Variety,of,fresh,,organically,grown,vegetable,seedlings,growing,in,seed
Vegetable seedlings growing in seed starting trays

It’s easy to cure an early case of garden fever: follow these tips on how and when to start seeds indoors. Growing your own seedlings also saves money and gives you the opportunity to enjoy unusual heirloom varieties.

“It’s kind of fun to start things indoors,” says Richard Jauron, a retired horticulturist at Iowa State University. “If you’re looking for a specific variety, you may not find it locally at a greenhouse, so you can buy the seed and start it yourself.”

A fresh pile of seed packets makes gardeners yearn to get growing. But hold tight! If you start too early, you might end up with leggy, overgrown plants that need babying until the frost disappears and the soil warms. Start too late, and you’ll be drooling over your neighbor’s BLTs while forlornly waiting for your plants’ blooms to turn into fruit. Ensure your schedule is set up for success.

Check out the top 10 flowers for harvesting seeds.

Selecting Seeds: Decide What to Grow

Deciding what to grow from seed is up to you, but Richard notes some things aren’t worth the bother. Begonias, for example, have tiny seeds that are hard to germinate and slow to mature. It’s much easier just to buy those plants at the garden center.

Fortunately, there are plenty of easy and readily available candidates, including flowers such as marigolds, zinnias, petunias and impatiens, and vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, kale and broccoli.

The National Garden Bureau recommends that before you sow your first seed, become familiar with that plant’s needs. Does it prefer warm temperatures, or can it tolerate a light frost? Knowing the appropriate growing season and temperature, as well as the light and soil requirements, helps you set a schedule. Many plants, such as peppers, tomatoes and some perennial flowers, need warm temperatures to germinate, making them good candidates for indoor seed starting.

Consider all seasons. While summer offers a rich bounty, spring and fall gardens offer equally extensive harvests of cool-season crops, such as broccoli and lettuce. And cool-season flowers, such as pansies and snapdragons, fill gardens with color and fragrance, so consider them when setting your list.

Check out butterfly flowers that are easy to grow from seed.

Order Seeds Early

Shop early for the best selection and to receive seeds in time to give them a great start. Most seed packets offer excellent information, such as days to germination, ideal temperature, how deep to plant the seeds, days to maturity, plant spacing, sun needs and more.

Knowing how long seeds take to germinate and mature helps you know when is the best time to start them inside. Some seeds, such as lettuce, need to be sown on top of a seed-starting mix, as they need light to germinate. And most seeds, such as borage, need to be kept in the dark until they sprout. All seedlings need light as soon as they germinate, though.

Learn how to grow coneflowers from seeds.

Check Seed Needs

For the best germination, some seeds require a bit of pampering before they’re sown. These prima donnas require more time and effort on your part.

Scarification: A seed with a thick coat can be impenetrable to the moisture and gases that trigger germination. Just as the name implies, you’ll have to scar the seed coat using sandpaper or a nail file to scratch the outer coating, allowing the seed to absorb water and begin germination.

Stratification: Certain seeds, such as poppies, require a chilling period before germination, known as stratification. Direct sow these in the fall, allowing the winter temperatures to provide the needed cold period.

If you forgot to sow seeds until there’s a foot of snow in your garden, or if your mild zone doesn’t get a good winter freeze, no worries! Check your seeds’ stratification requirements— because the length of time varies—and use your refrigerator. Fill a container or bag with perlite, vermiculite and sand, or a seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix, add the seeds and place the labeled container in the refrigerator. Make a note on your calendar about when they will be ready for planting. And never let the seeds dry out during stratification.

Soaking: Some seeds like a soaking to boost germination. A 24-hour bath in lukewarm water encourages certain seeds with a wrinkled appearance, such as nasturtium, to absorb water and begin germination. If you have plans to grow any temperamental seeds that need a little TLC for germination, factor in the additional time into your seed-starting schedule.

Find out how to collect milkweed seeds from pods.

When to Start Seeds Indoors

starting seeds in eggshells
Teach children how flowers and vegetables grow by planting seeds.

Know your last frost and first freeze dates. Of course, these dates are not foolproof—Mother Nature likes to keep us on our toes—but they’re a good place to start with your seed-starting schedule. Plan around the frost dates, but play it safe. For instance, if your last spring frost date is predicted to be April 18, consider waiting an extra week before planting tender crops in the garden. Perhaps keep a frost cover or a few cloches on hand in case of a late cold spell.

Determining when to start seeds indoors depends on where you live. Those who live in hot climates—Zones 8 or 9, for example—may be able start seeds as early as December. Northern gardeners, like those who grow in Zones 3 or 4, should wait until March or April to start most seeds, depending on the plant’s germination period.

Don’t fret if you have to wait a little longer. Extra time offers the perfect opportunity to order seeds—preferably as early as possible to get the best selection. Check out our favorite seed catalogs. Seed packets often include recommendations on when to plant indoors based on your average last frost date.

Richard cautions not to start growing too early. “Something like cucumbers or squash germinate and grow quickly, so start these inside three to four weeks before they can go outdoors,” he says. Tomatoes need five to six weeks indoors; peppers require seven to eight weeks.

Use a Seed Scheduling Tool

While you can create your own customized spreadsheet, adding in the seeds you want to grow, time to germination and days to maturity, Johnny’s Selected Seeds has an online seed-starting calculator to get you growing at the perfect time.

