Can a Caterpillar Be Charismatic?

By Edie Parnum

Yes, of course. I was thrilled to discover a brown-hooded owlet in my late October garden. This caterpillar with its glossy yellow, red, blue, and black pattern is beautiful. It is pre-frost as I write, so the leaves of the aster where it’s feeding are still green and evidently tasty.

Brown-hooded Owlet caterpillar on a native aster plant. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

For three days I’ve watched it feeding and pooping. Thankfully, the nearby hungry birds have not spotted it. Frost is coming, so I hope it will soon crawl down the aster plant where it has been feeding and make its pupa. As a caterpillar this insect won’t live through the winter, but its pupa can survive unseen in the soil or decaying leaf litter. In the spring after undergoing metamorphosis, a drab brown one-inch adult moth will

Brown-hooded Owlet adult, an excellent pollinator. Photo credit: Jim Petranka and Becky Elkin; Click to enlarge.

emerge. This night-flying moth will visit flowers for their nectar and spread the pollen to fertilize other plants. Then it will mate and lay eggs on asters and goldenrods that will hatch into these caterpillars. To complete its entire life cycle, my caterpillar needs humus-rich soil, native asters and goldenrods, and nectar-rich perennial flowers.

The brown-hooded owlet is my favorite caterpillar. I wish more people had favorite caterpillars. They are essential bird food and as adults become excellent pollinators. In the case of the brown-hooded owlet caterpillars, they require native asters and goldenrods as their host plants.

We need beautiful caterpillars and drab ones, too. Without them birds will suffer, plants (including our food plants) will be less plentiful, and our lives less rich. Let’s plant more host plants and leave decaying leaf litter for the caterpillars.

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2022 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Viburnum nudum (Smooth Witherod or Possumhaw) and Zizia aurea (Golden Alexander)

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a tree, shrub, or vine and the other is a perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Are native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
  3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen.
  4. Host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
  5. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
  6. Are easy to grow and make attractive additions to your landscape.
  7. Sold at local native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Here are the 2022 Prime Plants for Nature

Viburnum nudum (previously V. cassinoides), Smooth Witherod or Possumhaw

V. nudum flowers offer pollen for native bees and other pollinators. Photo © Edie Parnum. Cllick to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: This shrub produces berries in fall that are eaten by robins, cardinals, bluebirds, flickers, thrashers, mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrushes. The autumn fruits are high in lipids, a source of energy for the southbound migrants.  Native pollinators such as hoverflies, sweat bees, and scarab beetles seek the pollen produced by the spring flowers.

Harris’s three-spot moth’s caterpillar feeds on viburnum foliage. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

The leaves host 104 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars including the spring azure butterfly and hummingbird clearwing moth. Other valuable native viburnum shrubs include V. acerfolium, V. lentago, V. dentatum, V. prunifolium, and V. trilobum.

Growing Conditions:  The witherod viburnum is adaptable to a variety of growing conditions but prefers acidic, moist, well-drained soils in sun or part shade. For best fruit set plant two or more. This shrub has good disease and pest resistance and is not favored by deer. Can be grown singly, in a shrub border, mixed-species hedgerow, or periphery of a rain garden.

Fall fruits provide food for birds, particularly migrants. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: In fall the attractive clusters of pink, purple, blue, and purplish black fruitshang on red stems. The glossy green leaves turn red or reddish purple in autumn.  In spring the white flowers are arranged in a flat-topped cluster. This deciduous, multi-stemmed shrub can grow to 8-12 feet with a spread of 5-7 feet. The cultivars ‘Winterthur’ and ‘Brandywine’ are more compact.


Zizia aurea, Golden Alexander

Golden alexander flowers attract native pollinators. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value:  Golden alexander blooms in mid to late spring. This long-blooming perennial is an important source of nectar for early bees, flies, wasps, beetles, and small butterflies when few other flowers are available. Mining bee, a native bee, is a specialist that eats this plant’s pollen. A member of the parsley family, golden alexander is a host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. The abundant insects attract predators like spiders and assassin bugs, too.

Black swallowtail butterflies use golden alexander as a host plant. Photo © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:   These perennials will thrive in part sun or part shade. They prefer moist soil but will do well in average conditions once established, even in clay.  Although individual plants live for just a few years, they self-seed to form a long-lasting colony. Not usually browsed by deer. Disease-free.

Appearance:  Each flower looks like a single flat-topped umbel but is a cluster of 10-20 small umbellets. The 3” bright yellow spring flowers stand 16-20” high above attractive dark green foliage and are attractive in flower arrangements

Knowing the White-throated Sparrow

By Edie Parnum

White-throated Sparrow on northern breeding grounds. Photo © Gerald Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

White-throated sparrows come to my feeding station every day during the cold months.  Easily recognized, these crisply-plumaged brown sparrows sport a white throat, white stripes on the head, and a bright spot of yellow at the base of the bill. A tan-striped form has somewhat less bold plumage. I notice they prefer to eat the seeds on the ground beneath the feeders. Their feeding style is entertaining. They jump forward with both feet and then scratch back to uncover the seeds. Using their strong bills, they quickly crack the shell and consume the nutritious morsel. Over and over, they jump, scratch, and grab a seed.  Then, there’s a quick lift of the head to check for predators.

