Finding the beginnings of this new chickadee family reminded me of a column that I read in The New York Times just about a month ago. It was by the entomologist Douglas Tallamy and was entitled "The Chickadee's Guide to Gardening." The point of his article was the importance of planting native plants in our gardens, plants that support local wildlife, including birds, by feeding the insects that they need to survive. For the chickadee chicks, this mostly means caterpillars.
Once the tiny chicks hatch, it takes them 16 to 18 days to develop sufficiently to fledge. During all that time, both parents are working as hard as they can from dawn until dusk every day to provide their growing and very hungry family with food. They bring food to the box, on average, once every three minutes all day long. Tallamy does the math and estimates that it takes from 350 to 570 caterpillars a day (depending on the size of the clutch) to keep the family fed. That's an incredible 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars from chicks' hatching to fledging. And, with luck, at the end of that period, we have more one-third ounce chickadees to grace our world.
So, how can we help to produce all those caterpillars that chickadees and bluebirds and robins and woodpeckers and all the other nesting birds need to raise their families? We can plant trees that caterpillars can munch on without dying, and preferably without killing the tree. Oak trees, for example, are very good choices, says Tallamy. Lots of leaves there, food for caterpillars, and they are very hardy trees, impervious to a lot of insect damage. They are a much better choice than something like a Bradford pear, a non-native tree that is not so friendly to insects, and, moreover, is weak and short-lived. But the pear trees are beautiful when they bloom in the spring and lots of people plant them for that reason.
Fortunately, gardeners are becoming more educated and more aware of the interrelationships between plants and wildlife and the need to choose native plants for our gardens whenever possible. It's one of the ways that we can be better stewards of the land, better landlords for the birds that honor us with their presence in our yards.