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Birders, Gardeners, and Controlling Pests

Birders, Gardeners, and Controlling Insect Pests

by Jon Friedman


Photo by Doris Evans

Winter couldn’t have been milder in Southern Arizona (unlike most of the rest of the country) and insect pests are already making their presence known. Keep in mind all insects are not pests – in fact, there are many beneficial bugs whose presence we should welcome. Many birders also are organic gardeners, plant habitat for birds and other wildlife, or otherwise have beautifully landscaped areas around their homes. Insect pests can cause problems wherever plants can be found.


Birders and gardeners can control pest problems using a variety of methods. These range from non-intervention and letting nature take its course; assisting nature by installing bird, insect and bat houses; use of natural remedies and “soft” chemicals; or full “hard” chemical control using a wide range of chemical products.

Many folks automatically choose full chemical control as their first choice due to the fact that the chemicals are relatively inexpensive, easy to obtain, and usually produce the wanted results fairly quickly. It is my opinion that the chemical treatment should always be used as a last resort, if all other measures fail. Most folks will succeed in combating insect pests without the use of harmful and deadly chemicals. Patience and a little effort are required. And the results will be rewarding without poisoning the environment and all the living things that call your property home.

Chemical Control

The use of chemicals to control pests has caused more deaths among birds than any other single human interference factor. Birds may adapt with relative ease to dogs, cats, fences, power lines, and other such hazards, but it is impossible for birds to escape an invisible killer such as a poison.

Pesticides have had a major and detrimental impact on insectivorous birds and the other birds and animals that may prey upon them. Secondary poisoning (predators who consume poisoned prey) is just as deadly as primary poisoning. Pesticides and rodenticides kill many owls and raptors that depend upon insects and rodents as primary or exclusive to their diets. However, some fungicides which are used to control plant diseases such as mildew, rust, and others seem to have little impact on birds and other wildlife.

Large-scale Use and Acceptance

Large-scale use of dangerous chemicals has become commonplace, and even acceptable, primarily because of human interference in nature – huge swaths of mono-culture agribusiness, the importation of exotic plants (and sometimes exotic pests with them), the clearance of massive tracts of indigenous plants for urban development, etc. Our modern society has become accustomed to the advertisements in print media and the commercials in the media that encourage the widespread use of these types of chemicals, both in and around the home. Certainly chemicals have their place in our world, but in and around our homes we should take more care and give more consideration to non-toxic means of controlling pests as a first line of defense. The manner and amount of insecticide and other chemical use is of paramount importance to the health of ourselves and our families, the birds and animals around us, and our immediate environment in and around our homes.

Biological Control

In a truly natural context, that is one that has not been interfered with or altered in any way by human influence, there are no pests. All elements of the environment are kept in check naturally, and nothing dominates at the expense of anything else. Biological control means allowing nature to maintain a balance and control over any pests and is acceptable in a natural context. However, in today’s world, natural forces have been distorted and this distortion has necessitated an unnatural response. A garden or farm is itself a corruption of nature, with a mix of indigenous and exotic plants and artificial fertilizing and watering. Since nature is no longer in control, it cannot be expected to deal with all the problems that arise. Although natural predators are often able to contain small outbreaks of pests, more serious afflictions are difficult to manage solely through biological control.

Arbico Organics

Here in Southern Arizona we are fortunate to have a local business devoted to biological control of insect pests. Located in Catalina, Arbico Organics has a long history of helping gardeners and commercial organic agricultural interests defeat insect pests. They sell a wide variety of organic, biological, natural, and man-made products to achieve the goal. For many years, we supplied Arbico with bat houses as a means of controlling insects. They grow and sell live beneficial insects for home gardens. For pest insects, there is usually a beneficial insect that will attack and eat pest bugs. Most everyone knows that ladybugs and praying mantises are “good” insects in that regard. Arbico has a wide variety of beneficial insects they breed on-site at their facilities. They also stock a large number of other products that birders, gardeners, and farmers should welcome as healthy, clean, and safe alternatives to chemicals that simply poison. Their mail order catalog or website will prove illuminating in educating folks to natural alternatives to “poisoning” as the first line of defense. Simply Google “Arbico Organics” or phone them at (520) 825-9785.

