For the Birds Radio Program: Mealworms

Original Air Date: July 15, 2003

A lot of birds visit Laura’s feeder for mealworms, giving her lots to see and wonder about.

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This winter I got into the habit of setting out mealworms for my chickadees. I’d put a small cupful into a plastic bowl which I set on my window feeder in my second story home office, and the inquisitive chickadees were first to discover it. On the coldest days, I could hardly crank open the window before the chickadees were there, on the feeder, on the window frame, and on my hand. Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches eventually discovered the mealworms, too, but none of these little birds took very many. I ordered 10,000 mealworms by mail order when I started, and that order lasted over three months.

But then in late March a Red-bellied Woodpecker turned up. I named her Amanda and she gobbled down 50 or more mealworms in a sitting, going through about five dollars worth each day. While she was visiting, I bought mealworms 20,000 at a time, and ran out within a month. Amanda left in mid-May, and suddenly the mealworms were lasting a lot longer again.

Now a few more birds have discovered the mealworms. In late May a beautiful Baltimore Oriole came in once or twice, but he was just migrating through. Then a pair of Chipping Sparrows found the grubs. Chipping Sparrows eat mostly seeds, but as with most songbirds, they take insects, too, and mine sure seem to like mealworms. The male flies in and often breaks into one or two songs when he lands, calling my attention to his presence before he starts eating. The chippies gobble down five or six mealworms and then fly off.

If these were the only birds coming, 20,000 mealworms would last a long time, but now I have a pair of nesting robins coming. They each gobble down 10 or 20 mealworms in a sitting and then stuff their beaks full of as many mealworms as they can to bring back to their babies. And they come over and over until they’ve finished the day’s supply.

As delightful as it is to have them coming, I don’t feel as committed to making sure I replenish the mealworm supply the moment it runs out the way I did when my Red-bellied Woodpecker was coming, so now I’m just putting the food out once a day. The chickadees notice the moment I crank open the window, and get at least a few morsels before the robins take over. Sometimes a Red-breasted Nuthatch or a Hairy Woodpecker gets in there, too. But when the robins show up, they chase everyone else away. Interestingly, the female robin has come in several times already holding some kind of big, juicy green caterpillar, still wiggling. When she has one of these, she just stuffs her beak with a bunch of mealworms and flies off, making me wonder how she holds so many mealworms in her mouth at once. It reminds me of watching puffins flying with a dozen or more little fish in their mouths. Puffins use their tongue and sharp grooves in their upper bill to hold each fish in place against the roof of their mouth as they catch additional fish. Robins don’t have those special adaptations, but still manage to stuff a lot of bugs into their beaks for feeding their hungry babies.

I’m spending more on mealworms than I planned, but it’s worth every penny to give my backyard birds a little boost, to make their lives a little easier and simpler during this critical time of year. And on top of all that, it’s wonderfully fun to watch all the activity right outside my window.