Around my yard, I glimpse them in the brushy areas. I’ve left the perennials standing over the winter and allowed leaves to remain on the ground. This is their preferred habitat where they find plenty of seeds and insect eggs, larvae, and cocoons. Flocked together and mostly hidden in the dense vegetation, I hear their soft chips as they keep in contact and a metallic chink sound if alarmed.  Occasionally they sing their sweet song, “Ole Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”. Mostly, they keep quiet, but alert, to avoid detection by hawks, neighborhood cats, and other predators. I think I know this bird well.

Tan-striped form of White-throated Sparrow feeding in leaf litter.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Admittedly, I see only a small portion of its life. The White-throated Sparrow isn’t a year-round resident here in southeastern Pennsylvania. With breeding grounds in the northern forests. I’ve never seen one establish its territory, build a nest, incubate eggs, or feed caterpillars to its young. I’ve missed seeing its life challenges, too.   At some point, it probably survived an encounter with a deadly predator or narrowly avoided a disastrous crash into a window.  Perhaps one spring it returned to its usual breeding location in the boreal forest and discovered it had been logged—destroyed to make toilet paper. I’ve probably missed all its major life events.

My feeders don’t provide everything these birds need. Opportunities to observe what this bird requires to survive are limited. The unseen beneficence of nature provides the food, shelter, water, and places to raise its young for this creature and all living creatures.


A Caterpillar-Raising Extravaganza!

Cecropia Moth caterpillar in its last stage of development. July 2017. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

By Barb Elliot, Ph.D.

In July 2017, I came home from Mothapalooza, a conference for moth enthusiasts, with a Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) caterpillar.  I was excited.  The beautiful adult Cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia) is the largest moth in North America with a wingspan from 5″ – 7″. The showy caterpillars are chunky and grow to 4”- 4.5”. Although I had raised butterfly and moth caterpillars previously to increase their chances of survival, I now had the opportunity to observe the life cycle of this iconic silk moth and learn about its role in our ecosystem.

My caterpillar was almost full grown, but still had a voracious appetite. I kept it in a butterfly cage, provided a constant supply of fresh River Birch leaves, and removed the caterpillar waste (frass) each day.  Cecropia caterpillars can eat other native tree and shrub leaves including elm, oak, maple, apple, cherry, ash, sassafras and willow, but prefer to stick to one kind once they begin eating. A Cecropia caterpillar gains more

Cecropia caterpillar making its silk cocoon enclosure. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

than a thousand times its weight between hatching from its egg to being fully grown and ready to pupate and spin its cocoon.

In late summer, my caterpillar clung to a twig in the cage and spun a cocoon around itself.  Inside the protective silk, it changed from a caterpillar to a dark brown pupa, the third stage in its development.

A completed Cecropia cocoon. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Many months later, on June 21, 2018, with metamorphosis complete, a spectacular female Cecropia moth emerged (eclosed) from the cocoon. With only a week to live and with no mouth parts to eat and drink, this adult female’s sole job was to mate and lay eggs.

Cecropia moth female newly eclosed from her cocoon. June 21, 2018 © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

I decided to keep the moth outside overnight to see if she could attract a mate.  At dusk, I put her in a wire cage with holes sufficiently large for mating to occur.  A male, with its large, feathery antennae, can detect the pheromones a female emits and hone in from over a mile away.

I got up at 5 AM the next morning to check on her.  A male was clinging to the cage and mating with her!  The two mated all day and de-coupled just before dark.  Right away she began laying eggs.  I released the male so he could mate with other females.

Mating Cecropia moths. Note the male’s (on right) larger, more feathery antennae. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

During the overnight hours, she laid about 130 eggs.  After she rested, I released her so she could lay more eggs and live in the wild for the rest of her short life.

Cecropia eggs – two days old. June 27, 2018.

I kept five eggs and donated the rest to several environmental organizations and a few caterpillar-savvy friends. Three of my eggs hatched on July 4th, ten days after being laid.

My Cecropia eggs after three hatched.  Note the two with exit holes chewed by the tiny caterpillars. July 4, 2018.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Each ¼” black, spiny caterpillar chewed a hole in its leathery brown egg and almost immediately began eating the River Birch leaves I provided.  Within two or three days, the caterpillars outgrew the skin of their initial first stage (instar) and molted into a second instar.  Each time a caterpillar molted, the new skin was “loose” so it could continue its rapid growth. All three ate, grew, and reached the fifth instar, their final caterpillar stage.