Plug in your last frost date, hit enter and the calculator tells you when to start each type of seed indoors. It shows the number of weeks to start seeds before the setting-out date, as well as the safe time to set out plants relative to the frost-free date.

How to Get Started Growing Seeds Indoors

seedlings in peat pots
Seedlings in peat pots

Richard starts vining vegetables in peat pots, which are biodegradable cells made of compressed peat moss that can be set directly in the ground without disturbing roots. For most other plants, he recommends plastic trays that have been washed with warm, soapy water and disinfected with a 10% bleach solution to prevent spreading disease.

Fill the tray with a commercial seed-starting mix of peat moss and vermiculite, and then sow the seed at the depth recommended on the packet. “For the seed to germinate, it needs good seed-to-soil contact,” Richard says. “And make sure they’re not too crowded.” Properly spaced seedlings are easier to transplant later.

Check out 10 fast-growing vegetables you can harvest quickly.

Boost Seed Germination With Heat

when to start seeds indoors
Make sure your seeds do not dry out.

When you start seeds indoors, warmth and humidity aid germination. “You need to keep the seed consistently moist,” Richard says. After sowing, he waters the tray before stretching clear plastic food wrap across the top and securing it with tape. (Some trays are sold with clear plastic domes to create this greenhouse effect.) He then places it by a heating vent, or you can also use a heating mat specifically for plants.

“As soon as the seedlings come up, take off the plastic, put the trays under lights and let the germination medium dry out—not completely dry out but just enough to dry out somewhat—then water again,” Richard says.

Light is very important. “If you put the seedlings in a window, even a sunny window, they’re not going to get enough light, so they stretch and get very spindly,” Richard says. “I typically use an ordinary fluorescent light with two 40-watt tubes. The light needs to be very close to the seedlings when they come up, typically within 4 to 6 inches.”

Learn how and when to thin vegetable seedlings.

Hardening Off: When to Move Seedlings Outdoors

Seedling Plants Growing From Egg Carton Isolated On White Background.
Once seedlings have two sets of leaves, they are ready to move outside.

Once the seedlings develop a second set of true leaves, Richard transplants them into cell packs filled with potting mix. “I just use a knife and dig them up really carefully by hand,” he says.

When it’s time to take plants outside (see the seed packet for guidance), start by acclimating them to the conditions. This process, called hardening off, can be done by placing plants outside in the shade for a few days, gradually moving them to increase the amount of light they receive every few days.

The National Garden Bureau advises you should introduce plants to the outdoors slowly. Look for a level, partially sunny spot and give plants about an hour of outside time. Increase the amount of sunlight they receive every day until they’re in full sun. Go slow to avoid sunscald. Move plants inside if the nights are cold. Keep them hydrated, because wind and sun make them thirsty.

Conversely, if they have withstood a rainstorm, make sure to pour standing water out of the trays. When the weather is ideal and the plants have been acclimated to the outdoors for about 10 days to two weeks, you can safely introduce the plants to their new garden home.

“I like planting in the morning or in the evening, not during the heat of the day when the plants might suffer a little bit,” Richard says. “Water them well and they should be OK.” If seedlings appear a bit pale, he suggests adding a water-soluble fertilizer when watering, and wait for your plants to flourish.

Learn the best time to water plants.

Extend the Season With Succession Sowing

Some seeds produce quickly and are ideal for direct sowing in the garden. For instance, radish seeds mature in about a month so they are perfect for succession sowing. Plant some seeds every two weeks, then enjoy a continuous supply of radishes.

Top Plants to Start from Seed

These popular blooms and veggies are easy to grow start from seed.

Flowers

  • Aster
  • Bachelor’s button
  • Calendula
  • Cosmos
  • Phlox
  • Salvia
  • Sunflower

Vegetables

  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Lettuce
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers

About the Expert

Richard Jauron worked as an Extension Program Specialist in the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University. Richard provided answers to home gardeners and extension staff. He also assisted with operating the university’s Master Gardener program.

Sources

  • The National Garden Bureau
  • Johnny’s Seeds

Why Trust Us?

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

With the range of colors, shapes and sizes of roses available, it’s possible to have blooms from May through the fall frost. Here are tips and tricks for planting and growing potted roses.

Pick the Right Size Pot for Your Rose

bearded gardener works in greenhouse
Make sure the container is the right size for your rose bush.

Laura LeBoutillier of Garden Answer, a popular YouTube channel, says rose tags state the average height and width. For miniature and petite roses, the minimum container size is 12 inches in diameter to allow for enough room for root growth. Insulation from heat and cold is another factor for the 12-inch pot recommendation. The rule of thumb for larger roses is a minimum container size of 18 inches. The larger the pot, the more space the rose has to grow a strong root system.

Tall, narrow containers are not ideal because they drain too quickly. When the height and width are equal in size, pots drain slower, keeping the roots more evenly moist. Choose pots that are made of thick plastic, foam or ceramic, with drainage holes in the bottom. Those materials are nonporous, so they keep the plant well-insulated while holding in valuable moisture. Nonporous pots also keep the roots warmer in the winter months and help prevent freezing.

Check out the top 10 fragrant roses to perfume your garden.

Use High-Quality Soil for Potted Roses

Many high-quality potting soils contain mycorrhizae to help stimulate root growth. In nature, mycorrhizae are found growing with most woody plants. They help nutrient uptake in plants and provide a more consistent growth rate and overall health for the plants.

