For the Birds Radio Program: Mealworms

Original Air Date: Sept. 28, 2003 (estimated date)

Laura explains how she offers mealworms at her feeder.

Audio missing


Cold weather spirits away most insect-eating birds, so we normally focus late fall and winter feeder offerings on birds that eat seeds or suet. But you never know when a bird that appreciates animal protein is going to turn up, from a seasonally-challenged oriole to a real oddity such as the Cape May Warbler that visited a feeder on the North Shore of Lake Superior in January and February, 2000.

But what do you feed an insect-eating bird in winter? Suet provides the fat and a small amount of the nutrients necessary to sustain birds, but much better from an avian point of view is a dish of nice, juicy mealworms. Of course, they freeze when the temperature plummets, but their nutritional value isn’t changed.

I offer mealworms in two feeders. One is an orange plastic bowl I put on a platform feeder set in a window. The other is a roofed plastic window feeder held in place by suction cups. I put about a quarter cup of live mealworms into each every morning. Sometimes chickadees swoop in as I crank open the window. They alight on the feeder, window frame, and even my hand as I put the mealworms out. Chickadees and nuthatches are the only birds who have mastered coming into the roofed window feeder, which is rather small, though during migration a few American Redstarts studied the chickadees going in and out of it. The bowl feeder is easier for a variety of birds to master—in addition to the others, I’ve had Blue Jays, orioles, robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers at that feeder. Up in Duluth where I live, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are scarce, so I was delighted to have one visit my mealworms many times each day for two months this spring. In order to keep her until Duluth Audubon’s annual birdathon to raise money for Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve., I set out more than twice as many mealworms as I normally do for the last several weeks, four or five dollars worth every day, but her last visit was the day before the fundraiser.

I don’t have many starlings in my neighborhood, and the ones I’ve had in my yard have never come to a window feeder. I’ve also not had a problem with crows or grackles, which shy away from the house. A few Blue Jays have visited the larger feeder occasionally, but the ones in my neighborhood seem to be polite, and have taken far fewer mealworms than the robins or red-belly. Some people offer mealworms specifically for bluebirds, and don’t want other species taking them. Carrol Henderson’s book, “Wild about Birds: The DNR Bird Feeding Guide,” and various bluebird guides have suggestions for providing mealworms in special bluebird feeders.

When I first set out mealworms, it took a couple of days for birds to discover them. Birds notice wiggling mealworms easier than still ones, so it may take longer for birds to find them in winter, when the mealworms can freeze solid almost instantly. But once they figure them out, they gobble them up eagerly. It was too expensive for me to buy them in the small quantities available at most bird-feeding shops, so I buy mine online from Rainbow Mealworms is another option. I get 10,000 at a time, and they usually last about three weeks. Mealworms come in a tightly-woven cloth sack inside a well-aerated cardboard box. The sack is filled with wadded up newspapers as well as mealworms, and it takes time and patience to transfer them from the sack to the big plastic bin where I keep them. I put an inch-thick layer of oatmeal in the bin before adding the mealworms, and put some more oatmeal on the top when I’m done. Every week or so, I cut up an apple or a potato to give the mealworms vitamins and fluids, which gives them a happier, healthier existence and in turn provides my birds with more nourishment. Some people manage to culture their own mealworms, but my birds usually eat all of them before they reach reproductive age. Mealworms are beetle larvae. After they reach full larval size, they go through a strange-looking pupal stage before transforming into an adult beetle. Adults are flightless, so as long as the container is deep, it doesn’t need to be covered. Mealworms have very little odor as long as they’re healthy. If you keep them in a cool basement, they’ll develop more slowly than in a warmer environment.

Mealworms require a lot more maintenance than sunflower seeds, and they’re not for the squeamish. But if you have enough discretionary income and interest, you’ll soon have the happiest chickadees in your neighborhood, and maybe an occasional rarity as well.