For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadees and Mealworms

Original Air Date: Aug. 7, 2002

It took time, but Laura’s chickadees have started taking mealworms out of her feeder.

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A few weeks ago, after taking care of some baby brown thrashers for a couple of weeks, I had some leftover mealworms. So I set a bunch of them out in a plastic bowl which I set on a platform feeder stuck on the window in my home office. I haven’t fed my backyard chickadees mealworms in about four years, and they certainly weren’t expecting it.

There the bowl sat on the feeder, dozens of chickadees coming in several times a day, but not one chickadee noticed–they’d just grab a sunflower seed and flit off. I put some oatmeal in the bowl so the mealworms would at least have a decent last meal, but it took over two weeks before a chickadee finally peeked over the edge of the bowl and noticed the mealworms. He or she grabbed one and took it off to eat, but apparently didn’t completely trust the free meal. I only saw a chickadee at the bowl two or three times a day for the next few days.

But as that one started to trust that the mealworms were tasty and reliable, it started coming more and more often, and suddenly other chickadees in the flock started to notice. One or two tentatively perched on the edge of the bowl, and built up the courage to grab their first mealworms. And they liked them, and suddenly they couldn’t get enough. Now dozens of times a day my chickadee flock descends upon my feeder in droves. A few still take an occasional sunflower seed, but just about all of them concentrate on the mealworms now.

Mealworms are exorbitantly expensive compared to bird seed. Ordering by mail from Grubco, I can get 5,000 for $18.00. They’re easy to keep alive in an ice cream bucket, with a layer of oatmeal for food and occasional chunks of potato or apple for vitamins and moisture. Putting a handful at a time in a bowl on a window feeder ensures that the only birds that will take them will be chickadees and other confiding species–crows, grackles, and most other big birds don’t come that close to houses. I’m hoping that some of the fall warblers that associate with chickadees will follow their flock mates to the window feeder, but even if they don’t, giving something tasty and nutritious to my chickadees is plenty of reward for me.

Inspired by Carrol Henderson’s book, Wild about Birds: the DNR Guide to Bird-Feeding, a lot of people are starting to offer mealworms to bluebirds, orioles, and other lovely insect-eaters. If it takes a long time for spunky, inquisitive little chickadees to notice the mealworms at a feeder they’re already visiting, imagine how long it can take bluebirds to discover a mealworm feeder. But like chickadees, once bluebirds and other interesting species finally discover a feeder, they go to town.

I have a friend near the Twin Cities who has robins, orioles, catbirds, and House Wrens listening for her voice because she tosses out a handful of mealworms several times a day. It’s amazing to see these normally-shy birds materialize the moment she opens her balcony door. Most of them come within inches of her to grab their mealworms, and a few even light on her. Species that can easily be taught to come to your hand to take mealworms include Red-breasted Nuthatches, House Wrens, and chickadees. One winter when I put mealworms in an acrylic feeder attached by suction cups to my bedroom window, I couldn’t even crank the window open before chickadees alighted on my hand, impatient for their mealworms.

This year I expect that as my backyard family of chickadees breaks up, the adult pair will remain in the yard, and will quickly teach the rest of their winter flock about mealworms. So now I’ll have to keep ordering mealworms . Chickadees go through them a lot slower than orioles and robins, so 5,000 should last a month or more, even in winter. Chickadees bring us so much joy that buying them mealworms is a small price to give them a little good cheer, and some high-quality protein, in return.