Winter Food for Wild Birds

Watching chickadees and blue jays feeding from just a few feet away is always a thrill. Bird feeding stations easily provide this connection with nature, and many Finger Lakes households have at least one. Whether the bird feeder is a tray, hopper or tube, it is usually well stocked from leaf fall until bud break.

But what if we didn’t provision our bird feeders? Without a steady supply of sunflower and thistle seed, would our cardinals and juncos go hungry? They all have lived in this area much longer than bird feeders have been available. What is their natural food?

Since there is plenty of food available during the warm part of the year, it is easy to see why birds migrate to our region to breed. The land provides abundant food in the form of insects, fruits, blossoms, nectar and buds. So what do our resident birds and winter migrants find to eat during the bleak winter months? The summer food sources are all gone and the winter landscape seems barren. But the resident birds are well adapted to survive even the most severe of our northern winters; their diversity and large numbers are living proof.

From a bird’s perspective, winter provides abundant food if you know where to look for it. Fall and winter is the season of plenty for fruits and seeds, which are a primary food source for birds. Another critical dietary component is insects, which seem to all but disappear in the winter. However, they continue to be present in their over-wintering forms, which can be eggs, larvae, pupae or adults.

Seeds, Weeds and Bugs
A large number of winter bird species in our region are obligate seedeaters. They feed on the seeds of many weeds and other plants such as smartweed, ragweed, pigweed, bull thistle, bristlegrass and goldenrod. Competition is minimized because birds have evolved different feeding strategies that separate species by habitat and food preference. White-throated sparrows, house finches, and dark-eyed juncos frequent forest and shrubland, never venturing far from cover.  At the other extreme, horned larks and snow buntings are found in the most open fields and waste places where the snow is cleared by the wind, exposing weed seeds. Horned larks and snow buntings are both migrant visitors from the Arctic, well adapted to these extreme conditions.  Goldfinches, wearing their drab winter plumage, are often seen suspended from the ends of nodding weeds; they seldom feed from the ground. Gold­finches feast on thistle, goldenrod and other seed-producing plants found in old fields. Mourning doves, too heavy to perch on delicate weeds, are ground feeders that scavenge grain or seeds in exposed areas and agricultural fields.

Black-capped chickadees and downy woodpeckers can exploit a special food source, goldenrod gallfly larvae. The goldenrod gallfly lays its egg inside a goldenrod stem, which stimulates the plant to produce a gall around the developing maggot.   During the wintertime chickadees and downy woodpeckers seek out these galls and peck a small hole in each to eat the larvae. By late winter nearly every gall has a small hole pecked into it.

Insect-gleaning birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers, and wrens have evolved different strategies for harvesting the over-wintering forms of insects. Woodpeckers and nuthatches scour crevices in the bark of trees for insect pupae, larvae and eggs. They work from the base of the tree, spiraling upward around the trunk.  Red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches work in the opposite direction, searching from top to bottom including the underside of branches.             Woodpeckers have the added ability to excavate insects living inside decaying wood and will also eat beechnuts and acorns in season. Small birds like chickadees and tufted titmice are extremely nimble and can seek insects at the very tips of slender twigs where heavier birds cannot forage.

Trees, Berries and Fruit
Many tree species such as white pine, American beech, and the numerous native oaks produce nutritious seeds and nuts that are favored especially by chickadees, titmice and jays. Staghorn sumac seeds are a mainstay for chickadees and others in late winter. Blue jays in particular feed heavily on beechnuts and acorns and cache the nuts for wintertime use, but not all the nuts are recovered. The forgotten nuts may germinate and start a new stand of trees.

Many birds feed heavily on winter fruit. Cedar waxwings favor the berries of eastern red cedar, their namesake plant, although they are often seen foraging on other species. American robins, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals are more generalist in their habits. Most fruits are quickly consumed after ripening during the early fall, but in some species, the fruit may become more palatable as the winter season progresses. The fruit of wild grape, wild rose, hawthorn, nannyberry and cranberrybush viburnum shrivel on the plant and are eaten from fall through spring. Grey dogwood fruits are ivory white; most are quickly consumed in the fall season but some remain on the plant into winter.

Winterberry holly, found covered in bright red fruit in wooded swamps and wetlands, is a favorite late-winter food. The fruit of the bayberry plant may persist for two or three seasons and is thus available year-round.

Our native birds will utilize bird feeders if they are available. However, research has revealed that most birds get only a minority of their daily food needs from bird feeders and still rely on natural foods for the bulk of their diets. This highlights the ever-critical need to create and maintain a natural habitat that provides the natural foods that birds need.


by Karen English
Karen English is a natural science illustrator and graphic designer. Her husband James Engel owns White Oak Nursery, specializing in native trees and shrubs.