Because roses will be in their containers for years, a high-quality soil blend is ideal for the long haul. Some mixes include water-storing crystals—and you don’t need to add anything else. If yours does not, you can add some by mixing the correct amount recommended on the water-storing crystals’ package.

Do roses prefer sun or shade?

Care Tips to Grow Roses in Pots

flowers for pots, Petite Knockout Container
Petite Knock Out rose

Fill the pot for your container roses about two-thirds full with the soil mix. Skip the fillers, peanuts, rocks and stones! Remove the rose from its original container by tipping it over and gently sliding it out. Loosen the root ball a bit and check it for circling roots. If you see any, cut them with a knife or use a sharp pair of shears.

Set the rose on the soil. See if it sits 2 inches below the lip of the pot. If it does, backfill with soil around the root ball. Keep the soil light—not packed down tight—to maintain proper airflow for the roots. When you are done filling the pot, sprinkle a granular slow-release fertilizer on the soil surface, then water the plant in until the water comes out the bottom of the pot.

If you chose not to use water crystals in your soil, you might want to consider using a plant diaper to help with watering. One product on the market is the TreeDiaper. Soak the diaper in a pail of water for about 20 minutes. When the plant diaper is saturated, nestle it on the top of the soil around the stems of the rose bush—but not touching them.

Learn when to fertilize roses and peonies.

The Best Potted Roses to Grow

Julia Child 011
Julia Child rose
  • All the Rage
    Apricot flowers with a light fragrance
  • Julia Child
    Brilliant yellow blooms with a light fragrance
  • Cinco de Mayo
    A cascade of blooms with a slight apple fragrance— loves a bigger container
  • Oso Easy Petit Pink
    A tough, salt-tolerant beauty
  • Petite Knock Out 
    The perfect small bright red rose for a small container
  • At Last
    A sunset-orange bloom with a sweet perfume fragrance
  • Champagne Dreams
    A 4-foot-tall patio tree rose with apricot blooms and fruity fragrance
  • Angel Face
    A true lavender rose with a strong, sweet citrus fragrance—grow it in a large container
  • Summer Surprise 
    A tree rose standing about 4 to 6 feet tall with 5-inch yellow flowers with orange tips

Discover fascinating facts about roses.

About the Expert

Laura LeBoutillier and her husband, Aaron, own the popular Garden Answer YouTube channel. Since she started posting gardening advice videos in 2014, Laura’s gained more than 5 million subscribers across multiple social media platforms, and almost 2 million YouTube subscribers.

Sources

Why Trust Us?

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

Bnbbyc19 Sidney Schnyder
Pigeons and mourning doves are part of the same bird family.

Pigeons and mourning doves are similar in many respects—stout bodies, head-bobbing gaits, and the familiar low-pitched cooing calls. It makes sense given they are members of the same family, Columbidae, which consists of more than 300 species. At least 11 types of doves and pigeons call the U.S. home, with pigeons being larger in size. But there are other differences, too, including coloring, diet, and habitat, between a mourning dove vs a pigeon.

Enjoy 25 breathtaking mourning dove pictures.

Mourning Dove vs Pigeon: Consider Habitat

Pigeons Line Up in New York City
Pigeons are frequently spotted in urban areas.

Pigeons are the wild ancestors of rock doves, and originated in Europe, North Africa and western Asia. They were domesticated in Europe and brought to the United States where they eventually escaped and thrived.

Today, these birds are common sights in towns and cities featuring tall buildings with ledges and fire escapes that replicate the seaside cliffs of the birds’ ancestral lands. Unofficial estimates of the pigeon population in New York City start around 1 million! Pigeons are less often found in suburbs, and on farms and rocky cliffs.

Rock Pigeon
Pigeons like this one are larger and more colorful than mourning doves.

Mourning doves are native to North America, and are found as far south as Central America. Mourning doves prefer farmland with scattered trees and shrubs, woodland edges and suburban gardens, but are also found in prairies and deserts. They are a familiar presence foraging on the ground beneath hanging feeders in suburbia.

Mystery solved: Here’s why you never see a baby pigeon.

Differences in Color and Tail Length

mourning dove vs pigeon
Mourning doves have longer tails than pigeons.

Mourning doves and pigeons have round heads, short necks, and short thin beaks. Compared to mourning doves, pigeons are larger and stubbier with shorter, straighter tails. Mourning dove tails are longer and tapered. Birders can identify mourning doves in flight by flashes of white on the tips of their fan-shaped tails.

When it comes to coloration, the differences between a mourning dove vs pigeon are apparent. Mourning doves are tan overall with some gray coloring, and black spots on their wings. They also have pastel blue skin encircling their eyes. Pigeons have a variety of colorations, including iridescent feathers on their necks, two black bars in the wing, a gray back, and a blue-gray head.

Two Mourning Doves Perched On A Branch
Mourning doves are primarily tan in color.

Both pigeons and mourning doves are fast, strong flyers. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, some racing pigeons have reached speeds over 90 miles per hour. This is much faster than mourning doves, whose speed has been timed up to 55 mph.

Do mourning dove feathers and wings make noise?

Differences in Diet

mourning dove
Mourning doves often visit backyard feeders for bird seed.

