In certain places where land meets water or where mountain ridges create geographic funnels, migrating raptors gather in huge numbers every autumn. Many birds of prey look for thermals, which are rising columns of air that form when the sun heats the earth, to help them soar as high as 3,000 feet. “Riding the thermals helps raptors conserve energy as they head south for the winter,” says Step Wilson, Hawkwatch program manager at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in San Francisco. Bird-watchers and scientists observe hawk migration in the U.S. from late August to mid-December, with species numbers and types changing as the season progresses. At hot spots across the country, researchers safely capture and band hawks, and volunteers perform daylong counts as the birds fly over. Here are a few places to witness high-flying migrants.
How to Be a Hawk Migration Watcher
Follow these tips when you set off to find soaring birds.
- When To Go: A sunny day with some clouds and northwest winds about 15-20 mph is best for raptor watching. Hawks typically fly from about 10 a.m. to late afternoon.
- What To Bring: Pack layers of clothing, water, binoculars and snacks. Don’t forget to wear sturdy hiking boots.
- What To Expect: Be prepared for an uphill climb at some observatories. Hawk-watching requires a little patience, but expect the unexpected.
1. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania
An annual hawk watch occurs daily at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a 2,600-acre scenic preserve, from Aug. 15 to Dec. 15. Check out North Lookout, only a mile from the visitor center, where an average of 18,000 hawks, eagles and falcons are counted each season.
Highlights include large numbers of broad-winged hawks in September. Plus, spotters have seen more than 1,000 sharp-shinned hawks in a single day in October and more than 1,000 red-tailed hawks a day in late October and early November.
Hawk Mountain was the first refuge for birds of prey in the world. It was protected in 1934 in order to stop the hunting of birds of prey for sport and opened to the public the following year so that people could observe these amazing birds. This site is now one of the most popular hawk watch location in the eastern U.S.
2. Smith Point Hawk Watch, Texas
At some hawk watches, raptors are too high for beginners to identify, but at Smith Point Hawk Watch, visitors take spectacular photos and get close looks as birds fly over a tower set up for counting.
Raptors congregate when they reach Galveston Bay and must decide whether to cross it or choose another route. Some 50,000 to 100,000 individuals, such as broad-winged hawks, Mississippi kites and sharp-shinned hawks, pass through each season, along with black and turkey vultures.
About an hour from Smith Point, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and HawkWatch International conduct a watch at the Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur, Texas, where up to 19 hawk species show up at different times during the season.
3. Corpus Christi HawkWatch, Texas
More than 1 million migratory raptors were counted in a single season along the Nueces River by Corpus Christi HawkWatch. Researchers and visitors see broad-winged hawks and sharp-shinned hawks as well as Mississippi kites, turkey vultures and some rare finds, including zone-tailed hawks and swallow-tailed kites. It’s one of the best places in the U.S. to view the largest concentration of migrating raptors each fall.
Visit early August through November and join researchers at the covered platform on a bluff at Hazel Bazemore County Park.
4. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Minnesota
Hawk Ridge attracts visitors from more than 40 countries to witness raptor migration. Owned by the city of Duluth and managed by the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, the site features a main overlook on Skyline Parkway at the western tip of Lake Superior.
Most raptors avoid large bodies of water, so when they reach Lake Superior, they congregate along the lakeshore and outlying bluffs. As the birds of prey come around the lake, they fly right past Hawk Ridge, making this an ideal location for a hawk watch. Like many of the hawk watches in the eastern US, this site gets an incredible number of broad-winged hawks! Researchers count an average of 76,000 birds of prey each season and band about 3,000 of them annually.
Twenty species, including owls, are spotted here during autumn. Sharp-shinned hawks and broad-winged hawks come through in September. Red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks and bald eagles, sometimes hundreds in one day, are present into December. Visitors might see barred, long-eared and other owls in small numbers. The best time to visit is Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. Naturalists are also on hand to answer questions and present live bird demonstrations.
Check out 7 cool facts about bald eagles.