Integrated Pest Management

This is a fancy term for a strategy which proposes the careful use of selected chemicals, in conjunction with the use of natural predators, for the control of pests in the yard or in the garden. When it is not possible to rely entirely on biological control, integrated pest management offers a solution.

This approach encourages you to stand back and assess a situation of afflicted plants in your yard or garden before embarking on a campaign of pest destruction. What you need to do before instinctively reaching for a spray-can is to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is the situation out of control, that is, are the pests taking over?
  • Is the problem localized, or is it affecting the entire yard or garden? Pests are most often localized in their activities and it is not normally necessary to spray anything other than the affected plant or area.
  • Is there any non-chemical way that the pests can be dealt with (for example, leaving them to natural predators, removing affected branches, or hand-picking large bugs and destroying them)?
  • How will spraying affect the other inhabitants in the yard or garden, and how can the damage done be minimized? Spot treatment involves spraying only the infected plant or even a single infected branch, and has minimal impact on the rest of the yard or garden, while the “shotgun” approach means spraying large areas randomly with non-specific chemicals and impacts enormously on all other life forms.

Your aim in dealing with each of these questions is to avoid the chemical solution if possible and, where it is not possible, to take great care in choosing the right product. Always read labels. Never use products or chemicals that have warnings about children, pets, fish, birds, and other wildlife. Simply assume these are bad for the environment and the living things that inhabit that environment. After all, do we really want to poison the areas where we live, where there are children or pets, or where we invite birds to come?

If you decide that there’s no other alternative other than using dangerous chemicals, try using insecticides that have a short residual effect, such as the pyrethroid-based chemicals, as these tend to do the least damage to bird species. If you are spraying to control pests, you may wish to collect up the useful pest predators, such as ladybugs and praying mantises, before spraying, and then release them later to clean up any straggler pests. Have you ever tried to collect ladybugs?

If using a portable sprayer (like those for mosquitos), try mixing a cheap spreading agent such as any green dishwashing soap (one teaspoon to every five quarts of the solution). This will ensure the penetration of the waxy outer coating that protects may insect pests.

Never become involved in preventative spraying which aims to prevent pests from ever reaching your yard or garden through the use of harmful chemicals on a regular basis. Such measures often lead to a higher number of pests than would be the case with no spraying at all. Practice only safe pest control using a well-thought-out strategy.

Understanding Birds, Plants and Insect Pests

Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media

Plants that seem to always attract pests are probably not happy plants to begin with. Aphids, mites, scale, rust, mildew, and others pests may indicate too much sun, too little sun, too much water, not enough water, over-fertilization, under-fertilization, not in season, the wrong soil, too much wind, etc. Native plants always fare better overall than exotics. Exotics are more prone to insect infestations. Native or indigenous plants are better adapted to local soils and climate and are often more capable of surviving attacks by indigenous insects.

Most exotics, like roses, are not as resistant to native pests. Gardeners who see their roses covered with aphids are likely to treat the plants with as strong a chemical solution as they can quickly find. This rarely succeeds in eradicating the problem, as aphids reproduce very rapidly; but it may result in the obliteration of any ladybugs which prefer feeding on the aphids. Any surviving ladybugs will no longer be able to reproduce and, when and if they do, will only produce a few offspring. The result is an imbalance of predators (ladybugs) and prey (aphids) – and the spraying cycle never stops.

To maintain a population of predators in the yard or garden, it is obvious that there needs to be a source of food – the pests. Most plants can cope with a small number of pests, and generally plants are affected adversely only when conditions are right for the pest to breed rapidly. A healthy yard or garden will have a sustained balance between predators and prey.

