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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  • That doesn't address my concern about the bird houses. I'm on a tiny piece of property (40x100) so there's not much room to plant a heck of a lot or places birds could put nests once the bird houses are gone.
    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
  • thanks for the article. I believe that I may have spotted my first hairy woodpecker this morning. we see the downy woodpecker often. it's small. the hairy woodpecker, when compared with the downy, is HUGE. also, the downy feeds at the feeder like most birds--standing upright. This bird, because of its size, hung from the feeder perch with most of it's body below the feeder--like the red belly woodpeckers that we see often. we live is strasburg va. is it possible that we saw a hairy woodpecker this morning?
    by PEretired, Sat, 23 May 2020