Pigeons and mourning doves move in flocks, and forage mostly on the ground. Lacking large seed-cracking bills, these birds feed on smaller seeds from grasses and ragweeds. They also eat cultivated grains such as millet and corn, as well as berries and other small fruits. Less often they’ll eat insects and crustaceans such as snails.

Mourning doves feed almost entirely on seeds, and can be attracted with a platform feeder containing millet, black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer, and cracked corn.

Pigeons, on the other hand, eat a greater variety of food, including human food. Many cities discourage feeding pigeons because it creates unnaturally large pigeon populations, and can cause disease outbreaks in other wild birds.

Next, learn about mourning dove nests and the average mourning dove lifespan.

Additional reporting by Kaitlin Stainbrook

Sources

Why Trust Us?

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

Do Hummingbirds Like Rose of Sharon?

247260060 1 Carla Tarzia Bnbhc20
Female ruby-throated hummingbird perched on a rose of Sharon plant.

On a recent trip to Michigan to visit family, I was captivated by the rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) bush in their front yard. It was a magnet for everything with wings! One afternoon, I dragged a lawn chair into the shade by the bush to watch for about an hour to see what visitors I could spot. I quickly learned that rose of Sharon attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and plenty more pollinators including bees, wasps and flies.

252431552 1 Christina Cole Bnb Bypc2020
Hummingbirds and other pollinators love these shrubs.

I also spotted many butterflies using the flowers for nectar, including a giant swallowtail, great spangled fritillary, and cabbage white. Dragonflies were using the branches to perch, and small songbirds flitted in and out of the shelter of the branches. It was simply amazing how this one small shrub was providing food and shelter for so many different backyard species all at once.

Check out the top 15 colorful hummingbird flowers to grow.

Rose of Sharon Care

rose of sharon
Rose of Sharon bush filled with blooms

Native to Asia, rose of Sharon is usually grown in the U.S. in zones 5 to 8. It blooms from summer through fall and is easy to grow in most soils and conditions. You can prune it into a hedge or tree form, or let it ramble wild. Look for multiple cultivars at your local garden center, or ask a friend or neighbor for a stem cutting to root.

248039503 1 Paul Hersey Bnbhc20
Look for colorful flowers in late summer and fall
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Hibiscus syriacus
  • Zones: 5 to 8
  • Size: 8 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide
  • Light needs: Full to partial sun
  • Soil: Moist, well-draining soil
  • Flower color: white, pink, red, purple, blue or violet
  • Attracts: hummingbirds, bees, butterflies
  • Bloom time: Late summer to mid-autumn

This is the hibiscus to grow if others have failed you. In the right conditions, the upright shrub reaches 12 feet tall, creating an excellent privacy screen or focal point. Watch for Japanese beetles, which can cause serious foliage damage.

Rose of Sharon Varieties to Grow

Choose pure white, 9-foot-tall Diana or one of the 6-foot Chateau varieties, whose multiple stems are lined completely with pink, white or rosy purple blossoms from summer to fall. Another cultivar we love, Blue Bird, has a contrasting deep burgundy center and bright white stamen.

Learn how to attract hummingbirds to a small garden.

Rose of Sharon Not Blooming

Pwblue Chiffon Hibiscus Syriacus
Blue Chiffon rose of Sharon

“Two rose of Sharon plants grow side by side in my garden. One blooms prolifically, but the other not so much. I’ve experimented with fertilizers, but the blooms just bud and never open. Why is that?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Don Buehler of Yardley, Pennsylvania.

Gardening expert Melinda Myers says, “Many gardeners report the same problem with their rose of Sharon shrubs. New plantings seem to be the most susceptible, as they are focusing energy on establishing a robust root system instead of on the flowers. Fluctuations in soil moisture, hot temperatures and other plant stressors can contribute to bud drop. Mulch the soil and provide consistent moisture throughout the growing season. Avoid overfertilization, which can interfere with flowering and promote lush succulent growth that certain insects, such as aphids, prefer to dine on.

Aphids, thrips and midges can stress the plants and result in bud drop. Use a strong blast of water to dislodge aphids.

Your shrub may also be producing more flowers than the plant can support. Plants often shed excess flowers and fruit when this occurs, which has led some experts to recommend removing all but two or three buds per stem.

A fungal disease, botrytis blight, can infect flower buds, causing them to turn brown and drop to the ground before opening. Remove and destroy botrytis-infected buds to reduce the risk for next year. Discarding dropped buds that may contain midges is also helpful.

Always confirm the exact cause if you decide to chemically control an insect or disease pest. Rose of Sharon flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds and bees, so you do not want to harm them when trying to manage a problem.”

Hydrangea not blooming? Here’s what to do.

Winter Hardiness and Pruning

Pollypetite Hibiscus 4
Prune hibiscus, like Pollypetite rose of Sharon, in late winter or early spring.

“I planted three perennial hibiscus shrubs, and I’ve read conflicting stories about pruning and winterizing. What is the right way to care for them?” asks reader Kathryn Small of Simpsonville, Kentucky.

Melinda says, “I assume you are speaking of Hibiscus syriacus, commonly called rose of Sharon or shrub althea. It is hardy in Zones 5 to 8 or 9, although it may suffer severe injury or death when temperatures dip to 20 degrees below zero. Proper siting and care should be sufficient to prepare these plants for your winter. Prune young plants to encourage balanced growth and branching if needed.

