Backyard Wildlife Gardening

How to Raise Mealworms For Your Backyard Birds

How to Raise Mealworms For Your Backyard Birds

by Carolyn Hasenfratz

Late winter and early spring are good seasons to attract desirable bird species to your yard. Birds are not brooding eggs yet because they need to wait until later in spring when there is enough insect food to feed their young. However, they are now engaged in, well, getting engaged! In other words many birds are scouting out nest sites and selecting mates if they haven’t done that already.

You can entice birds to think your property is a good place to raise families by managing it with good bird habitat in mind – some ideas are in my previous article “Gardening for the Birds”. Some of the most sought-after backyard bird species are heavy insect eaters. Many dried and live mealworms are purchased to attract Eastern Bluebirds. Although they tend to be rare in urban and suburban areas, I saw one at the Litzinger Road Ecology Center a couple of weeks ago, so I know they are present in Ladue in places where the habitat is suitable.

Dried mealworms, which can be purchased at Schnarr’s, are more convenient than live mealworms and possibly more acceptable to those who are squeamish. If you would like to try raising your own however, I’ll tell you how. It’s so easy, I started raising mealworms by accident! For years I’ve raised plenty for my pet birds, newt and fish and there are enough left over to share with the outdoor birds also.

Mealworm larva, pupae and adult

Life stages of the mealworm beetle in my hand – one larva, two pupae and one adult

Mealworms are not actually worms. They are larvae of a species of beetle, usually Tenebrio molitor L. My indoor and outdoor birds will happily consume all three forms of the beetle – adult, pupae, and larvae. When you purchase live mealworms in a store, they are usually larvae only and they are refrigerated to slow down their development into pupae and adults. To get adults who will lay eggs and make more mealworms, you need only to store the larvae at room temperature and give them food and a little moisture!

To begin, acquire a container that is steep sided so the adult beetles can’t escape. An unused 10-gallon aquarium is ideal. Place an inch or so of some kind of “meal” product on the floor of the aquarium. I use a combination of oatmeal, chicken food, and flaxseed meal. These creatures are not that picky so you can use what is cheap and available – I’ve seen an exhibit at the zoo of mealworm beetles consuming styrofoam!

Place a couple of pieces of bark or wood on top of the meal for hiding places. You don’t need a light, they don’t like it. I only use a light to see when it’s time to harvest some larvae. Nor do you need a lid because the adult beetles don’t fly. Buy a container of live mealworms and dump the contents into your mealworm container. Every couple of days, add a little more food and something with moisture that the larvae can “drink” from. Good choices are a piece of carrot or potato, or leftover pieces and rinds from fruits and vegetables that aren’t too odoriferous. You can also buy a special gelatin-like product that is designed for “watering” crickets. Avoid a dish of water because the insects might fall in and drown. If the substrate gets wet and moldy, replace with dry substrate.

When nutritious foods are fed to a prey animal like mealworms and crickets, that is called “gut loading”. In theory, the better you feed your mealworms the more nutrition you’ll be passing along to the eventual bird consumers. Cat food contains protein and amino acids that are very good for insectivorous and omnivorous birds. My two pet European Starlings’ staple food is made from 1/3 chicken food and 2/3 cat food. They are picky about what size food particles they will eat so there are always lots of leftovers that are given to my mealworms and quickly devoured.

Eventually the larvae will develop into adult beetles that will lay eggs. Lift up the wood pieces periodically to see how many insects are hiding under there. When you think you have a high enough population to start harvesting, go ahead and take some. You will get a feel for how many you can take and how often over time.

If you get a fruit fly infestation, try moving the mealworm container to place where a few tiny flies are not that bothersome, like a garage. You can also set up a fruit fly trap (available at Schnarr’s) near the mealworms to catch the flies.

Raising mealworms may seem “gross” at first but it’s a great way to see and teach the life cycle of insects. If you have young family members they might be intrigued by this activity and develop an interest in animals and science. I started aquarium keeping when I was eight years old and I already liked bugs at that age. Besides fish I loved to keep lizards, toads and praying mantises. Seeing the mealworms I bought for my pets turn into pupae was really interesting! If you give a little squeeze to a pupa that is alive it will wiggle, which is an amazing thing for a kid to see!

Backyard Wildlife Gardening Sustainability

What To Do If You Find a Bird That Needs Help

What To Do If You Find a Bird That Needs Help

by Carolyn Hasenfratz

I can tell by the amount of food and feeders that we sell that Schnarr’s customers love their backyard birds! Many of us will encounter at some point a bird that is sick or injured or a baby that appears to be abandoned. Right now some birds are starting their second brood of the summer so baby bird season is not over yet!

