May 6, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2019

Ask Birdsquatch: Gardening without Insecticides?

Songbirds feed their nestlings grubs and caterpillars and other insects, and so using insecticides can harm baby birds. What is a gardener to do?

Dear Birdsquatch:

I get it that songbirds feed their nestlings grubs and caterpillars and other insects, and so using insecticides can harm baby birds. But I'm an avid gardener. I don't want hornworms to destroy my tomato plants, or worms on my cabbage. How can I grow beautiful vegetables without using insecticides?

—Peggy S.,
Rolla, Missouri

Dear Peggy,

Does the S. in your name stand for Sue? I hope so! I love that old Buddy Holly song! Thanks for planting an earworm I enjoy! It's so much better than "MacArthur Park." I'm not a fan of sweet green icing left out in the rain, but I am a fan of cabbages and tomatoes. My favorite pest controls are my index fingers and opposable thumbs. They are highly effective and safe. Every morning in growing season I pick Japanese beetles, caterpillars, and other competitors from my homegrown salad ingredients. I carry the nonflying ones to my compost pile, hoping to divert their attention from my garden. I've seen bluebirds and flycatchers feasting on the creepy crawlies there—which is a side benefit of maintaining nest boxes not far from my garden.

If slugs are a problem, try beer traps. Pour a small amount of beer into a tuna can or pie plate. Like, me, slugs love beer. Unlike me, they can get trapped and drown in small containers. For cabbage worms and tomato hornworms, Bacicillus thuringiensis kurstaki, or Btk, is a naturally occurring soil bacteria that makes some insects ill, but has no known impacts on birds. Organic gardeners commonly use this product to control garden pests.

But you know, Peggy Sue, whole books have been written about bird-friendly gardening. Here's a short article from Mother Earth News about garden pest control that you might find useful:

By the way, do you grow blueberries in your garden? If not, I think you should.

About Birdsquatch

Birdsquatch is WBB's tall, hairy, and slightly stinky columnist. He is a bigfoot who has watched birds all his life. His home range is unknown.

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  • That doesn't address my concern about the bird houses. I'm on a tiny piece of property (40x100) so there's not much room to plant a heck of a lot or places birds could put nests once the bird houses are gone.
    by Linda DiPierro, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Plant some native plants in your yard that will attract pollinators and produce berries and nuts. There should be a local society that has a list of recommended plants, shrubs, and trees.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Same concerns here. See above post. For your situation I would consider planting a few native plants that will naturally produce berries and seeds that the birds in your area need to survive. Try planting some that will yield foods for all seasons.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • I've thought about this myself. One thing I considered doing is leaving behind some bird food and a gift card to my local wild bird store with a note asking the new homeowners to please continue feeding the birds. Don't know how well that work but it's worth a try.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • thanks for the article. I believe that I may have spotted my first hairy woodpecker this morning. we see the downy woodpecker often. it's small. the hairy woodpecker, when compared with the downy, is HUGE. also, the downy feeds at the feeder like most birds--standing upright. This bird, because of its size, hung from the feeder perch with most of it's body below the feeder--like the red belly woodpeckers that we see often. we live is strasburg va. is it possible that we saw a hairy woodpecker this morning?
    by PEretired, Sat, 23 May 2020