Newly hatched Cecropia moth caterpillar – first instar. . July 4, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

First & second instar Cecropias.  9 days old. July 13, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Two Cecropia cats molting from 2nd to 3rd instar; one still in 2nd instar. 11 days old. July 15, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

More mature 3rd instar Cecropia. 22 days old. July 21, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Two fifth instar Cecropias and one 4th instar. 31 days old. Aug 3 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

While my Cecropias were growing, I got an opportunity to raise another large silk moth.  On July 13, a friend noticed a large moth at the foot of a light pole – a Royal Walnut Moth or Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis).   Unfortunately, the moth was dead but had laid eggs before succumbing.  This hapless moth, like countless others, was drawn to nighttime outdoor lights, but was unable to escape the lights and died.

Dead Royal Walnut Moth by light pole with eggs. July 13, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Of about 25 eggs I kept five and donated the rest to the Academy of Natural Sciences.  Just one of mine hatched and I began feeding Black Walnut leaves, one of its host plants, to the tiny fierce-looking caterpillar.  This caterpillar, known as the Hickory Horned Devil (HHD), is the largest caterpillar species in North America.  This species also goes through five instars before pupating. Although harmless, each stage looks scary and unpalatable, intended to make a bird or other hungry predator steer clear of such a high-protein meal.

Newly hatched Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar. July 24, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Second instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Aug 1, 2018. Day 9. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Third instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Aug 6, 2018. Day 14. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Fourth instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Day 20. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Early 5th instar of the Hickory Horned Devil. Aug 16, 2018. Day 24. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Hickory Horned Devil 5th instar, now greener with some blue near the head. Aug 19, 2018. Day 26. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Fifth instar, Hickory Horned Devil. Some blue starting in a few spots on top of body. Aug 22, 2018. Day 30.


Hickory Horned Devil in final 5th instar colors – ready to pupate. Wikipedia image by Chris Hibbard.

Hickory Horned Devil Pupa. Winter 2018-2019. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

To my astonishment, I was raising the moth species with the largest caterpillar along with three caterpillars of the largest moth species.  By the end of August, all three Cecropia caterpillars made their cocoons. My almost hotdog-sized HHD caterpillar turned into a dark brown pupa during the first week of September. This species doesn’t spin a cocoon like its Cecropia relative, but digs down into the soil to pupate and spend the winter.  To simulate an underground environment. I provided an enclosure filled with crumpled paper towels, and the caterpillar pupated there successfully.  When temperatures turned frigid, I moved the HHD pupa into my refrigerator for safe-keeping over the winter.  As I had with their mother, I kept the Cecropia cocoons outside and waited for spring.

All three Cecropia moths eclosed – a male on May 22nd, and females on June 22nd and 25th – and I released them after dark on those nights.

The second of my 3 Cecropias to eclose from its cocoon – a female on June 22, 2019. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, the HHD pupa died, so that huge, spectacular caterpillar didn’t become a beautiful Royal Walnut Moth as I had hoped.  In nature, less than 5% of caterpillars survive to become butterflies or moths.

A live Royal Walnut Moth. (Citheronia regalis). © Paul Scharf via

Because they are active only at night, it’s rare for us to see Cecropia, Royal Walnut, or other large moths.  However, they and their caterpillars are key food sources for birds and other animals and thus are important members of our local food webs.  You can help keep them flying by providing native trees and shrubs that caterpillars need for food.  If you have outdoor lights, use timers or motion detectors so they are not on from dusk to dawn.  Of course, don’t use pesticides, which kill not just moths and caterpillars, but other beneficial insects, many of which are in steep decline.  If you’d like to see these and other interesting moth species, attend a local moth night event, perhaps  during National Moth Week in July, or have a moth night of your own.  I wish for you a Cecropia Moth, Royal Walnut Moth, and other magnificent nighttime moth wonders!

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2019 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a tree, shrub, or vine and the other is a perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Native to southeastern Pennsylvania
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life
  3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen
  4. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals
  5. Offer shelter and places to raise young
  6. Easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape
  7. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales. (See list of local sources for native plants at the end).

Our selections for the 2019 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Amelanchier canadensis, Serviceberry (also known as Juneberry or Shadbush) A. arborea and A. laevis are closely related species.

Berries on Serviceberry ripen in early summer and are quickly eaten by birds. © Mark Gormel Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: In the early summer this small tree produces berries relished by American Robins, Gray Catbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and Northern Mockingbirds. Other birds and mammals eat the fruits as well. The popular fruits disappear quickly, often before they are completely ripe. The foliage of Serviceberry is food for 124 species of caterpillars including Striped Hairstreak and Red-spotted Purple butterflies and Blinded Sphinx and Small-eyed Sphinx moths. The nectar-rich flowers attract adult butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators.

Cedar Waxwing eating Serviceberry fruits. © Harris Brown. Click to enlarge.

Serviceberry is a host plant for Red-spotted Purple butterfly caterpillars. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  Serviceberry is easily grown in sun or part shade.   It prefers moist soil, but will tolerate a variety of conditions. Although sometimes subject to rust or leaf spot, it is normally free of any severe problems. Rust (Apple Cedar rust) can be a problem for anyone who also has nearby Eastern Red Cedar.  It is moderately deer-resistant.