Once established, these plants need minimal pruning. Just remove any winter dieback. Because this plant blooms on new growth, it can be pruned anytime during the dormant season. I prefer late winter or early spring before growth begins. That way you can remove any winter injury while managing the size and shape of the plant.”

Learn how to prepare and prune roses for winter.

Is Rose of Sharon Invasive?

One word of caution: this non-native shrub is considered invasive in some areas. If you’re concerned, check with your local extension office to find out if this flowering bush is right for your yard. Also look for seedless cultivars like Sugar Tip.

Psst—never plant these invasive shrubs (and what to grow instead!)

Sources

  • Proven Winners
  • Monrovia

About the Expert

Melinda Myers is the official gardening expert for Birds & Blooms. She is a TV/radio host, author and columnist who has written more than 20 gardening books. Melinda earned a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Why Trust Us?

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

Perhaps no bird native to North America is more maligned than the brown-headed cowbird. This smallish blackbird lays its eggs in the nests of host species, letting unsuspecting parents raise its young—a breeding strategy known as brood parasitism.

Meet five types of blackbirds you should know.

Brown-Headed Cowbirds Take Over Nests

brown-headed cowbird on a bird bath
A male brown-headed cowbird has a black body and wings with a thick bill and short tail.

The brown-headed cowbird is the most common brood parasite in North America. Both shiny and bronzed cowbirds, native to the American tropics and extending into some southern states, are also brood parasites.

Female brown-headed cowbirds parasitize more than 200 bird species, including the widespread northern cardinal; grassland birds such as meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and dickcissels; and the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. As a native species, cowbirds are protected under federal law, so it’s illegal for humans to remove their eggs from a nest.

Bison Copy Space Badlands National Park South Dakota
Known as “bison birds” at one time, brown-headed cowbirds followed bison herds across the prairies, eating insects kicked up by the herds’ movements. The birds expanded their range as forests were cleared in the 1800s.

A cowbird looks for a nest containing freshly laid eggs so their own eggs will have enough time to develop, which takes about 11 days. The female cowbird may poke holes in the host’s eggs to judge the stage of development. If it’s fresh, the cowbird may toss it from the nest and replace it with its own egg. If the egg is too developed, the cowbird sometimes destroys the entire clutch in what biologists call farming.

“It forces the host mother to make a new nest that maybe the cowbird can parasitize in her next nesting attempts,” says Sarah K. Winnicki, a PhD candidate in the ecology, evolution and conservation biology program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Learn how to identify a red-winged blackbird and European starling.

Cowbirds Lay Dozens of Eggs Each Breeding Season

Brood Parasitism Of Purple Finch Nest, cowbird egg
Cowbirds do not build their own nests. This purple finch nest contains one spotted cowbird egg.

Cowbirds may lay 50 or more eggs in a breeding season. To contrast, a bird such as an American robin lays three to four eggs twice a season. Instead of investing their energy into building nests and feeding young, cowbirds focus on ingesting enough calcium to produce eggs, finding host nests and checking in on their young once they’ve hatched, according to Sarah.

“They’re investing in offspring at a different point in development than other birds,” Sarah says. Because host parents must feed these fast-growing cowbirds that are often larger than their own nestlings, “It’s energetically costly for these parents, keeping them from future reproductive attempts,” Sarah says.

This is how to get rid of blackbirds and grackles at your feeders.

Cowbirds Are Occasionally Outsmarted

Bird On A Perch
A female brown-headed cowbird is plain brown in color with no distinctive field marks.

But some host birds have wised up regarding cowbirds. Brown-headed cowbird eggs are white to grayish white with brown or gray spots or streaks. This sets them apart from most host’s eggs, including American robins’ eggs, which are larger and blue-green. Robins almost always eject cowbird eggs from their nests.

And yellow warblers use a seet warning call. “When they hear it, they rush to their nest and sit on it to prevent a cowbird from laying an egg there,” says Sarah, who notes that when a cowbird successfully lays an egg in a yellow warbler nest, the warbler can prevent it from being incubated by building a new nest bottom over the egg.

Brown Headed Cowbird.
Cowbirds are infamous for letting other birds raise their young.

In response, cowbirds will check on nests where they’ve left eggs. If their eggs or hatchlings have been rejected by the foster parent, the cowbird may destroy its nest. “It ensures the host doesn’t pass that behavioral innovation to its offspring,” Sarah says.

Learn how to identify bird eggs by color and size.

Do Baby Cowbirds Reunite With Their Parents?

goldfinch feeding a juvenile cowbird
Male American goldfinch feeding a juvenile cowbird

Recent research has found that cowbird nestlings may recognize a female cowbird call. Cowbird young that are at least 12 days old may leave their host nest at night. Sarah says, “They’ll sneak out like teenagers, then come back to the nest to get food in the morning. It could be that they’re meeting other cowbirds in the middle of the night.”

Next, get to know the house sparrow: another disliked backyard bird.

About The Expert

Sarah K. Winnicki is an avian biologist and PhD candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Sarah’s research focuses on growth rates of songbirds like American robins, and their past research has focused on environmental impacts on growth rates of songbirds in the grasslands.

Sources

Why Trust Us?

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

Which Red Tanager Are You Seeing?