5. Cape May Bird Observatory, New Jersey
Cape May, a peninsula bordered by Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, serves as a natural funnel for migrating raptors. An average of 17 species are counted here from September through November. After a cold front passes, spotters may see large flights of sharp-shinned hawks, sometimes numbering in the hundreds to thousands. Other stars here include red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, osprey and northern harriers.
Scientists have counted birds here for 40 years. Researchers and visitors congregate at the hawk migration watch platform near the parking lot at Cape May Point State Park from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 to observe the spectacle. A festival sponsored by New Jersey Audubon takes place in late October.
Check out birding hotspots for incredible winter birds.
6. Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, California
Researchers have been spotting hawk migration at various vantage points here from mid-August until mid-December for 33 years. Some birds come quite close, and 800 or more sharp-shinned hawks might fly by in one day. Specialties include large numbers of turkey vultures and different morphs of red-tailed hawks, all the way from typical pale birds to dark morph individuals that look almost black.
The best and most accessible place for viewing is Hawk Hill, along Conzelman Road in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From September through November, visitors can view up to 19 species of raptors while enjoying views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands.
7. Florida Keys, Florida
This hawk migration hotspot is a little different than the others in this list. Most birds of prey avoid going over large bodies of water, but a few species such as peregrine falcon and osprey don’t seem to mind. In 2012, this location set the world record for the total number of peregrine falcons (3,836) during a single migration season. Learn more on the hawk watch’s official blog.
8. Detroit River, Michigan
The Detroit River Hawk Watch is located on the west end of Lake Erie and thousands of broad-winged hawks pass over this spot. Be sure to visit during the middle of September to have the best chance to see a huge movement of birds of prey. Learn more on the Detroit River Hawk Watch website.
Check out more Great Lakes birding hotspots in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
Chimney Swifts Love to Fly
Chimney swifts are very fast fliers and spend most of their lives in midair. They eat, drink and mate while flying, only stopping to raise young. They even take their baths in flight by dipping in a water source briefly. It’s estimated they fly more than 500 miles each day. Chimney swifts are small birds, only about 5 inches in length, that look somewhat like swallows and are sometimes mixed in with flocks of swallows. They are often referred to as “flying cigars” because they look like fat cigars with wings flying high above us! You may hear the distinctive twittering call of a swift bird before you look up to see it flying above.
Psst—this is how birds fly.
Swifts Roost in Large Numbers
When roosting, up to 35,000 Vaux’s swifts may gather in one site. Discover why some species flock with other birds in winter.
Chimney Swifts Are Losing Nesting Sites
Unfortunately chimney swifts are a species of conservation concern. They originally nested in old tree stumps then wood fence posts. After eastern forests were cut down and wooden fence posts went to the wayside, they adapted to nesting in chimneys. Now, however, chimneys are often not included in new buildings and many with chimneys have caps on them so a swift bird cannot enter to nest. There are a number of efforts to provide artificial nesting sites by building chimney swift towers.
Baby Chimney Swifts
Birds & Blooms contributor SeEtta Moss had the pleasure of observing, and photographing, the release of two fledgling chimney swifts. They had fallen down a chimney in a home. Luckily for these baby birds, the homeowner rescued them and brought them into a wildlife rehab center for care. As you can see, they are very young as their eyes are not open yet in this photo. SeEtta also shared a video of the baby chimney swifts when they were ready to be fed.
Check out more pictures of super cute baby birds.
Chimney Swifts Are Crafty Nest Builders
One way chimney swifts adapted to habitat loss is using their saliva to stick their nests to houses.
Learn about 8 different kinds of bird nests and how to spot them.
White-Throated Swifts Are Not Picky About Nesting Sites
White-throated swifts nest in a wide range of sites, from Death Valley at 180 feet below sea level up to elevations of 11,000 feet.
4 Types of Swift Birds Live in North America
Four types of swift birds nest in North America. Black, Vaux’s and white-throated swifts are found in the western half of the United States, while chimney swifts are found throughout the eastern and midwestern states and in southern Canada.
