Birds Useful to the Gardener

From the bluebird to the robin, each of these birds provide a value to the gardener in one form or another.

By Richard Headstrom

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About the time that we catch our first glimpse of the bluebird and robin we may hear the familiar note of the phoebe about the barn, in the orchard, or along the rushing stream. Here indeed is the gardener's real friend for the phoebe subsists almost exclusively upon insects, over 99 percent of his year's food consisting of insects and, more important, the insects eaten are chiefly noxious species. Foremost in the phoebe's insect diet are hymenopterous insects, which are eaten with great regularity and which constitute, moreover, the largest item in every month. A few parasitic species, unfortunately, are eaten but these are more than offset by the vast number of destructive sawfly larvae which are destroyed. Beetles rank second on the list of insect food and include such harmful species as the click beetles, May beetles, corn leaf-beetles, the 12-spotted cucumber beetles, the striped cucumber beetles, the locust leaf miners and such weevils as the notorious cotton-boll weevil, the strawberry weevil and others. There is perhaps no more useful bird around a garden or farm than the phoebe and he should be encouraged to nest in the vicinity by protecting him against cats and other marauders. 

The phoebe among others belongs to a family of birds called Flycatchers and includes, among others, such species as the kingbird and wood pewee. They are all insect eaters and for the most part catch their food on the wing although they will also pick up some insects from trees and shrubs and at times will even descend to the ground in search of such animal forms as millipedes.

The kingbird is a useful bird to have about a garden or orchard, or a poultry yard for that matter, for not only does he destroy a large number of harmful insects but his remarkable courage and persistent aggressiveness in attacking his natural enemies, especially hawks and crows, make him a valuable ally to have around as a protection against such birds of prey that feed on young chickens and other barnyard fowl, to say nothing of our song birds. I have seen a kingbird attack and drive off a cat that was stalking a nestling which had fallen out of its nest, and on one occasion a pair, of these birds pounced upon a hawk that had swooped down upon a flock of young chickens and so buffeted the predator that he was glad to escape without his prey.

A careful investigation of the stomach contents of some 665 kingbirds made by experts of the Biological Survey reveal that about 85 percent of the kingbird's food consists of insects, most of which are harmful species. May beetles, click beetles, blister beetles and weevils are eaten in large numbers, as are wasps, ants and wild bees. During the summer grasshoppers and crickets fill a large part of the menu,as well as leaf hoppers and other bugs. The complaint has been made by beekeepers that the kingbird preys largely upon honeybees. But of the 665 stomachs that were examined only 22 were found to contain honeybees and in these 22 stomachs there were in all 61 honeybees of which 51 were useless drones, 8 were workers and the remaining 2 were so badly mutilated as to be unidentifiable. If the few honeybees that the kingbird eats are debited to his account, he can, on the other hand, be credited with destroying robber flies. These insects prey on honeybees and by reducing their number the kingbird performs a real service to the apiarist. Twenty-six robber flies were found in the 665 stomachs and these, I think, more than balance the 8 worker honeybees.

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