Serviceberry blooms profuely in April. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: A single-trunk or multi-stemmed tree, Serviceberry grows to 15-25 feet at maturity.  This member of the rose family is covered with showy white blossoms in early spring before the foliage emerges. The

Blossoms of Serviceberry are popular with native bees and other pollinators. © Barb Elliot. click to enlarge.

attractive fall foliage is yellow to orange-red.  Amelanchier canadensis, A. arborea, and A. laevis are closely related species that hybridize and are difficult to differentiate unless you are a


The Serviceberry should not be confused with Bradford Pear, also known as Callery Pear, an invasive tree with similar white flowers that blooms at the same time.  The Bradford Pear has upright branches and denser, dark foliage. It out-competes native species, hosts very few native insects, and produces fruit that is unpalatable to birds and other wildlife.  For more info about invasive Bradford/Callery Pear in Pennsylvania, click here.

Garden Phlox, Phlox paniculata 

Giant Swallowtail, a rare butterfly in southeastern PA, visited my Garden Phlox. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: Garden Phlox is a nectar-rich perennial that attracts native pollinators including butterflies, bees, moths, and hummingbirds. The flower petals are fused into a tube (corolla). To access the nectar, a pollinator inserts its tongue (proboscis) into the bottom of the corolla.

Bumble bee nectaring at Garden Phlox. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Butterflies and large bees with a long proboscis and hummingbirds can reach the nectar.  Small bees such as Sweat Bees, Yellow-faced Bees, Leafcutter Bees, and small carpenter bees have a proboscis that is too short to reach the nectar.  However, all will pick up pollen as they rub against the anther (male part) at the top of the corolla. Flying from flower to flower, these pollinators carry the pollen to the stigma (female flower part) of each bloom. As a result, reproduction occurs.

Among the insect pollinators using Garden Phlox, Hummingbird

A moth with transparent wings, a Hummingbird Clearwing, nectars on Garden Phlox. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Clearwing Moth is a conspicuous day-flying sphinx moth that is sometimes mistaken for a hummingbird.  Also look for Peck’s Skipper, a small tan butterfly.

Growing Conditions:   Garden Phlox will grow well in sun or part sun in moist to average (tolerates clay) soil.

Appearance: The pink, lavender, or white flowers bloom profusely in late summer and early fall on 3-4-foot plants. Many cultivars (often referred to as navitars) are

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on Garden Phlox. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

available, but some have reduced nectar production.  However, according to studies performed at Mt. Cuba Center, ‘Jeana’ produces nectar abundantly and attracts many pollinators.  Garden Phlox can develop mildew during hot, humid summer conditions.  Removing some of the flower stalks will improve air circulation and prevent mildew.  According to Mt Cuba, the ‘Jeana”, ‘Robert Poore’, and ‘David’ cultivars are mildew-resistant.

Other phlox species:  Woodland Phlox, Phlox divaricata, and Creeping Phlox, P. stolonifera, are spring-blooming phlox species that grow in part shade or shade. They attract a variety of pollinators including butterflies and hummingbirds. The flower structure is similar to Garden Phlox.


Local Sources of Native Plants

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Rd. New Hope, PA 18938.  215-862-2924 or Nursery open April -October.

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038.  Native trees, shrubs, and some perennials.  Spring and fall open houses.  Otherwise appointment necessary.  215-715-3439 or

David Brothers Native Plant Nursery, Whitehall Road, Norristown, PA 19403.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-584-1550 or

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-393-2570 or

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, DE 19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or

Gino’s Nursery, 2237 Second Street Pike, Newtown, PA 18940.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  267-750-9042 or

Good Host Plants, 150 W. Butler St., Philadelphia 19140.  Straight species native perennials and woody plants of local genetic provenance. 267-270-5036 or

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610-647-8870 or Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Northeast Natives Perennials, 1716 E. Sawmill road, Quakertown, PA 18951.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  215-901-5552 or

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 904 N. Providence Road., Media, PA. 19063.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Landscape design and consultation services available.  Spring and fall open houses. On-line and phone orders available.  Otherwise call for appointment.  610-827-2014 or

Native Plant Sales

Bartram’s Garden, 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215-729-5281 or

Brandywine Conservancy, Routes 1 and 100, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317. 610-388-2700 or  Mother’s Day weekend.  Seeds also available.

Delaware Nature Society, Cloverdale Farm Preserve, 543 Way Road, Greenville, DE 19807.  302-239-2334 or  First weekend in May.

Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, 2955 Edge Hill Road, Huntington Valley, PA 19006. 215-657-0830 or

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagys Mill Rd., Philadelphia 19128. 215-482-7300 or

Welcome Nesting Birds!