Black Swifts Migrate to Spend Winter in Brazil
In 2010, geolocators helped researchers discover black swifts travel 4,000 miles to Brazil each winter. Before that, the birds’ wintering location was unknown.
Every season is a good time to appreciate the beauty of butterflies. Take a look at our list of the most delightful and impressive kinds of butterflies in North America. Then get out there and see how many butterflies you can spot and identify. Though they won’t all be in your region, these fascinating fliers should be on your bucket list.
It’s the world’s most famous kind of butterfly. The monarch is renowned for its migration, when multiple generations work their way north during spring and summer, then a fall generation flies all the way to southern Mexico or to the California coast to spend the winter. Follow the stages of the monarch butterfly life cycle. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, absorbing chemicals that will stay in their system to make even the adults taste bad to predators.
Discover 9 fascinating monarch butterfly facts.
With long, narrow wings, big silvery spots and a pattern of black lines on orange, the Gulf fritillary is a high-fashion butterfly, looking elegant from any angle. Named for the Gulf of Mexico, you can also find it from the Carolinas to California, and it wanders far to the north. Gardeners can spruce up their yards and attract this flashy flier by growing its host plant: passion vine.
Check out 3 butterflies that look like monarchs.
North America has many kinds of yellow sulphur butterflies, and this is one of the largest. Males are pale yellow all over, while females vary from white to dull orange. Cloudless sulphurs are most abundant in the South, but every year in late summer they wander far to the north, fluttering along through all kinds of open country, even reaching Canada.
Psst—also look for clouded sulphur butterflies in your backyard.
Although some eastern tiger swallowtails are actually bigger, the giant swallowtail is usually considered to be our largest butterfly, spanning as much as five inches from wingtip to wingtip. Very common across the South, it regularly gets as far north as the Great Lakes and sometimes farther. Its caterpillars feed on leaves of trees and shrubs in the citrus family.
Discover 6 fascinating swallowtail butterfly facts.
This ethereal beauty of a zebra swallowtail butterfly flutters like a dream through eastern forests. Zebra-striped black and white with accents of red, it features long tails on the hindwings. Adults that emerge in summer tend to have even longer tails than the springtime broods. As caterpillars, they feed on the leaves of a small tree called the pawpaw, common in shady woods, especially in the south.
Check out 6 common swallowtail butterflies you should know.
Western Pygmy Blue
Butterflies known as blues are all small, but this one is absurdly tiny, measuring barely over half an inch across with its wings fully spread. There isn’t room for much color on those wings, but a touch of blue shows up in flight. Usually considered to be our smallest butterflies, western pygmy blues are common in the West and Southwest, fluttering low over salt marshes, desert flats and even vacant lots.
Learn how to make a DIY butterfly puddler.
A carnivorous butterfly? It sounds like something out of science fiction, but it’s true. The caterpillars of this eastern butterfly are found on alders and other plants, but they’re not eating the plants. Instead, they crawl around munching on aphids. Adult harvesters rarely visit butterfly flowers; you’re more likely to see them chasing each other around the edges of alder thickets near streams.
Check out myths and facts about butterfly host plants.
The most widespread kind of butterflies in the world, painted ladies are found on six continents and many oceanic islands. They’re also found all over North America, but not at the same time. In winter they’re mostly in the Southwest or Mexico, but in warmer seasons they spread across most of the continent. Sometimes they make headlines, with millions flying above open country.
You can find this big, distinctive butterfly throughout North America—and almost throughout the year. While most butterflies pass the winter in the caterpillar, pupa or egg stage, the mourning cloak hibernates as an adult. This means it could come out on warm winter days. Even in the north, it will fly during February thaws, and it makes a stunning sight as it glides through snowy woods.
Intensely tropical, the big, beautiful malachite flutters through the dappled light and shade of wooded gardens in southern Florida, and sometimes appears in southern Texas as well. When it lands, it shows off a scalloped wing shape and an elegant stained-glass pattern with panes of lime green and frames of chocolate brown.
Check out blooming bushes that attract butterflies.
