How We Can Help Cardinals Raise Their Babies


By Sarah Wilson,
Healthy Planet Staff Writer

When Cardinal babies break out of their eggs, they weigh a bit more than a penny; about 3.5 grams. Within a week, they reach 25 grams. That’s 7x in 7 days! Imagine our newborns going from 7 pounds on Monday to 49 pounds by Sunday. How much food would we have to provide to stoke that astonishing growth?

As you might expect, Cardinal parents are hustling that first week. Rushing to and from the nest with mouths full of high-quality, organic, locally and sustainably grown protein pouches we call caterpillars. It takes 6,000 to 9,000 such wigglers to raise one nest full of Cardinals. And those must be nearby, because each wide open mouth needs to be filled many times an hour. Parents simply cannot go far hunting for meals and keep up with their babies’ needs.

And that’s just one nest! If we want our yards filled with the flashes of red we love, we need to landscape accordingly.

We help them when we plant native plants that raise tons of caterpillars. When we plant things from other parts of the world, things our Missouri caterpillar cannot feed on, we make it harder for bird parents. Foreign plants are like going to the supermarket and finding only wax fruit and fake food. Imagine having your hungry baby in your arms and nothing in the store is edible!

In this new nature-focused world, we want caterpillars (and I also love the butterflies they grow into). When I learned how many caterpillars bird parents need, I switched from “Caterpillar damage? Oh, no.” to “NO caterpillar damage? Oh, No!

Native trees are fantastic. Top on the list are oaks (supporting 400+ species of caterpillars), maples (235), and crabapple (230). Our home-grown shrubs provide both nesting spots and baby bird food. Consider adding hazelnuts (97), shrub dogwoods (94), and viburnum (83).

These days, my yard’s job is to grow life. That’s what looks pretty to me now. Planting for caterpillars is one way we can show love for our Red Birds here in the Cardinal Nation.