Baby birds are very vulnerable if they fall or are pushed out of the nest. If you feel compelled to intervene, I totally understand why – that’s how I came to be living with two European Starlings – it’s a long story! Having been through the situation of finding a baby bird more than once, I’ve done a lot of reading and learning from experience and here is what I recommend.

First determine if the bird is a nestling or a fledgling. A nestling will not be fully feathered and will not be able to run away. It needs to be back in a nest ASAP. Try to put the bird back in the original nest if you can and if you know the parents are alive. It’s a myth that the smell of humans will cause the parent birds to abandon it – most birds can’t smell.

Sometimes it’s not possible to put the bird back in the original nest – you can’t find it, you can’t reach it, or it’s been destroyed. If that’s the case you have the following options.

One plan is to make a makeshift nest and put it in a place where the parents can find it and it is safe from predators. If the bird is a species that nests in a cavity, you can look up nest box plans online specifically for that species and build one. I’ve been successful in getting a Starling family to move to a homemade nest box after the babies fell out of a dryer vent. Observe the nest to see if the parents find the baby and start feeding it. If they don’t, take the bird to a wild bird rehab center. It’s hard to say how long you should wait before giving up on the effort to re-involve the parents. The necessary feeding intervals of baby birds can vary depending on how old they are – if in doubt you could call a wild bird rehab center for advice. It’s easy for baby birds to get dehydrated if they go too long without food because most of them don’t drink liquids but get their moisture from their squishy bug diet. Don’t attempt to give the baby bird water or liquids unless you know the right way – it’s very easy to accidentally kill a baby bird by giving it water without knowledge of the correct procedure.

It’s time-consuming to make and observe a makeshift nest – if you have the time, you might find it worthwhile to put in the effort. You’ll learn a lot while doing it and it’s very rewarding! If you don’t have the time or the interest, just take the bird to the nearest wild bird rehab center right away. If it’s one of the three species not protected by federal laws (Pigeons, House Sparrows or European Starlings) the rehabber might either euthanize it or refuse to accept it. In that case you will have a difficult choice to make and having been in that position, I wouldn’t envy you! I chose to raise the five-day-old Starling I found in 2009 rather than let it be killed but everyone does not have the means or desire to take on the job of raising a baby bird. It can be done with the correct knowledge but it’s a big commitment. Raising a baby bird and releasing it to the wild later sounds like a good idea but is not an option if the bird has been raised alone and if you want the bird to survive – it will not have learned survival skills from the parents. It may not know how to act around other wild birds and could fail to be accepted by a wild flock. A protected species (not one of the three mentioned) is not legal to keep without a permit and you must take it to a licensed rehabber to help it.

Nestlings and Fledglings
The baby birds on the left are nestlings and the other two examples are fledglings.

If the bird is fully feathered and can run away and perch, it’s a fledgling. Most fledglings do not need any help. It’s not uncommon for baby birds to leave the nest before they can fly well. The fledgling will be somewhat vulnerable until it can fully fly but the parents should be feeding it and trying to keep it away from danger. The best way to help it is to put it on a perch off the ground (if you can catch it). If you have cats or dogs keep them indoors for a week or so. It’s not good for the health of pet cats to let them outside in any circumstances, but if you must let yours out try not to do so until the fledglings are flying.

If you find a bird that is sick or injured, it will need care no matter what age it is, so in that case try to get it to a rehabber as soon as possible. If a bird does not look sick but has been caught by a dog or cat, it needs antibiotics within a day or so or it is probably doomed. When birds are to the point of showing signs of illness or injury they are in bad shape – their instinct is to hide their infirmity as long as possible so they are not caught by predators or rejected by their flocks. Speaking of sick birds, it is my understanding is that a thorough hand-washing after handling is sufficient precaution in case the bird does have something a human can catch, like Salmonella. I am not a vet or a scientist so get more information on diseases if you are concerned. Many bird-borne diseases are species-specific and can’t be caught by humans. However, if you have disposable gloves on hand it’s smart to wear them for extra protection.

The best way to transport a bird to a rehabber is to put it in a box with soft nest-like materials and cover the box. Make sure it can breathe if it’s boxed or wrapped. The bird will likely be terrified and if it’s confined it will be less likely to injure itself. Handle it as little as possible and try not to expose it to loud noises.

If the bird is really large, like a hawk, heron, goose or pea fowl (which I once rescued believe it or not!), get advice from the Humane Society or other knowledgeable group before attempting to transport. My handling of the peahen I found went very smoothly but without good instructions and remembering to remain calm I might have had trouble! Some large birds can cause serious injuries with talons or beaks if not handled carefully. The peahen I transported had some mean-looking spurs but fortunately did not attempt to use them on me!