Great Purple Hairstreak
Despite the name, it’s not a great big butterfly, and it’s not purple, either. But it’s larger than most of the hairstreaks (a group of tiny fliers), and it flashes a beautiful blue when it flies. Sitting still, it looks mostly charcoal gray with accents of red, blue, orange and white. And its caterpillars have specialized tastes—they feed on mistletoe.
Exotic invasive shrubs pose a threat to natural areas. The qualities that make them attractive and low maintenance also allow them to survive and spread when they jump the garden fence into the woods and fields. Once there, they outcompete native plants that are vital to the survival of wildlife. Removing any invasive shrubs already in your yard can be easier said than done. Some are still commonly sold at garden centers and have design value in the landscape. And some even offer food for birds or butterflies, so it might seem counterintuitive to eliminate them. Remember, though, that even if some wildlife benefit from these shrubs, they can destroy habitat for many other species. In the big picture, native plants provide the best wildlife habitat.
Luckily, there are great native alternatives to invasive shrubs that can play the same role in the landscape.
Psst—check out the worst poisonous and invasive plants for your yard.
Invasive Shrubs: Butterfly Bush
Renowned for its ability to attract butterflies, butterfly bush has become invasive in the Pacific Northwest and much of the East. If you want to grow this plant, look for sterile, seedless cultivars like Blue Chip.
Butterfly bush alternatives: Buttonbush, New Jersey tea, summersweet and elderberry are excellent shrub alternatives for the East; all are irresistible to butterflies. Elderberry works in the West, too, along with western spirea, California lilac, blackbrush and other ceanothus species. And unlike butterfly bush, which doesn’t support caterpillars, many of these shrubs are also caterpillar host plants.
Invasive Shrubs: Burning Bush
This ubiquitous shrub is popular for its deep red fall foliage, but it’s a woodland invasive in the East, Midwest and South.
Burning Bush Alternatives: Native shrubs that provide an equally stunning scarlet display include blueberry, sweetspire and fothergilla. These vibrant alternatives also offer nectar to pollinators, berries for birds or even both.
Check out the top 10 summer flowering shrubs for full sun.
Invasive Shrubs: Japanese Barberry and Pyracantha
These invasive shrubs feature bright red or orange berries. Birds eat them and spread the seeds beyond the garden, where they germinate and dominate. Barberry is invasive in the Northeast, the Great Lakes area and parts of the Northwest, while pyracantha is a problem in California, Texas and parts of the Deep South.
Barberry and pyracantha alternatives: Many native berry-producing shrubs are better choices, including winterberry holly, elderberry, chokeberry, native viburnums, dogwoods, blueberry, bayberry, wax myrtle, Oregon grape and manzanita. Spicebush has red berries and is also unpalatable to deer, just like these two invasives.
Other Invasives to Avoid
You might have invasive shrubs on your property that aren’t sold in nurseries and that you didn’t deliberately plant. With these long-established invasives, it’s important to put something in their place after removal so that the invasive plant doesn’t come right back. Multiflora rose, Russian or autumn olive, Himalayan blackberry, buckthorn, and privet or bush honeysuckle should all be removed and replaced.
Alternatives: Try any combination of native plants that suits the landscape and offers benefits for wildlife. Carolina rose, highbush blueberry, hawthorn and witch hazel are all good alternatives.
Next, check out the top 10 small shrubs for small spaces.
Indoor gardening is more popular than ever—especially planting succulents indoors. These adorable dolphin succulent plants bring a little bit of summery beach life home no matter where you are. They’re the next big internet obsession thanks to how appealing they are on any countertop or desk. Just imagine the ultra-cute charm they’ll bring next to your collection of bunny ear succulents or a succulent Christmas tree.
What are Dolphin Succulents?
The dolphin succulent—also known as senecio peregrinus in Latin—looks incredibly similar to real dolphins jumping out of the water. It’s also relatively rare thanks to its uniquely shaped leaves. As such, it can be difficult to find at your local plant nursery or garden store.