By Barb Elliot, PhD

It’s spring, and once again I hear the songs of Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Mourning Doves, and House Finches as well as the drumming of Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  These and other local birds are attracting mates and warning rival males to stay out of newly claimed nesting territories.  At least nine bird species have nested in my yard over the years. As I look back, I remember the joy of seeing birds raise and successfully fledge their young, the heartbreak when things don’t work out so well, and the things I learned along the way.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker at his work, March, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

In early February, 2018, I noticed a male Red-bellied Woodpecker tapping near the top of a dead Black Cherry tree trunk in my yard.  I had left this snag because dead wood is scarce in our tidy landscapes but sorely needed for nesting, feeding, and resting places of birds and other wildlife. Several other woodpecker species – Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flickers peck this tree and look under its peeling bark for grubs and other insects. Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Brown Creepers also scour the bark for insect morsels. I was happy to see the Red-belly using this tree to start excavating a nesting cavity.

Male Red-belly joined by his mate. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker worked day after day at this hole in all types of weather, and I was excited to see his progress.  At first he could just fit his head into the hole, but soon got half his body inside, then his tail. Finally he entered the cavity and looked out the hole.  He was joined by a female Red-belly, and they took turns at the work.  One would enter the hole, work inside, and call the mate. The mate then entered the cavity to gather small wood chips and sawdust in its bill and spit them out of the hole. Click here for a 2-minute video of this activity (better viewed on a large screen).

Male expelling sawdust and wood chips from the cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.before flying off.

By early May, after more than three months, excavation stopped. In mid-May I saw the female enter with food in her mouth – the baby birds had hatched.  I could hardly wait for nestling Red-bellied Woodpeckers to peer out from the hole!  But alas, it was not to be.  A few days later, the Red-bellies called repeatedly near the nest, but never entered it again.  I understood their agitation when a pair of European Starlings exited the hole.  These invasive cavity nesters had taken over the hole and removed the baby woodpeckers.  Sadly, the Red-bellies’ nesting season was over.

European Starling peering out after taking over the Red-bellies’ nest cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Other cavity nesters have been more successful in my yard. For species that don’t excavate their own cavities, I chose boxes with the dimensions recommended for Tufted

Tufted Titmouse eggs in one of my nesting boxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Titmice, Carolina Chickadee, and House Wren, but with entry holes small enough to exclude House Sparrows and European Starlings.  I monitor the nest boxes no more than once a week to minimize disturbing both nestlings and parents.

Tufted Titmouse nestlings. Notice one unhatched egg. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




Over the years, I’ve planted a variety of locally native plants, especially trees and shrubs that support lots of leaf-eating insects, caterpillars in particular.  Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds in North America feed only insects, spiders, and other arthropods to their young. Even hummingbirds add tiny insects and spiders to their babies’ diet.  Packing more protein than beef, caterpillars are the preferred insect food for feeding nestlings.  Since 90% of caterpillars and other leaf-eating insects specialize on one type or family of plants, I

House Wren with small caterpillar eyed by hungry baby. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

planted a diversity of native plants to host a diversity of insects.  According to University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, to raise a clutch of baby birds healthy enough to leave the nest, a pair of Carolina Chickadees must feed them between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars!



Carolina Chickadee eggs in another of my nestboxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Thanks to the native plants in my yard (see list of the 20 most valuable woody and perennial native plants) and the insects they support, Chickadees have successfully raised two broods of five to seven young each over the past 12 years. Tufted Titmice raised one set of five nestlings and House Wrens successfully raised at least eight broods of 5-6 birds each from my nesting boxes.  The importance of native plants to birds’ nesting success is emphasized by a recent 3-year

Carolina Chickadees almost ready to fledge. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

study of 200 suburban yards in the Washington, DC area.  Scientists from the University of Delaware and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center tracked nesting Carolina Chickadees and found that residential yards dominated by nonnative plants did not provide enough insects for birds to raise their young.  Chickadees were successful in raising and fledging young only when at least 70 percent of the plants in a yard were native to the region.  Birds larger than chickadees, such as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, obviously need even more insects and thus a higher percentage of native plants. We should all strive to have more native plants in our yards.

American Robin nest in my Trumpet Honeysuckle vine. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Several cup-nesting bird species – American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, and Mourning Dove – have also nested in my yard.  Robins nested in a vine, an evergreen tree, on top of a curved downspout, and on top of a wreath hung under my porch overhang.

American Robin nesting in the crook of a downspout. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




These birds certainly need native plants to find sufficient insects to feed their young. However, they also require native trees, shrubs, and vines with dense branching and leaves to provide good structure for the nests and concealment from predators.

Mourning Dove nest in one of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

For example, several pairs of Song Sparrows and Mourning Doves have successfully nested in my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). These evergreens are dense, hide nests well, are difficult for predators like raccoons to climb, and host more than 40 species of caterpillars.

song Sparrow nestlings in another of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

If you are trying to encourage birds to nest in your yard, here are some tips and lessons I have learned:

1. If you add a nesting box, do a little research to select a box with dimensions for the birds you want, and mount it at the suggested height.