Backyard birders probably know that having hummingbird feeders and flowers offers a natural solution to aphids. Aphids are a primary source of food for hummingbirds, after spiders. Attracting a variety of insect-eating birds may be the most advantageous method of controlling insect pests. Those pests, like the birds themselves, will arrive at the correct time for feeding. Orioles and tanagers will eat tent caterpillars, flickers will feast on ants, thrashers dig up grubs, flycatchers will eat a wide variety of flying insects, Pallid bats eat scorpions, Trogons prefer stick insects (walking sticks), bluebirds and robins love worms, roadrunners eat centipedes and tarantulas, cicadas and katydids are preferred by Brown-crested flycatchers,  certain sparrows prefer grasshoppers, shrikes impale grasshoppers and caterpillars, wrens love crickets, gnatcatchers eat gnats, etc. The list goes on and on.

Avoid Indiscriminate Killers

Over the years I have written about combating insect pests. See the article in our website archive of newsletter feature articles about avoiding glue-traps. Glue traps and other traps that kill to control are very indiscriminate killers in that any bird, lizard, snake, etc. that gets caught dies. Many customers over the years have lamented that they discovered wrens, thrashers, lizards, or other wildlife that have died in traps intended for mice or other rodents.  I have given advice to many customers over the years about controlling for particular pests and many of our readers know that our major motto regarding birds is “cause no harm.” Over the years, people have asked about using a wide variety of products to control insects without causing harm to their backyard birds. We’ve always discouraged the use of Tanglefoot or similar products that trap anything that comes into contact with very sticky surfaces. We know that birds, especially inquisitive species such as thrashers and wrens, will exhaust all their energy trying to unglue themselves, only to find themselves even more adhered till they die in place. We’ve seen examples in the wild, and in the care of wildlife rehabilitators, of one-legged birds that eventually freed themselves from glue traps – minus one leg. Never use any glue trap or other device that harms or kills indiscriminately.

Birds can be a first line of defense in the yearly battle against insect pests. It is well-known that many species of birds are insectivores. In our region we are blessed with an abundance of such birds.

Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media

True flycatchers (we have many) will snatch bugs in mid-air. Among the more common of these birds are the following: Phainopepla, Brown-crested, Vermilion and Ash-throated Flycatchers. Small owls consume large numbers of insects that are especially active at night, including cockroaches. Woodpeckers have unique abilities to retrieve insect eggs, pupae, and larvae from between the bark and wood of trees. Flickers can be observed standing over ant holes in the ground and licking them up as fast as their tongues will allow. Most ground-feeding birds, including quail, thrashers, towhees, and wrens, will find grubs and other insects among ground litter and even slightly below ground surface.  Hummingbirds can “hawk” bugs in mid-air, glean the undersides of leaves to find tiny insects protected from the sun, and even rob insects that are caught in spider webs. Curious spiders that come out to check their webs may themselves become food for hummers, as spiders are their favorite prey.

In the Garden – Non-toxic Alternatives

Many of our customers enjoy gardening. Some prefer to grow whatever fruits and vegetables they prefer eating. Others focus on native plantings to encourage birds. Flower gardens are a popular pastime for those who are particularly interested in beautifying their property and attracting hummingbirds at the same time. Fruit trees and berry bushes are enjoyed by both humans and their winged friends. If you are practicing organic gardening, there is no worry about causing harm with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, birds will still be attracted to your crops. You can protect most plants and trees with bird netting that is properly installed. Hardware cloth can be selectively used on individual plants, or plant rows, to keep not only birds at bay but to control those pesky burrowing rodents like mice, rats, moles, shrews, voles, squirrels, etc.

