Powered by Insects

Did you know that most birds gather insects every day to nourish themselves and feed their offspring? Many people believe birds can survive eating seed from bird feeders, but most birds need insects to provide digestible protein for energy, migration, and breeding. A baby bird’s tender digestive system needs soft, fat-filled proteins from insects and caterpillars to fuel its growth.

Bushtit collects insects. (K. Ethington)

The photo above shows an American bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) gathering all sorts of insects, including aphids, from a salvia in a Southern California backyard. A bushtit is a tiny bird, smaller than many hummingbirds, weighing about .19 ounces. Despite their diminutive size, bushtits still need plenty of insects to feed themselves and their babies in the nest.

Birds are having a hard time finding enough insects to eat. Scientists have estimated that 40 percent of insect species are threatened by extinction. Insects are integral to the food web, eaten by everything from birds to mammals and fish. Insects also pollinate crops that produce one-third of the world’s food supply, and they break down waste.

Insects for breakfast. (K. Ethington)

Bird populations have declined along with insect populations. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, bird populations have declined by 2.9 billion birds since 1970. The decline is due to habitat loss, invasive plants, pesticide use, and more.

Breakfast. (K. Ethington)

Each of us can do our part to help increase bird populations. If we plant vegetation that is native to where we live, we won’t need to use pesticides or herbicides. It may seem counterintuitive to encourage insect life, but they are a valuable and necessary part of our food cycle.

More breakfast. (K. Ethington)

The next time you need to replace a plant in your yard, plant a native! Your soil health will improve (without amendments or compost), you won’t need to use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, songbirds will come to nest, and butterflies will appear.

Roger’s Gardens and Tree of Life Nursery are offering a free California buckwheat to homeowners who want to try starting a native plant garden in their home landscape. Stop by their garden centers to pick up a free buckwheat plant while spring is in the air.

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is partnering with National Audubon Society to encourage all of us to go outside this weekend and count the birds we see in our backyard or favorite place.

Sandpipers at Laguna Beach, CA. (Elizabeth Wallace)

I spent about 30 minutes this morning with a pair of binoculars and my Birds of California Field Guide by Stan Tekiela. I counted five American Robins, one Yellow-Rumped Warbler, a Cooper’s Hawk, and three White-Crowned Sparrows.

Cooper’s Hawk in search of breakfast. Photo by Kris Ethington.

The count continues through the Presidents’ Day holiday on Monday, February 17. Audubon encourages people from around the world to count wild birds and then submit the data online for scientists to use in their research. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an easy-to-use phone app to help you record and identify the birds you see. It’s called Merlin.

The Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology helps you record the birds you saw during the Great Backyard Bird Count.

You can add this app to your phone for free and quickly identify and record the birds you observed this weekend. It’s easy and fun and will help scientists better understand trends in bird populations worldwide.

Pelicans at sunset in Irvine, California. Photo by Yana Bridle.

After you’ve finished counting birds, join us in April at the Fullerton Arboretum Green Scene. We will be giving away free buckwheat and also offering other California native plants for sale.

California buckwheat plants are flowering machines that attract hundreds of pollinators. These pollinators are an important food source for birds. I look forward to seeing you this Thursday.

Tiny masked bee visits California buckwheat. Photo by Kris Ethington.