many of us about birds. According to him, there’s a whole lot more going on in our home landscapes than we may have imagined, and Father’s Day is a great opportunity to reflect on this. 

Chickadees, for example, are truly dedicated parents. Just half a dozen nestlings can require more than 500 feeding forays – each day. During a 16-day period, that can be well over 9,000 trips by Mom and Dad Chickadee to gather insects, larvae and spiders from native vegetation within about a 50-meter radius of the nest. Imagine that many trips to the grocery store! To say that these tiny birds are busy is an understatement.

But how do they find so many caterpillars? Chickadees are said to “read” foliage. If they see a lot of holes in leaves while they’re out foraging, they hunt in that tree to gather caterpillars. 

Tallamy discovered that in order for your landscape to sustain just one family of chickadees, you need to have an abundance of native plants that’s hosting an abundance of beneficial native insects and spiders.

Why native? Plants protect themselves from hungry insects chemically.  Some of these plant toxins are familiar to us: Caffeine, nicotine and aspirin, for instance, are actually plant pesticides. The plants’ intent is to discourage insects from eating all of their foliage.

But insects have a few tricks of their own. Some, for example, have developed a tolerance for specific plant defenses. Milkweeds produce a toxic, milky sap containing cardiac glycosides. Monarch butterfly larvae have adapted and thus are able to consume great amounts of this foliage.

It takes a very long time for an insect species to adapt to a plant toxin, which is exactly the problem with using exotic (nonnative) plants in landscaping. The very thing that keeps Eurasian plant foliage looking pristine (unchewed) also makes it utterly useless to insect larvae and, hence, to birds. You are doing birds no favors at all by planting exotic plants from Europe or Asia. You may as well put in plastic foliage.

Herbivorous insects – which make up 37 percent of the animals on the planet’s surface – are crucial to the food web. By virtue of their bodies, they convert inedible plant tissue into edible “bug body,” which in turn nourishes avian nestlings. (You might say that insects are the wind beneath those birds’ wings.)

Father birds will be spending Father’s Day on constant guard while mother birds are incubating eggs. Fathers must deal with the ever-present threat of hungry predators looking for defenseless nestlings – threats that come from above and below because birds of prey, mammals and reptiles are all looking for easy, nutritious meals.

I’ve watched male red-winged blackbirds persistently harassing bird-eating predators such as Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks, risking themselves to protect the nest. I’ve watched killdeer parents accost feisty water snakes to prevent their tiny young from becoming breakfast. The snakes want no part of those sharp beaks and quickly retreat.

Birds in general demonstrate exemplary parental dedication. Robins often risk their lives attacking feral cats that threaten their fledglings – and all too often give their last full measure of devotion in doing so. Kingbird males are known to land on the back of a bird of prey in flight and peck at its head to distract it from feasting on fledglings. This is supposedly why these beautiful flycatchers are called “kingbirds.”

Even the arduous and dangerous Magellanic journeys of bird migration are about dedication to the next generation. We all know that many birds fly south in the fall to escape cold and snow, but the question is, why don’t they just stay in the South all the time? Why bother flying so far back to the north in the spring and risking so many life-threatening hazards along the way? 

It turns out that the farther north you fly, the longer the days are as you enter the summer. This means extra hours of feeding helpless nestlings, hence faster growth for those babies and fewer days confined to the nest in their most vulnerable state. Plus, there are fewer predators per acre in the far north, so the increased odds of nest success make this journey worth the effort.

Speaking of migration, when we returned to Wisconsin after decades out of state and moved into our new home near Lake Michigan, we had purchased a poverty of plants but a wealth of wind. We have since practiced what Professor Tallamy preaches: We delineated mulch beds. We planted trees, shrubs, vines and flowers. We placed dead tree limbs, old logs and rocks in the mulch beds to provide habitat for insects.

Quality habitat has evolved for the past decade thanks to the horticultural talents of my wife, Mary, and once again, various bird songs now reverberate from our mix of native plants. These include song sparrows, chipping sparrows, catbirds, house finches, goldfinches, robins, mourning doves and cardinals. What a beautiful replacement for the silence of the lawn.

This Father’s Day, birds will once again embody the vital commitment to parenting. We like to point out that in our landscape, “our” birds find only the finest free-range, organic insects and spiders with which to feed their young.

Birds teach us that what really counts is helping our “fledglings” to become successful, regardless of the tribulations we may encounter.

Happy Father’s Day!