House Wren parent with bug and hungry baby.  I added this hardware cloth predator guard after losing  a full set of nestlings to a predator that reached into the box.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

2. Nesting boxes with a predator guard of wood or hardware cloth will make it harder for predators like raccoons and squirrels to reach into the box. A baffle can be added below a box mounted on a pole or wood support.

3. Check a nest no more than once a week. Avoid checking nests when the young are close to fledging.  They may be startled into leaving the nest early and be more subject to predation.



House Wrens found many feathers to add to this nest, but the blue plastic strips on the left might entangle babies. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

4.  It’s better not to put out nesting material, as birds can find natural materials.  If you insist on providing something, do not put out yarn or hair longer than 2” to avoid entanglement.  Dryer lint, human hair or hair from dogs treated with flea/tick medications should not be used.

5. Check your yard for any plastic that birds may use as nesting material. A healthy baby Robin perished in a local nest when a plastic strip used in the nest wrapped around its leg and prevented it from flying from the nest.

Northern Cardinal nest in Barb’s Virginia Creeper on a trellis. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

6. If a baby bird without feathers is on the ground, return it to the nest. However, a baby bird on the ground that has feathers likely has parents nearby. Many newly fledged young spend time on the ground and are fed by parents for several days after leaving the nest.

7.Leave cats indoors year round to prevent killing of babies and adult birds.


8. Don’t use pesticides or herbicides. Birds and other wildlife in a healthy habitat will keep insects in balance.

9. Avoid trimming shrubs and trees during nesting season.

10. At the end of the season, clean out nesting boxes. This allows birds to use the box for roosting and cuts down on blowflies and other insect parasites that may prey on future nestlings.

Above all, enjoy the birds that visit and nest in your yard!  If you have (and keep adding) native plants, you can be assured that there will be enough food for them to successfully raise their young.

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2018 Native Plant Awards


By Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a Tree, Shrub, or Vine and the other is a Perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
  3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
  4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
  5. Easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape.
  6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Our selections for the 2018 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Northern Spicebush, Lindera benzoin                                                          

Spicebush berries are relished by migrating birds. Photo credit: Missouri Plants. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: In the fall this shrub produces high-lipid red berries that are valuable formigrating birds including Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, and other thrushes. The foliage of Spicebush is food for the

Spicebush is the host of this Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar.  In fact, this caterpillar species is entirely dependent on Spicebush and its close relative, Sassafras, for its sustenance. Spicebush is also a host plant for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Promethea Moth. The flowers are pollinated by small native bees, wasps, beetles, and flies.

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on Cardinal Flower. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  This fast-growing, disease-free shrub will thrive in a variety conditions from semi-sun to shade in average to moist soil.  Its natural habitat is the understory of moist woodlands or woodland edge. The leaves, twigs, and other plant parts are spicy when crushed, so deer don’t usually browse this shrub.

Spicebush showing fall foliage Photo: Sally Roth, FineGardening. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: The Spicebush is a multi-stemmed 6-12’ deciduous shrub. Its blossoms appear in early spring before the foliage emerges. Although the flowers are small, they create a nice show of yellow haze when little else is blooming. Because this shrub is dioecious, male and female flowers occur on separate plants, and the berries form from female flowers. The fall foliage is yellow.


Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea 

Painted Lady butterfly nectaring on Purple Coneflower. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: Purple Coneflower’s pollen and nectar are magnets for many bees and butterflies.  Bumble bees and short and long-tongued bees such as small carpenter, sweat, long-horned, digger, and mining bees plus long-horned beetles visit the flowers. Butterflies such as swallowtails, sulphurs, fritillaries, Red Admiral, American and Painted Ladies, Monarch, and skippers are attracted also.  Crab spiders may lurk in the flowerheads to capture both beneficial and pest insects.   A few moth caterpillars will eat the flowers and leaves including Blackberry Looper, Camouflaged Looper (adorns itself

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Coneflower. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

with flower parts to avoid predators), Common Pug, and Sunflower Moth.  In late summer and fall the coneflowers’ seeds are eaten by American Goldfinch and other finches.

Cultivars of Purple Coneflower are frequently sold. When purchasing plants, if possible, choose straight native species. Some cultivars selected by breeders change the shape or color of the flowers and possibly reduce the amount of pollen and nectar. For instance, Purple Coneflower ‘Pink Double Delight’ with its double flowers is less attractive to pollinators.

Growing Conditions:   This trouble-free perennial grows in moist to average soil with sun or part sun.  It can survive heat and moderate draught drought conditions.  Because it prefers lean, poor soil, fertilizer and other amendments are not recommended. The parent plant produces seedlings that can be easily transplanted.  The roots of 3-4-year-old plants can be divided and transplanted, too. Normally, neither deer nor pests are a problem.

Appearance: Purple Coneflower with its pinkish-purple flowerheads is one of our prettiest native perennials.  It grows 3-4 feet tall on sturdy stems that do not require staking.  This perennial blooms from July-September.  Cutting back the spent flowers can extend the blooming period.