For more advice from the experts, please see these links:
I Found A Baby Bird. What Do I Do?
Ducklings or goslings
Birds of prey, vultures, herons, pelicans or swans

Information on raising House Sparrows and Starlings:
Sparrows and Starlings – Everything you need to know about raising Starlings and if you want to, living with them permanently

Backyard Wildlife Gardening Lawns

Are Starlings Taking Over Your Bird Feeders?

Are Starlings Taking Over Your Bird Feeders?

European starlings. Image by Richard Crossley.
European starlings. Image by Richard Crossley.

I was eating dinner outside in downtown St. Louis recently and observed a large flock of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), known as a murmuration, select a group of trees in a nearby park for their nightly roosting spot. This is the time of year that Starlings finish raising their families and start living a more communal lifestyle, which will persist until the next spring breeding season.

A popular topic with customers at the store last winter was how to keep flocks of Starlings from eating all the food put out for the other backyard birds. This is a problem I WISH I had – I know that sounds strange. Starlings are my favorite bird, because I rescued a nestling nearly six years ago and raised her and adopted another one two years later. My Starlings Attila and Pooky are my beloved pets (as I’m writing this I have one my arm and one on my shoulder) and because of them I’ve done lot of reading about Starlings. I like to observe wild ones whenever I get the chance to see how their behavior and vocalizations are like or unlike my tame pair.

Unfortunately if a flock of Starlings descends in my yard, if I go to the window to watch them they immediately take off. So that is my first idea about how to keep Starlings away from your feeders – try putting the feeders within view of a window where there is human activity. Some birds are more tolerant of people, for example on my deck Carolina Wrens, Robins and Song Sparrows will not only tolerate me looking at them through the window but will sometimes accept my presence with them on the deck as well.

Another idea is to serve food that Starlings don’t like – that is difficult to do, since they eat almost anything. They cannot open the shells of sunflower seeds, so you might try feeding sunflower seeds with the shells on.

Another tactic I’ve seen recommended on other web sites is to remove perches on your feeders so that other birds can access the seeds but Starlings cannot because they say Starlings need a perch. Based on my own observations, I’m skeptical about this, but who knows, it might work on small feeders. I’ve seen Starlings cling to surfaces with no perch just fine, they even spread their short tails out like a woodpecker does to use as a prop, but the absence of a perch on a small tube feeder where there is not enough room to prop the tail might deter them. Another idea is to smear suet on a pine cone and hang it, allowing small clinging birds to access the suet but making it difficult for the Starlings. Others recommend putting wire mesh around the feeder that allows small birds in but excludes Starlings. That should work but of course will exclude all larger birds.

A squirrel baffle over a feeder is said to deter Starlings because they don’t like going under a cover. This I can believe – my two Starlings hate it when I pass a hand or arm over them, so I try not to do that. I also don’t cover their cage at night because it frightens them. They are also said not to like feeding while hanging upside down, so any feeder that makes the bird feed this way will probably not be attractive to them.

If you like Starlings but just wish they would give the other birds a chance too, you might also try providing a separate feeding area that appeals to Starlings more than other birds. A platform feeder stocked with cat food is perfect for Starlings. You could augment the cat food with vegetable and culinary herb scraps left over from your cooking if you have any, my two Starlings love vegetables, greens and herbs, both cooked and raw. Just leave out the avocados, onions and garlic – they are toxic to birds. There is a risk in this strategy, Starling flocks can be big enough to take over ALL the feeders if they are in the area – also you’ll get other animals – but it might be worth trying as a temporary measure to give your other backyard birds a break. If this type of feeder accidentally attracts crows and ravens, that can be a good thing, they will help drive off predatory hawks and falcons with their mobbing behavior.

You don’t have to rely only on feeders to attract birds. I’m not allowed to put out bird food where I live, so I provide a water feature that gives the birds filtered, and in the winter heated water for drinking and bathing. This attracts quite a few birds. I also have a lot of bird-attracting plants in my garden and when I’m able I leave the seed-heads standing all winter to provide food. Rose of Sharon, Purple Coneflower and Korean Hyssop seem to be particularly attractive to small birds such as finches. Woody plants like the Rose of Sharon will support the Starlings’ weight while feeding but many of the herbaceous plants won’t so the smaller birds can get a good chance at the seed. Starlings are imported to our continent – a greater proportion of native plants in your yard may bring an increase in native birds to give the starlings some competition. Areas of leaf litter also attract birds for invertebrate foraging – this is worth trying if you have an area of your yard that you don’t mind leaving in a more natural state. You can even include a dust bath area if you want to, since Starlings adore water baths and some other birds would rather have a dust bath.

Starlings have been doing what they do for 20 million years, and stopping them will not be easy. If it makes you feel any better, the fact that there are Starlings in the vicinity means that you will have fewer lawn grubs, tent caterpillars, Japanese beetles, stink bugs and other insect pests. Starlings are perfect eating machines for lawn grubs – their beaks have more force in the opening than the closing, and are suited for prying in the dirt and grass and exposing invertebrate prey – watch this great video to see this action from an insect’s point of view!

