Oct 30, 2019 | Featured Web Article

Eating Styles Among Backyard Birds

What do American robins, American crows, and European starlings have in common? They all are content to eat a little bit of everything.
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We tend to think a lot about holiday meals and seasonal treats as the year winds down and the weather turns chilly. Have you ever considered if and how the changing seasons impact what birds eat? Get ready to learn about birds' four main diet types!

Seasonalists

Much like some humans drink iced macchiatos in the summer and switch to hot pumpkin spice lattes when the weather turns chilly, many birds change their diets depending on the season. Swainson’s hawks prey on smaller birds and mice to feed their nestlings in the summer, and then switch to large insects when their offspring can fend for themselves. Likewise, sparrows and grosbeaks eat fruits and seeds in the wintertime after spending the breeding season catching bugs for their young.

Generalists

What do American robins, American crows, and European starlings have in common? They all are content to eat a little bit of everything. These generalists do not observe a specific hunting or foraging strategy. Instead, they eat whatever morsels they happen upon as they go about their day.

Opportunists

Like generalists, opportunist birds take what they can get when it comes to finding food. Unlike generalists, once they find an abundant food source, they continue exploiting that source until they exhaust it. These birds often ignore other potential food items while the abundant supply remains available. Gulls dining solely on grasshoppers in a freshly plowed field are one example of opportunist feeding. The birds could seek out other foods to consume, but will most likely stay until no grasshoppers remain.

Specialists

Birds observing a specialist diet typically eat only one type of food. For instance, cedar waxwings specialize in eating a variety of fruits, American goldfinches primarily eat seeds from different types of sunflowers, and ferruginous hawks hunt for live prey of a specific size. An extreme example of a specialist eater is Florida's snail kite, which uses its long talons and curved beak to feast on native apple snails.





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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021