Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Stop! Birds Need Tent Caterpillars

Black-billed Cuckoo Devouring Tent Caterpillars – Courtesy Chris Takacs

As the sun began to set angry neighbors gathered in backyards across the surrounding neighborhoods.

With raised pitchforks and fists high in the air just like an old Frankenstein movie the torches ominously began to be lit. Guttural threatening voices now murmured under the backyard trees. Ugly things like “Let’s get them” and “Not in my Neighborhood!” were being strewn about as mob mentality began to overwhelm the crowds. Now they slowly moved in to carry out their dastardly deed against an innocent and misunderstood neighborhood resident. 

This scary scene repeated itself every spring when I was growing up and for years I thought the neighborhood uprising was justified. But as I came to realize my otherwise well-meaning fellow citizens had been sadly mistaken. Unfortunately many folks have still not gotten the message and   the misinformation still exists and continues to bring the village wrath to a creature they know little about.

The target of this neighborhood outcry is of course the Eastern Tent Caterpillar, and never in the history of suburbia has there been another creature more maligned and misunderstood than this hairy and hungry leaf munching backyard caterpillar.

Tent Caterpillars

The Eastern Tent Caterpillar is a very social creature and their silk tents may contain hundreds. The tent formed at the end of branches, especially on Cherry and Apple trees, are pretty amazing in themselves. They offer  some protection from enemies, and are like a home-base where the  caterpillars can travel out to feeding areas. The tents are also like little greenhouses which catch the morning sun to warm themselves and they can move about the tent since different layers can cool or warm them. It’s like having central air and heat.

For a time scientists believed that no birds or any other creature for that matter made a meal of Tent Caterpillars but we now know that everything from Orioles to Blue Jays, reptiles to bats, Black Bears and even Gray squirrels  utilize this juicy morsel to feed and raise their young. Not to mention the many other insect species that prey on this fuzzy hors d’oeuvre.   But there are a couple of  birds that put the Tent Caterpillar at the top of their specialized cuisine .

Both the Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoo consider Tent Caterpillars a delicacy and readily devour them along with the fall web-worm whenever they are available. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” a single Yellow-billed Cuckoo can eat thousands of caterpillars per season. On the East Coast, periodic outbreaks of tent caterpillars draw cuckoos to the tent like webs, where they may eat as many as 100 caterpillars at a sitting!

And then of course there is the worry and panic among backyard gardeners as they watch the bushy bandits defoliate their favorite tree. Well, there is nothing to fear because unless the tree is sick and diseased to begin with it will be just fine and the leaves will grow back like nothing ever happened just as nature intended . And by the way the Fall Webworm, which makes a different kind of tent in late summer and fall is also an important food source and is equally misunderstood.

For those so called backyard warriors that attempt chemical warfare against these caterpillars please note that whether you choose biological or chemical they both kill indiscriminately. So your Monarchs and Swallowtails that you love so much including many beneficial insects will be collateral damage in the attempt to needlessly control this misunderstood creature .

The way we treat our backyards and the garden methods we use in the end will determine the fate of many migratory birds. Learning to understand the cycle of life and all the creatures that are a part of it will make a healthier place for not only wildlife but also for all of humankind. 

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