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This plant is also a cousin of the string of bananas succulent plant. However, it has noticeably more pronounced features that closely resemble fins and porpoiseful beaks.
Why Are People Obsessed with Dolphin Succulents?
String of dolphins succulents drape gently over baskets and containers for a waterfall effect. Their chalky blue-green coloring is reminiscent of a day at the beach. The plants mix well with other succulents in pots and hanging baskets and require minimal effort to maintain. They’re also excellent conversation starters for plant lovers or gardening newbies alike.
Just give these easy-to-grow houseplants a little morning sun or pop them in a window with bright, indirect light. Feed them with a little water when they’re dry and you’ll be swimming in gorgeous dolphin succulents. Strings of dolphins are also a surprisingly affordable find at just $6.99 per plant.
Where to Buy Dolphin Succulents
You can buy a 2.5-inch pot dolphin succulent pot on Etsy—and be sure to check out HirtsGardens for other unusual succulents from the same seller. Start with a single small pot or order a few to beef up your collection. All orders include planting and growing instructions to keep your dolphin succulents thriving. Shoppers just can’t get enough of them: “I love this plant,” writes Emily O’Bryan, a verified dolphin succulent purchaser on Etsy. “It is such a cool piece to have and show off. I got more strings than I thought I would, which is great!”
Named for their distinct below-ground habits, burrowing owls scuttle over open prairie and desert floors in the western states and Florida. They’re active by day, making them easier to watch than most owls. In the western states, the owls usually dwell in prairie dog colonies, where they take over abandoned quarters. Unlike their western cousins, the Florida owls regularly excavate their own homes. A burrowing owl pair may dig a tunnel 10 feet long in only two days.
An old western nickname for the burrowing owl is “howdy owl,” because it appears to nod its head as a way of saying hello. Cowboys had many legends about these birds, including that the owls, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes would live together peacefully in the same burrow. They don’t, of course. But here are the facts behind the myths.
What Sounds Do Burrowing Owls Make?
When they’re disturbed, young burrowing owls make a harsh buzz that sounds very much like the rattle of a snake. Hearing that sound from deep in a burrow may be enough to make humans (and other animals) stay away.
What Do Burrowing Owls Eat?
When you see a prairie dog colony, take a second look at those little critters—because burrowing owls may be among them! These small owls don’t eat the animals whose burrows they move into; instead, they share watchdog duties. Beetles are a favorite food, along with other insects, lizards, birds and mice. Burrowing owls are awake during the day more than most owls and are seen hunting insects and small vertebrates in the open areas they call home. However, they look for food day and night, taking naps by their burrow entrances in between hunts.
Where Do Burrowing Owls Nest?
An oddity in the owl world, burrowing owls are among the few bird species to nest underground. Other underground nesters include bank swallows, belted kingfishers and Atlantic puffins.
Where Do Burrowing Owls Live?
Looking at the burrowing owl range map, you’d think there was a mistake. It’s hard to believe that a bird so widespread in the West is also found in southern Florida, but that’s the case.
Burrowing Owls in Florida
In southern Florida, many burrowing owls live in vacant lots in towns, and some communities proudly adopt and protect local colonies. The best place to see burrowing owls in Florida is in Cape Coral. You’ll likely see at least a few of the 1,000-plus nesting pairs during your visit. Unlike those out west, Florida burrowing owls dig their own burrows.
“There is a lot of vacant land across the street from my house, which offers plenty of space for burrowing owls that nest there in underground burrows. The city places PVC pipes and rope around the nests, so the mowers know where the nests are. They are typically most active here in June,” says Carrol Betts of Chiefland, Florida.
Western Burrowing Owls
The burrowing owls in western states rely on holes dug by other animals. They tend to move into prairie dog towns or burrows abandoned by prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels or desert tortoise. Some migrate down to Mexico and even farther south in winter. Two western burrowing owl hot spots are the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado and Nina Mason Rio Salado Audubon Center in Arizona.