Help! I’m Being Predated by a Starling!

It might prove more productive to enjoy Starlings rather than try to fight them. Whichever way you want to go, it’s helpful to understand more about them. I recommend the following resources for learning more about Starlings.

An Unwelcome Success – The European Starling in America

Documentary Film

Do Starlings Talk?

Baby Bird Rescue 2014 – My attempt to save starling nestlings, and an account of how I developed an interest in starlings.

Backyard Wildlife Gardening Sustainability

Gardening for the Birds

Gardening for the Birds

In Feburary, I attended a lecture “Naturescaping: Gardening for the Birds and their Friends”, sponsored by the The Saint Louis Urban Farm & Sustainable Development Group. The speaker was Mitch Leachman, Executive Director of the St. Louis Audubon Society and coordinator of their Bring Conservation Home program.

I’ve been gardening partly to benefit birds for over 10 years now. I’m not allowed to have bird feeders where I live, but I can provide a water feature and plants that help provide food, shelter and nest materials. I also have permission from the Condo Association for a nest box, which was used by Carolina Wrens this past summer. I refrain from using pesticides to help ensure that the bugs in my garden are safe for birds to eat. Like a lot of people, I am also interested in invertebrate conservation, so I have planted several species of plants specifically to be used as host plants for butterflies and as habitat for beneficial insects.

One of the factors that helps birds to successfully raise young is the ability to find food. Seeds and nectar feeders are great for feeding adult birds, but most wild baby birds need lots of animal protein. One amazing statistic that Mr. Leachman shared with us is that it takes the equivalent of 6-9,000 caterpillars to raise one brood of chickadees! That’s a staggering amount of invertebrates. Hummingbirds don’t feed nectar to their young – they feed tiny caterpillars, wasps, bees, gnats and spiders. Clearly one of the best ways to help birds is to learn more about how to co-exist with invertebrates. Some of them don’t need to be controlled and of those that do, there are ways to manage them that minimize harm to other species.

Two examples of native plants, Purple Coneflower and Mistflower that help attract birds..

Most of us have been raised to think of all invertebrates as something that must be eliminated from our environment, but if you think of them as bird food, some of them might be acceptable in your yard or garden. “Bird-friendly means insect-friendly”, stated Mr. Leachman. Caterpillars are often tolerated by people better than other insects because they grow into beautiful butterflies and moths. They can be very attractive in their own right. Caterpillars are also excellent bird nutrition – they are soft and have a very high protein content. You can grow caterpillars in your garden with non-native plants as I do with Queen Anne’s lace and Rue, but you’ll get more caterpillars if you plant native plants. Fall is a great time to plant trees, shrubs and perennial plants – if you choose native plants that are used as host plants by moths and butterflies, you will help feed a lot of birds.

Native plants have had more time to evolve with our native butterflies and moths. Therefore, as Mr. Leachman pointed out, native plants can be utilized as host plants by many, many more species of butterflies and moths. To name a couple of extreme examples, Oaks are used by 518 species and Hostas are used by none (yes slugs eat them but no larvae of butterflies or moths use them as a host plant). Large trees, understory trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and ground covers can all be good host plants, and native plants are available in all of those categories for all growing conditions. Native plants are available at some nurseries – don’t try to take them from the wild because many native plants are endangered along with native birds.

Besides choosing native plants as host plants, here are some other things you can do to make your garden produce more bird food:

  • Do less tidying up in the garden – removing plant debris destroys many cocoons and overwintering creatures. If you can’t let leaves, dead plants and other natural materials alone in your whole garden without getting grief from your Homeowners Association or neighbors, try experimenting with an out-of-the-way section to conserve some of the insects.
  • Plant fruiting plants that bear at varying times of the year.
  • Plant a good variety of species – if plant diversity is low, insect diversity is low.
  • Plant large bunches of host plants so they are easier to find rather than scattered individual specimens.
  • Care for the total ecology of your garden or yard – the whole food web will be healthier and more productive.

Many common birds in Missouri are in decline – several have lost 60-70% of their numbers in the last 40 years. Feeding and watching birds is the second most popular hobby in the USA after gardening. To make sure there is always a variety of birds to watch, you can make your part of the environment healthier for birds! And you can further help your local bird families with items we have at Schnarr’s, such as feeders, seed, suet, nest boxes and bird bath heaters!

Additional resources:

Create a Songbird Haven with Natives
Landscaping with Native Plants: A Gardener’s Guide for Missouri
Xerxes Society – Invertebrate conservation
What’s That Bug – A good place to look up unknown critters to see if they really need to be controlled or not
Beneficial Insects in the Garden