When you’re out birding and you see a flash of red, your first assumption might be that your mystery red bird is a northern cardinal. However, if you know you haven’t spotted a cardinal, the ID’s can get a bit trickier—especially when it comes to two similar-looking tanagers. Here’s how to tell the difference between a summer tanager vs a scarlet tanager.

Scarlet Tanager Identification Tips

North American Bird Species: Scarlet Tanager, Piranga Olivacea
Adult male scarlet tanager

The bold and brilliantly colored scarlet tanager is widespread in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada in summer. Adult males are red with solid black wings and tails. These birds are red in spring and summer, molting to olive tones after breeding season. Female scarlet tanagers are olive-yellow all over with grayish wings and tails.

Not typical feeder birds (although they’ll sometimes stop by feeders for oranges), scarlet tanagers mostly eat insects. They’ll also dine on wild fruits and berries. To identify a scarlet tanager by ear, listen for a hoarse, whistled song with phrases in a rapid pattern. Sometimes, the bird’s song is described as an American robin with a sore throat. Its call is a chik-burr.

Learn all about the five tanager species found in North America.

Summer Tanager Identification Tips

Summer Tanager
Adult male summer tanager

Birders spot summer tanagers in the southeastern U.S. and all through the South into California in summer. Adult males are solid red all over, lacking the scarlet tanager’s black wings. In another key difference between summer and scarlet tanagers, summer tanagers keep that coloring year-round. They’re the only all-red birds that are widespread in North America.

Female summer tanagers are yellow all over with a pink or pale-colored bill.

Similarly to scarlet tanagers, summer tanagers eat mostly insects. They’ll dine on fruits and berries occasionally, but they’re especially known for eating bees and wasps.

To identify a summer tanager by ear, listen for a low, lazy and robinlike song. Its call note is a snappy pick-i-tuck.

Now that you know the difference between a summer tanager vs a scarlet tanager, learn how to identify the sunset colored western tanager.

Sources

Why Trust Us?

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

What Do Male and Female Western Bluebirds Look Like?

Western Bluebird Perching In California Lilac Blossoms Vertical
The male western bluebird is more vibrantly colored than the female.

Nothing brightens a backyard quite like a western bluebird. “The blue feathers of a western bluebird sparkle,” says Joyce Volmut, coordinator for Olympic Peninsula Audubon’s western bluebird survey. “They have a real personality. They are comfortable around people, and their color is absolutely fantastic.”

The western bluebird is one of three bluebird species found in North America. True to the name, western bluebirds are West Coast birds that also appear in regions across the West and down south into Mexico.

Male mountain bluebirds are predominantly blue, but male eastern and western bluebirds are more difficult to tell apart because they both have blue and orange plumage. It’s a male western bluebird if it has a blue belly, throat and face.

Female Western Bluebird Perching In Willow Tree
A female western bluebird perches in a willow tree

Female western bluebirds lack the bold coloring of males, but look for their blue-tinted wings and tails, and faint orange shading on the breast.

Marvel at these gorgeous pictures of bluebirds — then say “awwwwww!” at these adorable baby bluebirds.

What Does a Western Bluebird Eat?

Western Bluebird, pair
Female and male western bluebirds on a bird feeder

Though western bluebirds eat many berries during the winter, they are primarily insectivores. Their young feed exclusively on bugs. “They’re entertaining to watch, catching insects on the fly,” Joyce says. “Putting out mealworms is a great way to attract them. Likewise, avoid insecticides or pesticides.”

A western bluebird barely tips the scale at just one ounce. To keep their slim figures, they eat about 15 calories a day, or 23 if they are caring for a brood.

With some mealworms or even bluebird feeders, these birds can add bright blue joy to your yard while providing hours of entertainment.

Get more tips on how to attract bluebirds.

Nesting Habits

Western Bluebird Sialia Mexicana Adult Female At Nesting Cavity In Aspen Tree Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado Usa
A female western bluebird at a nesting cavity.

These bluebirds nest early, starting to look for a nest site in February or early March, but don’t actually lay eggs until April. Though western bluebirds are cavity nesters, they don’t make the holes for themselves. Instead, they use woodpecker holes and other existing hollows, often in dead trees.

According to Joyce, you can lure western bluebirds to your yard with nest boxes if the boxes are in a clearing near trees with a bird bath or creek close by. Westerns don’t prefer big open meadows or large bodies of water. A nest box should be constructed of rough wood that is 5 inches square by 8 inches deep with a 1½-inch hole. Place the box on a free-standing pole, at least 5 feet above the ground.

Here’s how to build a DIY bluebird house.

“Note where the wind mainly comes from, then face the hole in the opposite direction,” Joyce says. “If the wind is from the north, the hole should face south. They aren’t an urban bird, so the box needs to be in an outlying area.”

A Closeup Of A Cute Young Western Bluebird In The Field
Juvenile western bluebirds have spots on their back and breast

Western bluebirds may look like sweet blue songbirds, but they will ferociously defend their nests. For this reason, Joyce suggests putting up more than one box if possible, spacing them 100 to 200 feet apart. Then, westerns can peacefully raise their broods, one to three per year, next to their neighbors.

Most birds mate for a breeding season or nesting period, but that kind of monogamy is less appealing to western bluebirds. Researchers discovered that 45 percent of nests held young that were not fathered by the male who defended the nest, and 19 percent of all chicks were not the defending male’s.

western bluebirds, juvenile, western bluebird
Juvenile western bluebirds with an adult male

Some western bluebird parents get extra parenting support. These assistants, which help feed and protect the new hatchlings, are usually offspring from a previous brood.

