Many of us get excited when we set up a bird feeder and we get out first visitors. But if you’re serious about providing your backyard birds with the proper nutrition they need to migrate, feed their young, or stay strong and healthy during the winter months, then mealworms are an excellent high-protein option and one that even the pickiest eaters will love. Add some mealworms to your backyard setup and watch the birds start flocking. A bird feeder that’s full of these nutrient-dense larvae is one way to guarantee repeat visitors. Mealworms are commonly mistaken as worms, but in reality, they’re a larval form of the mealworm beetle. These larvae are easy to work with, clean, and provide an excellent source of nutrition for a variety of bird species. Learning about feeding mealworms to birds can help you provide these birds with the nutrients they’re lacking, can help them get through a tough winter, and can be just what they need during nesting season.
The Better Food Source: Dried Versus Live
Ask some birders and they’ll tell you that live mealworms are the only way to go, while others will argue that the dried option is best, especially for those on a tight budget who are responsible for feeding up to a hundred birds in their yard a day, every day, year-round.
There are many pros and cons for each method. Most birders can agree that live mealworms are by far the most appealing option, however, they do require more maintenance than the dried variety, which equals more work for you. The dried variety is more convenient, more affordable, but they don’t have the same attention capturing magic that the live mealworms do.
Once you purchase a live batch of the larvae, they must be placed in a plastic shallow container that’s two to five gallons. The container should have a perforated lid or a screen, in order to promote airflow. Place a couple of apples inside for moisture and some oatmeal and/or bran. Remember, the mealworms will only be as nutritious as the food they consume in your care, so make sure that you feed the larvae well for a day or two before you give them to the birds. The container must be placed in a fridge at all times. This is done in order to slow down their growth, causing them to remain in their larval form for a longer period of time.
Presenting the Mealworms
Instead of just tossing a handful or two of the mealworms on the ground, use a rimmed dish or a type of platform feeder. Both of these options will help to keep them contained. Mealworms are notorious for crawling away to safer spaces. This way, you’ll have them trapped and ready for the first feeding. Make sure the feeder is placed away from any windows or doors and near vegetation.
How Many Mealworms Can a Bird Eat Per Feeding?
If you receive plenty of visitors throughout the day, plan on placing about one hundred mealworms out a day, in a location that your visitors will know where to find them. These snacks are protein-filled and should only be used to supplement their diet, so don’t go overboard and take away their regular birdseed.
Serving Mealworms on a Budget
There are several ways you can cut costs and make it more affordable to regularly feed birds mealworms. You can recycle old kitchen dishes and pans and use these in place of buying a dedicated mealworm feeder. Another way to save money is by purchasing larvae in bulk online or from a local bird food supplier. You can even learn how to raise them yourself, so not only will you save some serious cash, but you’ll always have a huge stockpile. For those who have the patience to raise mealworms, doing so is an excellent way to maintain a huge supply of nutritious healthy larvae.
What Birds Eat Mealworms
While there are several species of birds that eat mealworms, below, you’ll find a list of the top species that simply go crazy over them:
These are the species of birds that will be the most likely to visit your feeders and eat their fill of mealworms. Many birds consume insects. Keep in mind that not all species of birds eat mealworms exclusively, however, they will try them if another food source is running low and there are fledglings to feed.
Offer mealworms in a roasted, dried, or live form. As I mentioned earlier, most birds prefer to eat them alive, so live mealworms will help attract hungry birds, however, if you place roasted or dried mealworms in a feeder, birds will discover and consume them eventually. Since they don’t provide complete nutrition for birds, I recommend offering them in limited quantities. Filling up a shallow dish once a day will be sufficient, providing birds with a nice treat without worrying about any leftover mealworms attracting rodents or pests.
How to Breed Mealworms
You can easily purchase mealworms from a local wild bird feeding store, pet store, bait shop, or online. Many people who love their backyard birds will feed hundreds a week. Considering this, breeding your own mealworms will be more cost-effective and convenient. Raising them is very simple and can be a fun project for both you and the kids.
In order to breed them, you’ll begin with the adult beetles, providing them with a home in a large shallow container that has some ventilation holes located on the lid. The food and bedding mixed in at the bottom of the container should be approximately three to four inches deep and can include a selection of nutrition sources for the growing mealworms, including grains such as bran meal, oats, or even corn. You’ll also need to include a source of moisture such as a wedge of lettuce, cabbage, potato slices, or a few apples. Adding a moisture source will help the container to maintain the right level of humidity for the beetles and larvae, in addition to providing them with another food source.
The beetles and larvae should be kept at a room temperature that ranges from seventy to eighty degrees. On average it can take eight to twelve weeks before you’ll have a batch of edible mealworms. Every week, you should change out the bedding in order to keep the insects healthy and minimize the mortality rate. Once the first batch is ready, you can immediately serve them to your backyard birds. You can also store them in your fridge, which will cause them to enter a sort of semi-dormant state. Make sure you allow some of the mealworms to mature into beetles in order to propagate the next generation.
Benefits of Serving Mealworms Dried
We’ve gone over how birds tend to prefer eating live mealworms, so are there really any benefits from feeding them the dried variety?
Many birders will serve up live larvae at the beginning of summer in order to help bluebirds and orioles provide nutrition to their fledglings. However, you can serve the dried variety during the winter months, which will provide a reliable food source to a wide variety of backyard birds.