Burrowing Owl Habitat
Forget the treetops—burrowing owls spend most of their lives close to the ground, hunting and managing the nest in their underground dens. They group together in colonies in deserts and grasslands. You can also look for burrowing owls perched on fence posts or other low perches, swiveling their heads from side to side.
Next, check out snowy owl facts (and where to find them!)
Tiny and chipper, chickadees are among the first backyard birds that many recognize. But a few things set the Carolina chickadee apart from other chickadees. Find out how to identify and attract these small songbirds.
Carolina Chickadee Range
Carolina chickadees are found year-round in the southeastern United States, as far north as Pennsylvania and all the way west to mid-Texas. Their range overlaps a bit with the more northern (and slightly larger) black-capped chickadee in a very narrow zone that stretches from New Jersey to Kansas.
“I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, from New York and was looking forward to new backyard birds that were not previously regulars to me. Chickadees are so friendly and outgoing, yet common; so I practically dismissed them for a few days. Then suddenly it dawned on me. Though they look practically identical these are Carolina chickadees—not the black-capped chickadee I knew from the Northeast!” says Christine McCluskey.
Carolina Chickadee vs Black-Capped Chickadee
Telling the two species apart in the overlapping areas of their range can be tricky. Both have the same black caps and bibs, but Carolina chickadees have duller white coloring on the cheek patch and a bit less white on their tail and wing feathers.
Learn how to identify mountain chickadees.
Carolina Chickadee Song
“The easiest way to tell them apart is by sound,” says Robyn Bailey, NestWatch Project Leader with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “The Carolina chickadee’s song is four to six notes, and it has a broader song repertoire than the black-capped’s simple fee-bee song.” Listen for their familiar, distinctive chick-a-dee-dee call.
What Do Carolina Chickadees Eat?
Those bug-eating tendencies mean that backyard birders should take extra precautions to help attract and protect them. “This includes not spraying pesticides in our gardens and lawns, and planting native fruit-producing shrubs like blackberry and Virginia creeper,” Robyn says.
Don’t miss this collection of incredibly cute chickadee photos.
Carolina Chickadee Nest and Eggs
Mating pairs will often stay together for several years at a time, seeking out cavities in trees. Females build nests of moss, bark and animal fur, then lay about six jelly bean-sized eggs in a single clutch. Psst—this is the only bird nesting material you should put out.
Females fiercely protect their nests: If a predator tries to disturb it, they can give off an almost snakelike hiss to scare it off.
Check out 9 proven tips to attract nesting birds.
How to Help Carolina Chickadees
Though Carolina chickadees are common, recent research indicates their numbers are falling. “It’s an important reminder that even common backyard species can decline if we’re not careful,” Robyn warns. Help support them and other birds by regularly cleaning feeders and birdbaths, adding predator guards to nest boxes, and keeping cats indoors. Responsible birders can help keep these little fliers happy and healthy long into the future.
When giving presentations on bird feeding, I’m often asked about which type of peanuts people should use in their feeders. People typically aren’t sure which birds prefer each type of peanut, and they want to be sure to offer the birds the type that will be most popular. Here is a quick guide to the birds that prefer shelled peanuts and peanuts in the shell.
Learn how to make a DIY bird feeder for peanuts.
Peanuts in the Shell for Birds
Blue jays and other jay species in the United States love peanuts in the shell. These species are the reason that many people choose to offer this type of peanut. In addition to blue jays, I’ve regularly seen red-bellied woodpeckers enjoy peanuts in the shell. Other species will take these peanuts from time to time, but they are a bit hard to crack open for many of the smaller birds. One common problem with feeding peanuts in the shell is that squirrels are crazy about them. If you choose to feed any type of peanut, be prepared to deal with squirrels and other critters.
Check out the best bird feeders for blue jays.
Shelled Peanuts for Birds
I personally think that shelled peanuts for birds are the better type of peanut to offer. Since they’ve been shelled, all of the birds are able to eat it without too much trouble. Many species will take advantage of the high protein content of peanuts especially during times of very cold temperatures. Some of the most common species that make use of my shelled peanut feeder are chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.