A Note of Caution:  Many retailers sell plants treated with pesticides containing neonicotenoids.  These long-lasting pesticides are absorbed into the entire plant.  Insects eating the pollen, nectar, leaves, or any plant part are poisoned. According to the National Wildlife Federation, neonics are “found in hundreds of products, including sprays, granules, tree injections and soil drenches (pesticides applied to the base of plants).”  To avoid neonics, “carefully read labels. Steer clear of products that contain imidacloprid, acetamiprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin or thiamethoxam.”  If it’s not apparent that plants are neonic-free, before you buy, ask the seller to verify that neither they nor their grower treat plants with neonics in any way, including growing them from neonic-coated seeds.  See


Polyphemus Moths Live Near Me

By Edie Parnum

Female Polyphemus Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

A Polyphemus moth alighted on my walkway.  It was August 2016, and I had just moved to a retirement community.   This cinnamon-colored giant silk moth had a wingspan of 4 1/2 inches.  Each hind wing had a large eyespot highlighted with yellow and blue.  It’s named for Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, who was blinded by Odysseus. Although I’m a “moth-er”, I had never seen this handsome moth before.

This summer I acquired two Polyphemus caterpillars at Mothapalooza, a mothing

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by MamaGeek. Click to enlarge.

conference.  They survived the 9-hour ride from southern Ohio.  Once home, I fed them White Oak leaves from my community’s wooded area.  They ate voraciously and pooped continuously.  (Scientists call the excrement frass.)  Once or twice a day I cleaned out the mesh cage and supplied them with fresh leaves.  After two weeks, they stopped eating and formed their cocoons.

Twelve days later, a beautiful Polyphemus adult emerged.  I knew she was a female because she had unfeathered antennae.  Some friends and I released her at dusk.

Antennae of male Polyphemus. © Barb Elliot. click to enlarge.

Off she flew beaming out her pheromones to attract a mate.  Two days later a male emerged from the second cocoon.  We released him, too.  Using his feathered antennae, he can “smell” a female’s pheromones from miles away.

These two moths (or others of their species) will meet up and mate.  They will not eat.  Their sole job is to mate. The fertilized female will lay her eggs on an oak, willow, maple, or birch.

Her eggs will hatch and become caterpillars.  Birds, mammals, and other insects will eat most of them.  Miraculously, a few will survive.  The cycle of life will continue—cocoon, adult moth, mating, egg laying, tiny caterpillars, big caterpillars, and cocoon again.  This will happen over and over, as long as we have wooded areas or yards with the essential native trees to support them.

A Woolly Bear caterpillar looks for a place to spend the winter. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Fall can be a good time to look for Polyphemus and other caterpillars. Many caterpillars leave the host plants where they’ve been feeding and start walking.  These “wanderers” are looking for a suitable place to overwinter.  Many will spend the winter in leaves on the ground; others will spin a cocoon attached to a twig.

Barb found this Polyphemus Moth cocoon in her yard. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Polyphemus moth cocoon could spend the winter in your own yard. Never mind the cold.  Go out into your yard and examine the bare branches of your native trees and shrubs. In 2012 Barb Elliot found a Polyphemus moth cocoon on a Spicebush twig.  She told her story on our blog:, “A Magnificent Moth”.  Maybe you, like Barb, can find a Polyphemus or other cocoon. At all times of the year, we can look for signs of nature, both active and dormant, in our backyards.

Pollinators Come to a Tiny Urban Yard

By Edie Parnum

A 130-square foot cement-covered backyard —who would expect such a yard could be a haven for wildlife?  The property is on a narrow street of rowhouses in Philadelphia.  The nearest park is several miles away. Nonetheless, this garden is teeming with  butterflies, bees, wasps, moths, and a host of other pollinating insects.

A view of Navin’s small backyard. Photo by N. Sasikumar. Click to enlarge.

Navin, an avid amateur naturalist, moved to this property last fall.  He saw the potential to attract pollinators with native plants in raised beds and containers.   In early spring, he invited me for a Backyards for Nature consultation.  Together we made a list of short and mid-sized perennials that bloom from early spring to late fall and are known to attract a variety of pollinators.

He purchased good quality plants from Good Host Plants, a native plant nursery in Philadelphia. He planted perennials in two raised beds that sit atop the cement.  Others he planted in large, deep containers. He installed two trellises for growing vines.

Pecks Skipper butterfly nectaring on Wild Bergamot. Photo by N. Sasikumar

It worked.  In the spring bees and other insects found the Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadense), Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). and Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata).  The summer blossoms of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Butterfly Weed (A.tuberosa), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), and Orange Coneflower

Female Monarch nectaring on Swamp Milkweed Photo by N Sasikumar. Cllick to enlarge.

(Rudbeckia fulgida) host many butterflies and other pollinators.  The show continues this fall with Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), New England Aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), and other asters.  Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquifolia) will bloom on the trellises.