Mixing dried mealworms into your birdseed is very easy and convenient. All you need to do is mix in a small amount with your usual seed mix and place it in a hopper feeder or tray and watch the birds come running. The dried variety if very nutritious and provides the perfect balance of fiber, fat, and protein, which will be essential during the winter. These insects will also help to attract a wider variety of species. Serving them dried with your usual seed mixture will also attract birds that were not attracted by your birdseed alone. During the winter months, there are many birds that will benefit from eating these insects, including:
Unlike the live variety, you won’t have to worry about dried mealworms crawling away or spoiling. Using dried mealworms means less maintenance compared to serving up live insects. If you want to get truly creative, visit my guide on homemade bird food recipes, where you’ll find interesting ways to incorporate mealworms into suet, birdseed cakes, and more.
Serving Live Mealworms in the Winter
If you don’t want to use the dried variety, or you’ve had no luck attracting birds using this option, then you can provide a live source of mealworms. But if you live in a part of the country that experiences harsh winters, then you’ll need to take extra precautions to ensure the worms remain alive until feeding time. In order to keep them alive, warm, and active, some birders will use a mealworm feeder that’s heated. These feeders can be pretty pricey, but they’ll do the trick and make the mealworms more enticing to hungry birds trying to make it through the winter.
The Bluebird Craze
Many birders complain that they have the hardest time enticing bluebirds into their yard. Unfortunately, these birds can be difficult, so it’s not as simple as planting flowers that attract hummingbirds or putting out a standard seed that most sparrows and wrens will go crazy over. Bluebirds are picky in general, so you may find yourself switching up your birdseed often in order to find a mixture that will work to attract them. Fortunately, mealworms seem to do the trick. These birds prefer to eat live mealworms, but many will also consume roasted or freeze-fried insects, especially when food is scarce.
Even with the right type of mealworms and seed mixture, these birds still need to learn to come to your feeder. Did you know that these birds can actually learn to come for feeding time in response to a call, bell, or whistle? So, how can you train bluebirds to come to your yard for a fresh batch of mealworms?
You’ll begin by putting out around ten mealworms in a small plastic container. If the worms are alive and moving around, this will increase the chances that a bluebird will take notice. You can also try adding a piece of bright blue cloth under the bowl to capture their attention or some red berries. As soon as these birds take notice, they will automatically become hooked. Then, you can move the container to the top of your bird feeder.
If you have an enclosed cage-style feeder then you’ll need to leave it open for a period of time in order to get them accustomed to going inside it. Once these birds have the feeder thing figured out, you can move is a short distance once a day until it’s placed in the ideal location. After the birds are trained, I don’t recommend feeding them on a nest box since this may attract aggressive birds or predators that will harass the bluebirds or their young. Never place any type of food inside a nest box. The fledglings must be fed by the parents. Additionally, these insects will burrow down into the nesting material and will be difficult to find. Suet or insects that are left in or around the nest box will also attract ants and other types of pests.
Can You Train Birds to Eat Mealworms Out of Your Hand?
Yes. But while it may be a fun and exciting way to interact with wild birds, it can also be a bad idea since you’re making the birds too tame, which can make them vulnerable to people who mean to do them hard. A bird must maintain some degree of fear of humans in order to survive in the wild. If you do decide to try and get birds to eat mealworms out of your hand, there are safer ways to go about it. Start by placing mealworms in a pan and use a signal to call the birds. This can be in the form of a bell or whistle. Try doing this for three to five days. You’ll sit in a chair and spread a bright cloth on your lap, then place the pan of mealworms on top of it. Allow the birds to eat out of the pan for a few days. Next, you’ll transition to holding the mealworms in your hand, sound the alarm, and wait for your usual guests to show up.
The Hawk Presence
Some birders may become concerned about leaving out mealworms and attracting a large bird presence, since this can also attract hawks, making the unsuspecting birds vulnerable to an attack as all of their attention is placed on their food. Hawks are very smart and can actually learn to hang out by bird feeders. You may even notice some popping up at the same time every day, right when you’re setting out food. In order to minimize the risk of birds being attacked during mealtime, if you use a bird feeder to offer the mealworms, considering investing in some type of overhead protection that will prevent hawks from dive-bombing birds who are feeding. If this doesn’t work, you may need to stop offering mealworms for one to two weeks, until the hawk has moved on to new and better territory.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Feed Birds Mealworms?
The fledgling and breeding season is the best time of year to offer mealworms. While it’s true that adults will benefit from eating these insects year-round, this food source will be more beneficial to fledglings and young birds. This is because the larvae are loaded with protein and full of moisture, both of which are crucial to the survival of young birds and birds still in the nest since the only liquid fledglings get is from their parents.
However, as I mentioned earlier in my guide, offering these larvae during the winter months will also be crucial, since many birds struggle to survive harsh winter conditions and find enough food to use as fuel to regulate their body temperature. To learn more about caring for birds during the winter, click here to read my article on where do birds go at night in the winter?
For some of the best bird houses for this year click here!
Feeding mealworms to birds can provide them with the protein and other nutrients they need in order to thrive, to survive a harsh winter, can give them the fuel they need before migrating, and can be invaluable as a food source for fledglings. With the tips and recommendations I’ve included here, you can choose between dried or live mealworms, raise your own batch, and keep a large stockpile of these larvae on hand to feed your local bird population, year-round.