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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  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • Hahaha, I love the ending remark "that area will have already been well -fertilized!"I've noticed that there are more cheep cheeps right after I clean the bird feeder compared to how many there are right before it was cleaned...so cheep cheeps do like and appreciate a well maintained feeder and they are worth the effort. : )
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • The storm saying seems true so far. We had as party at our bird feeder right before our last storm... 6 at once but different cheeps cheeps would come and go so there were more than 6 for sure..and squirrels eating with the birds
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 13 Jul 2018
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