Not only do those species regularly use the feeder, I’ve seen almost all of the birds that frequent my bird feeders eat a peanut or two at some point. (Psst—birds also eat peanut butter!) You really never know what backyard species might stop by for a peanut!
If you spend any time near gardens or vegetable and fruit crops, you’ve probably laid eyes on a few brown marmorated stink bugs. Some people refer to these as shield bugs, but either moniker identifies the same pest. (The scientific name for the stink bugs is halyomorpha halys, in case you were wondering.)
More concerning than their name, though, is their game. These not-so-innocent looking insects have one goal in life — to take control of just about any crop they can get their tiny little legs on. This includes everything from commercial tomato crops to the peppers and green beans you carefully cultivated in your backyard.
What Are Shield Bugs and Where Do They Come From?
Shield/stink bugs are an invasive species that arrived in the U.S. in the 1990s from Asia via Allentown, Pennsylvania, says David Price, a certified entomologist and technical director for Mosquito Joe, a nationwide pest control company. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they likely hitched a ride in a shipping container. From there, the pests spread rapidly around the nation.
Now, shield bugs are almost everywhere — in 47 states to be exact. They are the biggest nuisance in Oregon, Michigan, Tennessee and the mid-Atlantic region, where they are often found chowing down on agricultural crops. Favorites include apples, pears, grapes, peppers, tomatoes, hazelnuts and corn.
“They actually attack agricultural crops pretty aggressively,” Price says. How aggressively? In 2010, tree fruit producers lost more $37 million in crops to stink bugs, per a report from the University of Florida.
How Do I Identify a Brown Marmorated Shield Bug?
Shield/stink bugs are brown, with white bands on their antennas and legs. They also have alternating light and dark bands on their abdomen. As for the exoskeleton, it resembles — you guessed it — a shield.
If you see a green bug with a similar shape, yes, that is a shield bug, too. However, the green version is native to North America and therefore not as much of a nuisance to crops, says Heather Stoven, an entomologist with Oregon State University. They still stink, though.
Why Are Shield Bugs Also Called Stink Bugs?
And speaking of the stink, what is the story behind their nickname?
“When you crush them, they have a really foul odor,” says Price. The odor, he says, exists to fend off would-be predators. It works, too; the bug has no known predators. The odor is not harmful, Price says, just unpleasant.
How Do I Know I Have a Stink Bug Problem?
Like many insects, stink bugs lay their eggs on the underside of leaves. Once the eggs hatch, the nymphs (i.e. baby insects) start feeding on those leaves, eventually joining their adult relatives on the fruits and vegetables themselves. You’ll know they’ve been around because you’ll see unsightly brown spots on the skins of your crops.
Unfortunately, they don’t disappear in winter, either. Instead, Price says, they seek shelter and warmth in and around your home.
Potential stink bug hibernation sites include overgrowth and weeds around the yard, wood piles, or any little crack or hole on a structure (house, shed, etc.) they can squeeze into. They’ll hang out all winter long. When spring arrives, they’ll move out of hiding and head on over to your garden.
How Do I Get Rid of Stink Bugs?
We wish we had better news, but it isn’t easy to get the brown marmorated stink bug out of your garden. They are extremely prolific with no known predators (though its cousin, the green stink bug, has many predators). Price says pesticides have little effect on them thanks to their tough-as-nails exoskeleton.
The best you can do is to control them, and consider yourself lucky if sightings in your garden are few and far between. Here are a few tips to keep them at bay, per Price and Stoven:
- Make sure all the cracks around your doors, windows, siding and pipes are well-sealed before winter. And don’t leave piles of yard debris sitting around. This will discourage overwintering.
- If you see them crawling around your house after a long winter’s nap, vacuum them up.
- When spring arrives, hang pheromone traps around your garden so you can catch them in the act.
- Check leaves for eggs. If you see them, remove or cut the leaves off.
- Spray plants with a kaolin clay solution. Kaolin is a mineral that is known to repel insects. It isn’t a sure thing, but it’s worth a try.
- Place row covers over your crops.