Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

April 2002

Question of the Month

Want to bait insectivorous birds in
to your photo setups for great photography?


Many nature lovers, bird lovers, and photographers feed birds. Traditionally, the foods that are used include cracked corn, millet, niger or thistle, cracked or whole sunflower seed, peanuts, and suet. All great foods for seed-eating birds, or insectivorous species like woodpeckers and nuthatches, that will eat suet. Occasionally, of course, you'll get the odd, smart wren or thrush or creeper that discovers a suet cake and feeds from it, but most insectivorous birds -- those that eat insects -- are out of luck at our feeders.

It's not well known, but insectivorous birds can frequently be drawn to a feeder if you provide live food. That probably sounds sensible, but one must ask, how do you supply enough insects for the prodigious appetites of songbirds? Try catching enough spiders or grasshoppers or leafhoppers or crickets and you'll quickly despair. You can't keep up.

However, if you use mealworms, a wide variety of birds will visit your bait site for an easy handout. Here at Hoot Hollow we've fed nuthatches, cardinals, robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, song sparrows, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, eastern phoebes, crested flycatchers, Carolina wrens, house wrens, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and, I'm sure, some other species by supplying our bait sites with mealworms.

The bait site doesn't have to be fancy. Usually we use a one gallon plastic milk bottle that we open on two or three sides to allow the birds easy access, and good visibility, to the mealworms. We leave about a 1.5 inch lip to the bottom so that the worms can't easily craw out. Sometimes, at our photo sites, we use plastic boxes -- Mary's Tupperware would work fine but our local 'Dollar Store' has much cheaper (and safer for me) plastic containers that work fine. I'll nail or screw these plastic boxes onto posts or stumps in 'photogenic' locations where the light is good and the background attractive. To be successful, it helps to keep the feeders full, so I'll generally do a 'mealworm run' three to five times a day, placing 20 or so mealworms in the boxes each time.

Sometimes I'll be only yards away from the feeder when a catbird or bluebird is back at the bait, busy grabbing the new worms, and I wouldn't doubt that all the worms are cleaned out within a half hour of each baiting. However, by not putting hundreds of worms in the box, I keep from going broke and also, hopefully, get the birds attuned to my movements. When I'm around, there is food -- therefore, I'm not a threat, and it's much easier to get close for photography.

Some bird supply companies sell mealworms, but check around, the prices vary widely. Your local pet store will probably have a supply, too, but at pet stores they are often sold at 1 cent each, or more. From a mealworm or cricket supply house, a catalog company, I can buy 1,000 mealworms for about $8 or so, plus shipping. We use a company called Flukers,, and in summer we have a standing over of 2,000 mealworms per week. With our busy schedule, believe it or not, we rarely get to photograph our birds, but nonetheless, they eat really, really well!

Do YOU have a Question you'd like addressed? If so, please forward your question to our email address, below, and title the subject of your email (in the Subject field) 'Proposed Question of the Month. Can't promise you we'll address your particular question but we'll do the best we can do.

Previous Questions of the Month

 Why should you know Manual Mode?   Flash and Tele-flash Techniques
 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?
 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
What is the Best Composition?  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?
 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?   How do you shoot silhouettes?
 How would you meter these challenging images?  Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?
 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales? What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?
 How Easy is Whale Photography?  Is NANPA for you?
 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?
 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?  How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 Reciprocity Failure  Hyperfocal Distance

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