Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.
What Do Wild Birds Eat?
Birds in the wild eat a variety of foods. Songbirds and most of the other birds you'll see in your backyard fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Insectivores eat insects and other small invertebrates such as worms, grubs, beetles, spiders, and caterpillars.
- Frugivores eat fruit such as berries, cherries, and apples, as well as nuts and seeds from fruit trees
- Granivores eat seeds from plants such as sunflower, safflower, corn, nyjer, thistle, and millet.
- Nectarivores consume plant nectar.
- Omnivores are birds that eat both plant and animal matter. Many of your backyard visitors are omnivores that will eat seeds, insects, worms, fruit, and nuts.
In the summer, spring, and fall these foods are abundant in their natural habitat. Insects are plentiful, the fruit is growing, plants provide nectar, and seeds and nuts can be found easily.
Birds that do not migrate are pretty resourceful when it comes to finding food during the cold winter months. They’ll hunt for dormant insects in the bark and crevices of trees and scrounge any remaining seeds, nuts, and fruit that is still available.
Many small birds form flocks in the wintertime, increasing their chances of finding food. Birds may flock with those of their own species, or there may be many different species in the same flock.
Some birds like Blue Jays, Chickadees, and Nuthatches will cache food for future use. They do this year-round, and it really helps many species make it through the winter.
So, just like in the summer months, birds can survive tough winters by finding food on their own. In fact, some American Robins, one of the birds most closely associated with seasonal migration in North America, will occasionally stay for the winter if it is able to find a good food source.
Even though they can get along just fine without us, bird feeders can be good for wild birds. You may choose to place a feeder or two in your yard to help them out a little.
Feeding the Birds in Summer and Winter
Bird feeders can supplement the natural diets of wild birds, give them an extra calorie boost when it comes time to migrate, and provide the edge needed to survive a nasty winter. Different birds have different preferences, and you may offer an array of foods or just those that will attract the birds you really want to see.
Wild birds who routinely visit feeders will still find much of their nutrition from foraging and hunting, just as they would have in the absence of the feeder. This means they can help keeps local pest insect numbers down in the summer, which makes them welcome visitors to your garden or yard.
It also means there is no need to worry that by putting up a bird feeder you are creating a sense of dependence which could result in disaster for the birds should you decide your feeding days are done. As we've seen, even in the winter, wild birds have ways of finding food and making it through the cold, dark months
The types of birds you’re going to attract to your feeder will be interested in seeds, nuts, corn, millet, fruit, and the like. Some backyard birders will put out numerous feeders with different types of feed in each, but a good way to start out is with one feeder and a good-quality seed mix. This should include small seeds, larger seeds like sunflower seeds, and bits of corn, nuts, and dried fruit.
Birds can eat the same seed in winter as they do in summer. However, I like to include more black-oil sunflower seeds for its higher energy content. This is also a good time to include suet in your feeding plan.
Types of Bird Feeders
Selecting a good seed mix or type of food is the first step, and the next is deciding on a type of feeder. You can purchase a feeder, build one yourself, or use an object you already have around the yard to serve food for the birds.
If you decide to purchase a feeder you’ll see a ton of different options out there. You can spend up to a hundred dollars on a beautiful hand-made feeder or a few bucks on a plastic one.
Here’s a hint though: The birds don’t care! They only want a safe place to come and find some food, and as long as you provide that they don’t much care if the feeder is made of cardboard or solid gold.
As a beginner feeding basic seed it is a good idea to consider one of these three:
- Hopper feeder: These are the boxy ones with the glass or plastic sides. The seed trickles from the slots below the glass where the birds can perch and access it.
- Tube feeder: These are cylindrical, and usually more suited to small birds. Tube features feature multiple perches and access points where the birds can retrieve the seed.
- Platform feeder: Similar to the hopper-style, with open sides. Platform feeders are often little more than a base to hold the seed with a canopy overhead to protect against the elements.
Any of those three feeders are great for the beginning backyard birder. Be sure the feeder you choose has large enough openings to allow the larger seeds to come out without causing a jam.
Other specialized feeders you may try include:
- Nectar feeders: You can attract hummingbirds using special nectar feeders stocked with a sugar-water mix. There are other nectar feeders designed to bring around Orioles.
- Seed socks: Used to stock tiny seeds such as nyjer and great for bringing around Goldfinches.
When choosing where to place your feeder, consider ways to deter unwanted bird feeder visitors. Birds also feel more secure when they have some vegetation over them. Beneath a tree is a great place to put a bird feeder and will provide some security from hawks. Be wary of any shrubs and bushes where ambush predators may lurk around the feeder. House cats are actually one of the greatest threats to songbirds.
Birds That Eat Fruit
By placing a bird feeder stocked with seeds you can attract dozens of different songbirds to your yard. However, many birds enjoy fruit and berries as part of their natural diets.