Juvenile western bluebirds have spotted backs to match their marked bellies, and the blue tint of their wings and tails also helps ID them.

Learn how to keep house sparrows out of bluebird boxes.

Western Bluebird Song

 Bird songs courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Western Bluebird Habitat and Range Map

Western Bluebird Mapx

Range maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

These small, vibrantly colored members of the thrush family are only partial or short-distance migrants. When they find a place they like, they’ll often stick around year after year.

This species breeds in the west. It replaces the eastern bluebird in areas west of the Great Plains. In the Southwest, it’s mostly a bird of foothills and mountains. Along the Pacific Coast, it lives in parks and yards. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, western bluebirds are less commonly spotted in meadows than the other two bluebird species.

Western bluebirds spend winter in various kinds of open woods. They may gather in large flocks, especially in foothills with juniper berries; they also move out into desert areas.

About the Expert

Joyce Volmut is a Climate Watch Coordinator for Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society. Collecting data from participants in Audubon’s Climate Watch program, she plays a vital role in monitoring Audubon’s selected target bird populations—including western bluebirds.

Sources

Why Trust Us?

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

Are Monarch Butterflies in Danger of Extinction?

Monarch butterfly with tag
Monarch butterfly with tracking tag

Monarchs are among the most recognizable and best loved butterflies in North America, but you might have noticed fewer of them traveling through your garden over the last few years. Given the less frequent sightings, you might’ve wondered: are monarch butterflies endangered?

The answer is both yes and no. Migratory monarch butterflies entered the International Union of Conservation of Nature‘s Red List of Threatened Species as endangered in 2021. However, in late 2023, the butterfly’s status was reassessed and listed instead as vulnerable. This change in terminology came not from an increase in monarch numbers, but from a shift in the data used to assign classifications.

Monarch Population Numbers Continue to Decline

monarch butterfly on liatris
Monarch butterfly on liatris

Researchers have split monarchs into two groups at the Rockies: eastern and western. They’re not distinct species, but their migration paths and overwintering habitats differ.

According to the IUCN, the western population is at greatest risk of extinction, having declined by an estimated 99.9%, from as many as 10 million to 1,914 butterflies between the 1980s and 2021.

The larger eastern population also shrunk by 84% from 1996 to 2014. During the 2023-2024 winter season, the eastern monarch population shrunk by 59%, occupying just 2.2 acres from the previous year’s 5.5 acres. According to a report released by World Wildlife Fund, the decreased numbers resulted from droughts in the United States and Mexico, as well as herbicide use.

“The severe drought conditions in the southern U.S. and Mexico suggested the population would likely decrease,” says Wendy Caldwell, Executive Program Director for Monarch Joint Venture. “We expected some kind of decline, but it was a pretty significant drop to the second-lowest population ever.”

Why Are Monarch Numbers Decreasing?

Why are monarch butterfly numbers in such steep decline? Mary Phillips, head of Garden for Wildlife from the National Wildlife Federation, says, “Monarchs are threatened with widespread habitat loss, increased use of pesticides to control insects and weeds, and natural enemies such as predators, parasitoids, and diseases. A changing climate is making some habitat less suitable and forcing changes in migratory patterns.”

Mary further explains that milkweed, the only host plant on which monarchs lay their eggs, used to grow abundantly across the United States. “The best way to help monarchs is restoring their natural habitat by planting native milkweeds and nectar plants, eliminating pesticides and encouraging others to adopt these practices,” she says.

Discover what monarch caterpillars look like, as well as three butterflies that look like monarchs.

Reasons for Monarch Optimism

monarch butterfly migration
Monarchs at Tawas Point State Park in Michigan

There is still reason to hope for West Coast monarchs. The Xerces Society and other organizations with similar goals are pushing to restore and protect overwintering, breeding and migration habitat throughout the West and into Mexico.

“It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope. So many people and organizations have come together to try and protect this butterfly and its habitats. From planting native milkweed and reducing pesticide use to supporting the protection of overwintering sites and contributing to community science, we all have a role to play in making sure this iconic insect makes a full recovery,” said Anna Walker, member of the IUCN SSC Butterfly and Moth Specialist Group and Species Survival Officer at the New Mexico BioPark Society, who led the monarch butterfly assessment.

Do monarch butterfly sightings have meaning?

Grow a Garden for Monarch Butterflies

monarch caterpillar
A monarch caterpillar crawls across a milkweed leaf

Weather plays a large part in conservation, but there’s plenty gardeners can do to help, too. Planting natives and choosing natural, non-insecticide or herbicide solutions for weeds and pests go a long way in sustaining the beloved monarch.

All monarchs start their lives on milkweed; it’s the only plant on which adults lay their eggs and caterpillars happily munch. Consider planting one of the many native varieties of milkweed in your pollinator garden to get an up-close view of the monarch life cycle. Avoid tropical milkweed, however. It’s a non-native plant, and it can negatively affect monarch migration patterns.

Support adult monarchs on their long journey south by growing nectar-rich flowers that bloom from late summer into fall. Try goldenrod, asters and coreopsis. “Adult monarchs feed on the nectar of many flowers, but they breed only where milkweeds are found,” Mary says.

