Nov 22, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, December 2016

Ask Birdsquatch: What do Insect-eating Species Eat in the Winter?

Many insect eaters are able to switch their diet to some other source of food when the bugs aren't around. In the photo above, an eastern bluebird finds sustenance at a backyard feeding station offering suet dough.
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Dear Birdsquatch:

What do insect-eating species like bluebirds and phoebes eat in the winter? Here in northern Georgia we can get some very cold winter weather, which I'm sure eliminates most of the insect population, yet I often see eastern bluebirds and eastern phoebes around all winter long.

—PATRICK S., DALTON, GEORGIA

Dear Patrick,

Many of our insect eaters are able to switch their diet to some other source of food when the bugs aren't around to bug us. For example, phoebes, which specialize in flying insects, can augment their food intake with berries. But they are also very crafty in finding insects even when the weather is harsh. Note how they are usually found in certain protected places in winter, like under bridges, in and around old barns, and along wooded streams. These places also offer shelter from harsh weather to a variety of insects. I stopped last winter to watch a phoebe near an old hay barn. It was gleaning spiders from the beams and walls inside the barn. Then when the sun came out, it worked the sunlit side of the barn for insects.

You'd be surprised to know that there are still insects present in winter in most places. Since they aren't super active, they are hard to see. Bluebirds are much the same, though they will eat a greater variety of non-insect foods such as fruits, suet and suet dough, and even sunflower hearts or peanut bits. On cold, windy winter days, bluebirds will retreat to a sheltered woodland valley where they forage for fruit. On sunny days they may come back out to the fields and open grassy areas to hunt for whatever insects and other critters (grasshoppers, leafhoppers, crickets, spiders, etc.) might be active.

I'm very similar to the bluebird, actually. When it's nasty outside, I don't want to get my fur all wet, so I hunker down in a sheltered spot and wait for better weather. Once the weather breaks, my empty belly is the best motivation to get out there and find some grub. One of these days I'm going to have to try suet to see what all the fuss is about...



About Birdsquatch

Birdsquatch is WBB's tall, hairy, and slightly stinky columnist. He is a bigfoot who has watched birds all his life. His home range is unknown.

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    by Linda DiPierro, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Plant some native plants in your yard that will attract pollinators and produce berries and nuts. There should be a local society that has a list of recommended plants, shrubs, and trees.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • Same concerns here. See above post. For your situation I would consider planting a few native plants that will naturally produce berries and seeds that the birds in your area need to survive. Try planting some that will yield foods for all seasons.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
  • I've thought about this myself. One thing I considered doing is leaving behind some bird food and a gift card to my local wild bird store with a note asking the new homeowners to please continue feeding the birds. Don't know how well that work but it's worth a try.
    by Ladylanita, Mon, 25 May 2020
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