In addition to netting and hardware cloth, sun shade cloths are available for home use. Among other things, it may prevent overhead birds from discovering your garden in the first place. Fruits and vegetables almost ready for harvesting can be protected from birds by loosely covering with mesh bags. This means you can secure the choicest fruit for yourself and leave the rest –untreated with chemicals – for the birds, that will need no special invitation to the feast. Putting out a fruit feeder with second-grade or over-ripe fruit will appeal to birds and help divert them away from the trees or garden, at least while the feeder is kept stocked. But there are no guarantees! I was always happy to share my organic garden foods with my birds as long as there was something left for me to harvest. And, I have to admit, it took me several years to learn how to do all this successfully. Hopefully, this article will reduce the amount of time you need to experiment and find out how to insure larger harvests for yourself and your family. We are all, human and birds, just trying to feed ourselves and our families. I think it is always better to learn how to co-exist with the birds (and nature in general) rather than continue the “man versus nature” competition that the chemical advertisements endlessly promote. For some, it’s a hard lesson to learn that we can’t really conquer nature.

Cinnamon and Hot Chili Powder

Just as we recommend the use of finely ground cinnamon or hot chili powder in ant barriers to protect nectar- and fruit-feeders from ants and other crawling bugs, those same products can be successfully used in the garden for most crawling bugs. Laying down a line of such materials around garden plants will prevent the insects from getting to the plants. Ants and other insects have sensitive pads, like sensors, on their feet and will not cross cinnamon or hot chili powder to get to those plants.

Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous earth is readily available at most garden centers, nurseries, and hardware stores. It is completely non-toxic; harmless to humans, birds and other wildlife; and is relatively inexpensive. However, it repels or kills insects that come in contact with it. It’s not really earth in the sense we think of earth. Rather it is microscopic ground-up shells that, if viewed through a microscope, have razor-sharp edges everywhere. If an ant or other insect gets any of this substance on their feet, they try to clean it off by licking. They therefore ingest some of the material and, once ingested, it cuts up their internal organs and causes death. It is very effective and doesn’t harm anything but insects. Like powdered cinnamon and hot chili powder, it can be used to keep insects out of the home. I’m extremely allergic to cone-nosed beetles (kissing bugs) which are very prevalent here part of the year. I’ve used these materials in cracks and around windows and doors to prevent them from getting into the house. Works well!

Home-brewed Anti-insect Tea

Flying insect pests can also be defeated using common supplies that can be obtained very easily or are already in your house. Try making a sun tea concentrate using crushed garlic, hot chili pepper, cinnamon, and/or loose tobacco. These ingredients can be used separately in a tea, or in any combination, or altogether. I always used them together for maximum effect. After being allowed to brew overnight or for a 24-hour period, the tea can be used as is for a powerful natural insecticide or it can be considered a concentrate and diluted with plain water. Filter the solids out of the tea with cheesecloth or some other fabric and then fill a spray bottle and apply generous amounts to the entire plant – including the undersides of leaves. The anti-insect effects will last a few days, possibly longer, depending upon weather and rainfall. Use this formula until shortly before harvest. Any remaining residues will easily wash off with fresh water and  not be tasted or detected.

Go Organic If at All Possible

Providing a fruit feeder with treats the birds will enjoy will also detour them away from the crops you are still growing. Oranges, grapes, melons, and a host of other fruits will serve you well in this respect. Growing organic foods means the harvested fruit is rarely perfect and beautiful in all respects. Organic gardeners will easily accept a few moth-eaten leaves or blemished fruit. Perfect-looking and very uniform fruit, such as is found in commercial supermarket produce sections, are perfect-looking and blemish-free as a result of being grown using intensive chemical spraying from sprouting to harvest. Excessive use of pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides has been researched and documented as a source of serious health problems (including cancers). A few blemishes do not change the taste of a fruit or vegetable; many folks swear that organically-grown foods just taste better – taste more like we expect good food to taste. A few blemishes probably indicate that the produce has been grown more naturally. Behind the blemish is often a tastier, more wholesome, and healthier product. And we have the peace of mind of knowing that we haven’t harmed or killed birds with dangerous chemicals. Birds are far more sensitive and affected by those chemicals than humans.