More Ways to Help Monarchs

251125402 1 Kira Macneil Bnb Bypc2020, are monarch butterflies endangered?
Monarch butterfly on milkweed
  1. Encourage local leaders to join the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge.
  2. Engage in community conservation actions such as native habitat restoration, education and outreach and local policy changes to benefit monarch butterflies.
  3. Enroll in monarch conservation, community-based science opportunities in local communities.
  4. Reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides.
  5. Create an outdoor space using native plants that attract monarchs and other pollinators. Once you’ve incorporated all the elements of a wildlife-friendly habitat—food, water, cover, and places to raise young—be recognized by certifying your space through Garden for Wildlife’s signature Certified Wildlife Habitat program. Every $20 application fee helps further protect and restore key habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Every certified garden also counts toward meeting the goals of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.
  6. Butterfly Heroes is an initiative that connects gardeners and kids and families alike to help monarch butterflies and other pollinators. By taking a pledge to be a Butterfly Hero, pledgers are committing to create new habitat for monarchs.
  7. It is not imperative to report every monarch in your garden. However, many gardeners like to keep their own records and track how many monarchs they see from one year to another. For reporting, the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count is the oldest and best. The Xerces Society has been cataloging the rapid decline of monarchs. It’s important to follow their guidelines and suggestions for the count.

Psst—if you’re interested in raising monarch butterflies, here’s what you need to know.

Additional reporting by Emily Hannemann

About the Experts

Wendy Caldwell is the executive director for Monarch Joint Venture. Having worked to conserve monarch populations for more than a decade, she has helped Monarch Joint Venture partner with nearly 100 organizations to help educate the public about monarchs and the importance of monarch conservation.

Mary Phillips is Head of Native Plant Habitat and Certifications for the World Wildlife Fund. As leader of WWF’s Garden for Wildlife programs, Mary advocates for gardeners to include native plants in their landscapes. She collaborates with conservationists, entomologists, federal agencies and more to make native plants accessible for all.

Anna Walker is the Species Survival Officer for Invertebrate Pollinators at New Mexico BioPark Society. Her work focuses on preserving threatened species of insects, including butterflies, bees, and butterflies.

Sources

  • The Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation
  • International Union for Conservation of Nature

Why Trust Us

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.

What Do Eurasian Collared-Doves Look Like?

Collared Dove (streptopelia Decaocto)
Look for a black ring around the neck to identify a Eurasian collared-dove.

Eurasian collared-doves are sometimes confused with mourning doves. If a thick black band is present on the collar, it’s a collared dove. Although visually similar, Eurasian collared-doves are heftier than mourning doves and have greater wingspans—a difference of about 10 centimeters.

Range

“What’s the difference between the doves with plain gray feathers and the ones with a black ring around the neck?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Wil Bridger of Twin Falls, Idaho.

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman explain, “This reflects a fascinating change in North American bird life. Eurasian collared-doves, the ones with the black rings, are native to Europe and Asia. They escaped in the Bahamas in the 1970s and thrived in the wild there. In the 1980s, some strayed to Florida, where they established a population and began to increase in numbers.

Soon they expanded their range toward the west and north into areas where mourning doves, which are mostly gray, are common. Collared-doves are still scarce in the Northeast and upper Midwest, but they are now common all over the southern and western states. A few reached your area of Idaho around 2005, and they’ve been increasing ever since.”

Great Backyard Bird Count data shows the Eurasian collared-dove has now expanded its range to more than 39 states and into Canada.

There are four predominant dove species found in the Southwest: Eurasian collared-dove, Inca dove, mourning dove and white-winged dove.

Eurasian Collared-Dove Sound

The Eurasian collared-dove’s voice is a “coo-coo-coo” and they also emit a harsh “krreew” when in flight. Do mourning dove feathers and wings make noise?


Bird sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Diet

Eurasian Collared dove perched on a branch
A nonnative bird species, the Eurasian collared-dove has expanded its range across the United States.

Eurasian collared-doves tend to make their homes in urban and suburban areas but stay away from large cities. They are not timid and are tolerant of humans. These doves will visit your bird feeder, mostly feeding on the seed that falls to the ground. They also eat insects as well, but grains are their favorite food.

Don’t miss 25 breathtaking mourning dove pictures.

Nesting Habits

In areas with mild winters, they breed year round and average three to four broods per year, laying two eggs at a time on a stick nest. The female incubates the eggs at night, while the male sits on them during the day. The male and female are very similar in appearance and difficult to tell apart from the other. They are almost always seen in pairs and mate for life.

Learn more about baby mourning doves and mourning dove nests.

Additional reporting by Kaitlin Stainbrook

About the Experts

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman are the official birding experts for Birds & Blooms. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world.

Sources

Why Trust Us

For nearly 30 years, Birds & Blooms, a Trusted Media Brandhas been inspiring readers to have a lifelong love of birding, gardening and nature. We are the #1 bird and garden magazine in North America and a trusted online resource for over 15 million outdoor enthusiasts annually. Our library of thousands of informative articles and how-tos has been written by trusted journalists and fact-checked by bird and garden experts for accuracy. In addition to our staff of experienced gardeners and bird-watchers, we hire individuals who have years of education and hands-on experience with birding, bird feeding, gardening, butterflies, bugs and more. Learn more about Birds & Blooms, our field editor program, and our submission guidelines.