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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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018