Rodenticides and Owls

Throughout most of the habitable land masses in most countries, burrowing rodents such as rats and mice are ever-present and can present a variety of problems. The use of common rodenticides is widespread and pervasive. Also incredibly harmful. Especially to the owl species that consume poisoned rodents. Barn Owls, in particular, have been very hard hit in locations where these dangerous chemical are used extensively. This is especially true in agricultural areas, suburban areas, parks and golf courses, etc. In some areas, Barn Owls have virtually disappeared because of overuse of certain rodenticides. Keep in mind that a mated pair of Barn Owls can consume up to 25,000 rodents annually within their territory. They are incredibly important to the health of their local environments.

Here in the desert, there are millions of rodents. They live everywhere. It is impossible to eliminate them. Keeping them from getting out-of-balance is about all we can do. Nature does the best job of this by keeping their lives short, providing many predators, and keeping them underground and out-of-sight most of the time. While I’ve heard many transplanted customers complain about snakes in particular, I always advise them it is better to learn to co-exist with nature’s critters than to be constantly engaged in battles with them. Remember, nature always wins in the end. Most of our native snakes prey upon these rodents and therefore are one of nature’s best defense against them. Without snakes and owls, the rodents would soon overrun us with their otherwise ever-increasing numbers.

Rodenticides are powerful poisons whose effects do not end with the death of the pests. Animals that consume poisoned rodents are themselves likely to die as a result. If you feel you must use a rodenticide to control rodents in your garden, under your bird feeders, or around your home, select carefully. The newer, more “improved” rodenticides on the market today are known as second-generation rodenticides. They are even more deadly than previous forms; most of them causing death after the victim has fed on the bait only once. The poisoned carcass may be picked up by a hungry Barn Owl, only to seal its fate, too.  

If you feel you absolutely have to use a rodenticide, use a multi-feed poison that is metabolized by the rodent. With this type of poison, even if the carcass is fed upon by an owl, secondary poisoning is unlikely to occur. This type of poison requires that the rodent feed for a minimum of three days on the bait before its death is guaranteed. These types of poisons are also safer to use if there are children or pets about. All poison should be used with great care, if at all.  Only use such products in extremely safe places where children, pets, birds, and other wildlife cannot come into contact with it, such as in selected areas inside the home, in attics and crawlspaces, basements, sheds, garages, etc. Let common sense rule. Owls, particularly Barn Owls, are nature’s best form of biological control of rodents.

Beneficial Insect Control

As mentioned earlier, there are many beneficial insects and animals that prey upon pest insects. Insectivore bird species, lizards, frogs, and toads are literally insect-eating machines. It’s good to encourage them around your home and garden. Put out some bird houses and/or bat houses to establish a constant presence of birds and bats on the look-out for bugs. Arbico Organics is an excellent source of beneficial insects. They breed and sell quite a few, but among the most popular and effective for our area are ladybugs, various non-harmful wasp species, and praying mantises.

Domesticated Fowl in the Yard or Garden

Amigomio by Mary Schaefer

Many breeders of exotic and pet birds have some type of domesticated fowl in their outdoor aviaries. Those birds will eat almost any nearby insect. Breeders can’t risk illness or death to the birds that enable their livelihood. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, peafowl, and Guinea fowl will all eat every bug in sight. Non-native quail, such as Button and other small quail species, are sold to bird breeders precisely for their ability to get the job done and are fairly problem-free. Check with local ordinances (and perhaps your neighbors, as well) before buying domesticated fowl. I know folks throughout the Tucson basin who keep such birds and they are not breaking any laws. In Tucson proper, I understand it’s legal to keep chickens in most areas but not roosters. Neighbors may complain if roosters act like daybreak alarm clocks.

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