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Guide to Feeding Live Mealworms to Garden Birds

Feeding live mealworms to the birds in your garden is one of the most important things you can do to help their breeding success, and therefore help reverse the decline in the numbers of many of our once-common species of songbirds.

For those of you that haven’t fed live mealworms before and don’t know too much about them, or you have but want to learn more, then here’s a detailed look at what’s involved and what the benefits are.

What are mealworms?

Mealworms are the larvae form, or second stage of life, of the beetle, Tenebrio molitor, which is a species of darkling beetle. So mealworms aren’t worms at all, but a larva which, if left to develop, would eventually become a beetle (having turned from egg to larva to pupa first).

Live mealworms are obviously the living mealworms in this stage, while dried mealworms are simply mealworms that have been dried-out via heating or freeze-drying.

Why are live mealworms so good for garden birds?

Gardens aren’t, typically, great places for birds to find an abundance of natural food. Some of the reasons are obvious such as manicured lawns and areas covered in paving, but it’s also to do with the fact that urban areas are generally and increasingly far less suitable for most invertebrate species. And even in rural areas, invertebrate numbers have also drastically decreased due to factors such as pesticides, pollution and climate change. So live mealworms are, in effect, a portion of natural food and it’s the ‘natural’ bit which is important here because live mealworms have two things which young birds in the nest and fledgelings vitally need: liquid and protein.

The liquid element is important because, unlike an adult bird which can drink from a birdbath or natural source, a bird which is being fed by its parents is solely dependent on the moisture content in the food to keep it hydrated until it is old enough to fend for itself. Insufficient hydration threatens the life of the young bird, especially as other bird foods such as seed mixes and suet do not contain liquid. Of course, natural invertebrates have this moisture content, but, and as we’ve already mentioned, natural invertebrates numbers are a fraction of what they previously were in most parts of the country.

Live mealworms are high in protein (50.4% to be exact) - which is needed for healthy growth and therefore to help ensure that as many of the young birds as possible survive to become adults.

Of course, the one thing that puts many people off buying live mealworms and feeding them to their garden birds is the wriggle. But really, you just need to get over it – and most people do and more quickly than they imagine!

So if you haven’t before fed live mealworms to your garden birds, then please, please give it a go. And the very best reason for doing so is the difference it can make to the breeding success of your local birds. A great example of which is one of our customers who roughly trebled the population of House Sparrows in his area over a four year period as a direct result of feeding live mealworms throughout the breeding and fledging seasons.

Best ways to feed live mealworms to birds

There are a number of different types of special live mealworm feeder, though the two things they all have in common is a) a cover to prevent the mealworms getting wet, and b) they are essentially some sort of dish with sides to prevent the mealworms crawling out. You can use some sort of basic household or garden bowl or dish, but only in dry weather as live mealworms won’t survive being submerged in water.

What then separates out different live food feeders is that some allow for any size of bird to feed, whereas others allow only smaller species such as house sparrow and robin. On the latter, this is achieved by a cage around the dish which has access holes which only allow smaller birds in - see here for our Caged Live Food Feeder. And here for a Live Food Feeder which will allow any size of bird to feed.

Ideally, you should have both types of feeder as it’s just as important for larger species such as blackbird and starling to get a good supply of mealworms for their young, as it is smaller species. For the open style of feeder which allows all sizes of birds, it is quite likely though that frequent refilling will be necessary - especially if you’re lucky enough to have starlings breeding closeby.

When is the best time to feed live mealworms to birds?

The breeding and fledgeling seasons are unquestionably the best because although adult birds at all times of the year will benefit from eating live mealworms, the real benefit is to young in the nest and to fledgelings. This is firstly because live mealworms are packed with protein, and secondly they’re full of moisture - which is critical to the survival of young birds in the nest, because clearly the only liquid they get is from food the parents bring them.

Outside of the breeding and fledgeling seasons, garden birds benefit from a supply of live mealworms simply because of the vast reduction in invertebrate numbers. In the past, it has been suggested that all-year-round feeding of any type of food isn’t necessary for wild birds visiting gardens. However, we’re now way beyond that point, and the fact is that many species of birds in urban and indeed more rural areas are very dependant on the food we put out throughout the year - and it doesn’t get better than live mealworms.

Moulting season

Moulting is the process in which birds shed their old feathers and grow new ones in an annual process - and generally occurs after the breeding season in late summer. Since feathers are around 4 to 12% of a bird’s body weight, a great deal of protein is needed to replace them. In addition, during moulting birds become very reclusive because their flight ability is often impeded, therefore a relatively easy supply of protein-rich and fluid-rich food close by is hugely beneficial.