In fact, you may be able to attract birds that won’t otherwise come to your feeder simply by offering different types of fruit. Just like when feeding seed, you’ll want to place the fruit in a dry place that's protected from the elements and safe for the birds.
If you have the room and the inclination, you may also consider planting fruit trees and berry bushes on your property. This not only gives you the ability to see different birds when the fruit ripens, but you’ll also get to watch insect-eating birds hunting among your blossoms in the spring.
Different types of fruit birds may eat include:
- Orange Halves
- Apple Halves
You can use a platform or hopper feeder as a fruit-only feeder, sit back and see who comes around.
Some birds prefer insects. In fact, you will probably notice that many of the birds you see taking seed from your feeder will also spend time hunting for insects in your yard, garden, and nearby trees. However, some insect-eating birds won’t come to your feeder for seed, and you will need to try something different to get them to come around.
Here are a few ideas:
- Feed dried mealworms: You may be able to attract Bluebirds by stocking a feeder with mealworms. Or you can scatter them on the ground for Robins, Catbirds, and other ground feeders. Every now and then I am even able to lure a Woodthrush out of the trees for some mealworms. One caution: Mealworms also appeal to nocturnal critters like skunks, which is why I don’t use them often.
- Plant a garden: A flower garden makes an excellent hunting ground for insect-eating birds, particularly if it’s densely planted. Even a vegetable garden will do nicely. Gardens attract bugs, and it won’t take long for birds to realize your backyard is a buffet of beetles, aphids, caterpillars, and spiders.
- Put up a nesting box: Insect-eating birds such as the Eastern Bluebird might nest in a bird box if you provide one. You can mount it on existing structures or trees, but placing it on a pole with a baffle provides a little better security from predation. Be sure to check the needs of whatever species you are trying to attract. For instance, different birds will prefer differently sized boxes, and most birds prefer an entranceway facing away from the afternoon sun.
- Put up a birdbath: Providing all of the necessary components needed to make a bird happy improves your chances of attracting insect-eating birds. A water source such as a birdbath or small fountain can bring around birds that don’t care about your feeder.
- Plant dense vegetation: Try to include indigenous plants and flowers as much as possible, as this will best encourage native birds and provide for their needs. Birds like the Gray Catbird will take advantage of low, densely planted vegetation.
- Plant fruit trees: Insects live in trees, and insects are attracted to blossoms and fruit. If you plant a fruit tree insect-eaters like the Baltimore Oriole will love your property
Foods for Different Types of Birds
Here’s a list of some common backyard birds and the types of foods you may offer them:
- American Robin: Will hunt in gardens and grass. Mow your lawn frequently and you’ll see them around a lot! You may also try offering mealworms.
- Baltimore Oriole: Will come to a nectar feeder and may have an interest in sliced oranges. Orioles are also attracted to fruit tree blossoms in the springtime.
- Black-capped Chickadee: These little guys love sunflower seeds. They’ll steal one from the feeder, then fly to the safety of a nearby tree to crack it open and chow down.
- Tufted Titmouse: Similar behaviors and food choices as the Black-capped Chickadee.
- Downy Woodpecker: Will come to your feeder looking for suet, nuts, and sunflower seeds, but will also love foraging in any trees you have nearby.
- Blue Jay: Not a picky eater, the Blue Jay will take pretty much anything you put out. Try a good seed mix and you’ll see them around.
- Northern Cardinal: Loves black-oil sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. They’ll be regular visitors to your feeder, especially in winter.
- American Goldfinch: Will come for sunflower seeds, and if you have sunflowers in your yard they will pluck the seeds right from the head in the fall. Also, consider placing a special feeder set up for nyjer or thistle seed!
- Red-bellied Woodpecker: Spends much of the warmer months foraging in trees, but will come to your feeder for suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts.
- Rose-breasted Grosbeak: In the United States these guys are only here in the summer when they’ll spend a lot of time foraging for insects. However, they’ll also come to your feeder for seeds and fruit.
- Chipping Sparrow: Will love the little seeds in your bag mix, but you’ll also see them chasing insects in the trees.
Enjoy Feeding the Birds!
Bird feeding and bird watching go together! Soon you’ll find yourself with an identification manual in your hand, trying to figure out what that colorful little thing at your feeder is called. Feeding the birds can provide endless enjoyment, reduce stress and help you feel like you’re doing something good for the environment.
Backyard birding gives us a chance to view some amazing animals in an intimate setting. It’s tough to get close to nature in today’s world, but feeding your backyard birds is one way you can experience the natural world, and learn a little about your feathered friends in the process.
Once you get off the ground with your new hobby you may want to turn your yard into a backyard bird habitat. The addition of a water source, native plants, and more feeders can transform your property into a place birds will love.
As usual, the following resources were indispensible in creating this article:
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.