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Live Foods

A Wildlife Tip Sheet™ from Jacobi Jayne & Company

by ornithologist Chris Mead

Almost all the birds that visit our gardens feed on insects and other invertebrates at some stage during their lives. The only exceptions are pigeons and doves which are exclusively grain and seed eaters. However, many birds only need live food during the breeding season when their chicks require the additional proteins they cannot get from seeds or vegetation. In addition, there are a number of species that are totally insectivorous - examples include flycatchers, swifts, swallows and house martins. Others, such as robins and wrens, prefer live food even if they will happily tuck into grated cheese or cake crumbs.

Fat & Juicy Mealworms

For many small birds there is no better universal food than mealworms. These are the larvae of a beetle and are white, clean, fat and juicy. Though they may look like maggots, they are very different. Maggots reared for anglers' bait have invariably been fed on carrion or waste meat; as a result they are not only very rich but may well be contaminated by disease. They are thus unsuitable for baby birds and, if offered in quantity, are not good for most adult birds either.

In contrast to maggots, mealworms are reared on vegetable matter - just like the leaf-munching caterpillars the birds eat in the wild - and are a safe way of feeding chicks. Chicks reared on them don't need water since the mealworms contain sufficient moisture. I have raised an orphan swift chick by hand for over four weeks on mealworms alone. It fledged successfully.

Mealworms by Post

Mealworms are available by post from Jacobi Jayne & Company in neat plastic tubs and bags. They can be kept alive and happy, as larvae, for several weeks in a cool shed or, if the weather gets very hot, in the salad compartment of the fridge. When their temperature reaches a certain level, their development continues and they pupate, emerging shortly afterwards as small black beetles called Tenebrio molitor which do occur in the wild in Britain. They are entirely harmless.

Keeping them Happy

Mealworm larvae thrive if they have a sufficient supply of food and a little moisture. Some crumbled breakfast cereal, such as Weetabix, and a small slice of apple or potato will keep them happy.

Feeding them to the Birds

Mealworms can be fed to the birds directly on the ground or, better still, in a smooth-sided pot so that they cannot crawl away. Alternatively Jacobi Jayne's models X-1 and W-1 birdfeeders are ideal. Avoid feeding them in wet weather since they will quickly drown. If you provide mealworms during the breeding season you can be confident that you will be helping a variety of species, from robins to house sparrows, to fledge their young successfully. In addition, mealworms can be fed in holes bored into tree trunks, attracting birds like treecreepers and woodpeckers. Mealworms are also the ultimate way of making the garden robin hand-tame since this is one food no self-respecting robin can resist.

Your own Mealworm Culture

It is quite easy to set up your own culture of mealworms if you have the time and can devote regular attention to keeping it going. Ideally start with adult beetles; if you start with mealworms, production will be delayed for several weeks until the larvae hatch and are mature enough to breed themselves.

You will need a secure container at least 15cm square and 20cm deep. Line it with a layer of flour and cereal about 5cm thick and covered with 5cm of bran. A slice of potato, renewed each week, will provide sufficient moisture. The culture should be odourless. The development of the larvae can be speeded up by providing more warmth, or slowed down by cooling. It is as well not to disturb the culture until it needs renewing, when everything has been reduced to a fine powder. Harvesting the mealworms is easy. A useful trick is to put some folded newspaper on top of the culture: the mealworms will hide in the folds.

Mealworm Substitutes

Mashed hard-boiled egg or grated hard cheese are foods that are full of goodness which can be used as substitutes for mealworms or earthworms. Ants' eggs are also popular with many birds and full of nutritional value. In the summer it is possible to find ants' eggs by lifting paving slabs. As you might expect, the ants will not be too keen to co-operate and may bite or squirt you with formic acid.

Helping Thrushes

Everyone welcomes thrushes - blackbirds and song thrushes - into their gardens. Not only are they beautiful songsters, they also do a considerable amount of good in eating invertebrates such as slugs and snails. However, they often find life difficult during summer droughts when the ground is hard and worms stay deep underground. This is a time when their nestlings may not get enough high-protein food, and when the adults are at risk too.

Similar problems often arise in the winter when freezing temperatures prevent the birds digging into the subsoil for worms and other small creatures. This is the equivalent of the larder door being locked and can be life-threatening for the birds. Our winter thrushes - redwings and fieldfares - are also vulnerable at such times. There is an easy answer: provide your garden birds with earthworms.

Worms in the Fridge

Jacobi Jayne can now supply you with tubs of fresh earthworms, cultivated in ideal conditions. You can hold them in reserve for when they are really needed; they will keep for a month or longer in a cool dark place. They will also remain healthy for several weeks if they are placed in the salad compartment of the fridge, though you may find that other members of your family are not particularly enthusiastic about this arrangement. The species of worms marketed by Jacobi Jayne are all native to Britain so it will not matter if any escape, uneaten, into your garden.

Provide a Compost Heap

If you have a big garden, a large and active series of compost heaps will be appreciated by many birds. As the rotting vegetation heats up, so it creates micro-climates with active insect faunas. In my garden I have four heaps. One is usually ready to use; another is in its final stages. The heaps that receive the rubbish, weeds and horse manure are relatively raw and sometimes almost too hot to touch. In cold weather wrens delight in foraging in such sites. In dry periods during the summer, or freezing times in the winter, the two heaps which are awaiting use can be forked lightly to expose worms, which the birds love. Watching them digging in the compost is a great reward for your labours, while you will soon have a pile of rich compost to dress your flower beds.

Chris Mead

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