Dry weather and low rainfall

In times of low rainfall, ground feeding birds such as blackbirds are often unable to find sufficient natural food, and in particular, earthworms, as the worms are well below ground level and in damper soil. In these conditions, live mealworms are the best food to put out for garden birds, as they're not only high in fat and protein, but also moisture which is very important when adult birds are feeding their young. Blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and starlings will all readily feed on live mealworms.

Large birds and live mealworms - managing supply and demand

For anyone feeding the birds in their garden, there are few things more rewarding than putting out live mealworms in the breeding season. The spectacle of adult birds taking the mealworms to their nest for the young, then feeding the fledgelings a few weeks later, is simply brilliant. It’s also highly rewarding because it’s done in the knowledge that feeding live mealworms at this time of year increases breeding success for a host of different garden bird species.

However, a question we’re often asked by our customers is:

"How can I keep larger birds and species in larger numbers from taking all the live food?"

The issue

The main issue as we see it, is that most people are keen to feed birds such as robin, house sparrow and blackbird with live mealworms – with all of these species readily taking them – but larger species, such as magpie, are not so welcome, plus starlings will often arrive in numbers and can make short work of a bowl of food. However, if a caged feeder is used it will allow small birds to feed and certainly keep out magpies, jackdaws and starlings, but will also prevent blackbirds from feeding, too. As a specific, It’s really important to allow at least some live food for starlings, as the species has been in serious decline and needs our help as much as many other species.

The solution - a caged live food feeder

So the answer is to definitely use a Caged Live Food Feeder to allow robins and other small species to easily feed and with no risk of larger species taking the mealworms, but also provide a more limited supply in a feeder such as our Live Food Bird Feeder.

Depending on what species you have visiting your garden, it could be emptied fairly quickly, but that's just something that has to be accepted – and you can, of course, leave it for an hour or two before refilling.

If the Live Food Bird Feeder is used or the slightly larger Robin Feeder, then positioning it relatively close to your house may deter larger, shyer species such as magpie from visiting it. In addition, hanging the feeder from a tree or feeder station may also help keep larger species off as it will be difficult – though probably not impossible – for them to cling on to the feeder. That said, hanging the feeder up also makes it more difficult for blackbirds, as the species is naturally a ground feeder.

Of course, the best solution will vary between different gardens and dependant on various factors and in particular what species of bird occur locally, but overall having both a cage feeder and an open one, which would ideally be on the ground or on a table, is the best approach.

Storing live mealworms

If you’ve not bought live mealworms before, then we suggest you start with smaller quantities which come packed in plastic tubs which can safely be stored at between 8-10 degrees Celsius in a cool dark place. The reason for these conditions is because it causes the mealworms hormones to go dormant and keeps them from morphing into a beetle. If you have a suitable shed or outdoor store, you may prefer to use these locations, but wherever you store, make sure your live mealworms don’t freeze and are protected from frost and are also not too warm.

However, prior to cooling your live mealworms, it’s fairly important that you provide them with our Mealworm Food before they go dormant - where they then tend to stop eating. If stored correctly they should last several weeks.

Dried mealworms as an alternative

Dried mealworms, although not as beneficial to birds as live mealworms, are often overlooked. However, dried mealworms can also be beneficial as well, and are certainly convenient, easy to store and easy to feed.

Nutrition

Although you have to add water to dried mealworms to bring back their hydration value, they still have some of the fat, protein and fibre that live mealworms have to keep birds healthy and growing. They can also be added to dried bird food including seed mixes or suet pellets.

Storage and care

Dried mealworms obviously don’t wriggle away or go bad quickly, and therefore need less care than live mealworms, and only need water to be rehydrated.

Soaking dried mealworms

Although not quite as high in protein as live mealworms, dried mealworms are still pretty good and certainly the next best thing. Of course, being dried means all the fluid content has been removed, so before putting them out for birds they will need to be soaked in clean water. This process only takes about 30 minutes, and once sufficient water has been absorbed they’re ready to put out

Summary

Feeding live mealworms to the birds in your garden is unquestionably beneficial to them, and especially during the breeding and fledgeling seasons. Initially, the wriggle of live mealworms might seem off-putting, but the vast majority of people soon get used to it. Ideally, two types of special feeder are needed: once which all sizes of birds can access, with the other a caged feeder which just smaller birds can access. Dried mealworms are an alternative, but don’t have the same level of benefit to birds.