On weekends Navin observes and photographs the wildlife in his

Black Swallowtail caterpillar. Photo by N Sasikumar. click to enlarge.

garden.  He discovered Monarchs laying eggs on his Swamp Milkweed.  An insatiable predator, a Carolina Mantis (our native mantid species) lurked nearby, so he decided to bring the Monarch eggs and caterpillars inside to raise them in safety.  So far, he’s raised and released 34 adult Monarchs.  An additional 47 are either chrysalises or caterpillars and will be released soon for their journey to Mexico.  He’s also rearing BlackSwallowtail eggs and caterpillars that grow on parsley.  According to Navin, nighttime is the best time for spotting the small eggs and caterpillars.

So far, he’s recognized ten additional butterfly species including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red Admiral, and Eastern Tailed Blue.  The biggest surprise was a Giant Swallowtail, a southern species rarely seen in

Giant Swallowtail. Photo by Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

the Philadelphia area. Other insects are finding his garden, too.  Navin observed a Snowberry Clearwing, a large day-flying moth, nectaring on blossoms like a hummingbird. A variety of bees, wasps, flies and moths feed on nectar and pollen.  With so many insects, predators such as the Carolina mantis as well as spiders,lacewings, and parasitic wasps have located his yard, too.  One day he spotted a lacewing eating aphids.

Tiger Bee Fly, a parasite of carpenter bees. Photo by N Sasikumar. Click to enlarge.

Navin offers advice to other wildlife gardeners with limited space.   A great many plants can be crowded into small garden plots, raised beds, and large, deep containers.  Prune the plants periodically to keep them short and use stakes before tall plants get floppy. Water frequently in hot weather.

Navin submits his wildlife sightings to iNaturalist, a nature record-keeping app.  He photographs the butterflies and moths (both adults and caterpillars), bees, wasps, flies, beetles—in fact, any creature using his plants.  He uploads these photos and the species names to iNaturalist. The dates and location are automatically included.  When the species is unknown, iNaturalist experts can usually provide the identification.  Scientists and other amateur naturalists can view and study Navin’s sightings and those of the other 137,000 iNaturalist users.

How do so many creatures find this yard?  Certainly, adult butterflies and moths can fly.  They’re wired to find nectar and pollen for their survival.  With their chemical sensors, they can also locate the specific plants they require to lay their eggs.  Other insects have powerful search mechanisms, too.

Navin will keep searching.  He’ll find more creatures.  After all, this garden is only 6 months old.

Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2017 Native Plant Awards

by Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species. One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a Tree, Shrub, or Vine and the other is a Perennial. Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

1. Native to southeastern Pennsylvania.
2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life.
3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or       pollen. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals.
4. Offer shelter and places to raise young.
5. Easy to grow and make attractive additions to your landscape.
6. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales.

Our selections for the 2017 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens

Wildlife Value: Red tubular flowers on this woody vine produce nectar that attracts and

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds on Trumpet Honeysuckle nectar. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

nourishes our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Butterflies and bumblebees use the nectar and pollen. As with other native plants, the foliage is food for native caterpillars, including Spring Azure butterflies and moths such as Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), Harris’ Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata), and Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja). These caterpillars in turn are food for birds and their nestlings. Songbirds occasionally eat the red berries.

Trumpet Honeysuckle vine in full bloom. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions: Trumpet Honeysuckle is adaptable to a variety of situations, sun or part sun, dry to moist soil. This twining vine is best supported by a trellis, fence, or arbor. The plant is long-lived and usually not bothered by pests or disease. Fertilizer is not recommended.

Harris’ Three Spot moth caterpillars eat honeysuckle leaves. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.



Appearance: This honeysuckle is a rapidly growing multi-stemmed vine but isn’t invasive. The attractive, clustered 2” tubular flowers are red with a yellow throat. They bloom, sometimes profusely, from May through late summer.



New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Wildlife Value: Many bees and butterflies use the pollen and nectar of New England

New England Aster produces a profusion of attractive flowers. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Aster flowers. Sweat bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, mining bees, and bumble bees are attracted to the blooms’ bold, contrasting colors. The flowers are an important nectar source for Monarch butterflies during their fall migration. The foliage hosts 109 species of caterpillars (per Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, 2007) including the Pearl Crescent butterfly. Moth species include Saddleback caterpillar, several geometers, and Brown-hooded Owlet.

Asters are host plants for Pearl Crescent butterflies. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge

Growing Conditions: This trouble-free perennial grows in moist to average soil with sun or part sun. The parent plant produces seedlings that can be easily transplanted. Mature plants can be divided and transplanted, too. Mildew can develop with high humidity and poor circulation.

Appearance: New England Aster is one of our prettiest native perennials. A profusion

Sweat Bee (Augochlorell sp.) collects pollen. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

of brightly colored blossoms, each 1 ½” across, appears in late summer and persists until fall. The flower rays are bright pink or purple, the central florets yellow-orange. The plant grows 3-6 feet high and may require staking. In a small garden, keep the plant from getting too tall by pinching back the top growth in early June and then again in early July. The flowers are attractive additions to flower arrangements. Cultivars are available in a variety of colors and heights.