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Getting Birds and Butterflies to Peacefully Coexist

Q. We're moving into our first home. Most of the land is in the back of the house, and there is an existing birdhouse we would like to keep. But we also want to plant a butterfly garden. We know that butterflies and birds don't mix, but are there any birds that don't prey on butterflies we could attract to our yard? Perhaps hummingbirds? Thank you,

    ---Tyra and Chris in Collegeville, PA

A. Perhaps not hummingbirds, says our resident flutterfly expert Rick Mikula, noted butterfly breeder, wrangler and author of many books on the winged wonders, including "The Family Butterfly Book" (Storey; 2000). Although it seems like those delightful little darting birdies would be no threat to butterflies, Rick explains that hummingbirds are incredibly territorial and will attack anything flying near them. "And their high metabolism means that they suck huge amounts of nectar from the same kinds of plants that butterflies need for feeding, thus greatly reducing the butterfly food supply in your garden," he adds.

Unfortunately, Rick also suggests you lose that birdhouse. "Not only does it place the birds right in the area you want to watch butterflies, it also means that there will likely be voracious babies for the adults to feed in the summer; and those chicks only eat insects, not seeds. So a birdhouse means more hungry mouths to feed, with butterflies one of the preferred foods."

But that's pretty much all the bad news; Rick assures us that you can enjoy birds AND butterflies in the same area. But if protecting the butterflies from being eaten by one of their top predators is a primary goal, you'll want to limit the amount of time you see them together—or make sure the birds are already stuffed full of food when they do interact.

"It may seem counter-intuitive, but bird FEEDERS aren't necessarily a bad idea," explains Rick, "especially if you only fill them in the fall and winter, when there are no butterflies in the air. One of the simplest solutions here is to attract huge numbers of birds to your yard when there isn't any chance of seeing a butterfly; and butterflies are only around in times of warm weather. Even summer feeding of the birds can work," he continues, "by filling up the birds with other food. Just remember that nesting birds and birds with hungry chicks want insects or an insect substitute, like all-season suet cakes or dried mealworms, because the young stomachs of chicks need the simpler forms of protein that insects supply.

"But probably the most important thing you can do is install what are called 'shelter plants' for the butterflies to use. These are trees, shrubs and big grasses that allow the butterflies to quickly hide. AND they provide a convenient place for them to lay their eggs.

"Lilacs and ornamental grasses are great for this; and some trees, like plums and cherries will also supply food that will distract the birds and fill their bellies. Let any dead trees stand nearby as well—they're great sources of insects that will also fill up the birds. And willows, poplars, birches and oaks naturally host a lot of insects—sometimes hundreds of species each—that birds prefer over butterflies. Oh and don't worry about those numbers; they're mostly not pest insects—or even beneficial insects; they're just there.

"Of course, plants whose flowers attract butterflies are important, but their placement is even more so. Position these nectar producing plants—things like Monarda and mallow (especially Malva sylvestris or 'tall mallow')— right next to the shelter plants, so that butterflies feeding on the nectar can quickly escape to and hide in the shelter. Globe Thistle is another great nectar producer, but it's a controversial garden plant because it can become invasive. But its also double-use; the flowers feed butterflies and then finches eat the seed in the fall and winter. Grow your own finch food!

"If you put water out for birds in the summer, place the birdbaths on the other side of the house from the butterfly garden. Then fill a couple of Frisbees with sand, place them on the ground in the butterfly garden and fill them with water in the morning—that's how you make a 'butterfly bath'.

"And finally, if you want to watch both creatures together, attract swallowtail butterflies with plants that have trumpet shaped flowers, like daylilies, Monarda and globe thistle. Swallowtails have specialized rear ends that vibrate wildly while they feed on those flowers. Birds think all this movement is coming from the insect's head and attack it, but the tails detach when grabbed, and the butterfly can get away. The tail won't re-grow like a lizard's, but the butterfly will survive; and the bird even gets a little nibble. Take a close look at the swallowtails in your garden this summer; it's very common to find them missing one or both of those little tailpieces."

I asked Rick if that's how the butterfly got its common name—from the fact that a bird could 'swallow' its 'tail'. "No," he answered, "it's because they were felt to look like the bird of the same name. But I like your explanation better. I think I'm stealing this one for my school lectures."

Call it an even trade for all the great info, Rick!

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