Skip to main content

What do birds eat?

Back in 2012, I wrote a Dawn Chorus diary on birds' beaks and bills ( and how they evolved to help birds pursue their food sources.

Today, I thought I'd flip that around a bit and look at the food that birds eat with that variety of beaks and bills.

Let's take a look at a nice photo of a bird with a bit of food and then join me below the tangled orange spider nest bird feeder to consider this topic some more.

A Cedar Waxwing with a tasty berry

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

As we consider the topic of what birds eat, allow me to acknowledge that I have borrowed information from the following publication: Breeding Season; Hummingbirds, Nectar, and Water; Hoarding Food; Drinking. Copyright ® 1988 by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. My humble thanks to these authors. (The photos are all mine, though.)

The authors tell us that birds' diets are varied and often include nectar, fruit, plants, seeds, carrion, and various small animals, including other birds. Because birds have no teeth, their digestive system has adapted to process food items that are swallowed whole.

Birds that employ many strategies to obtain food or feed on a variety of food items are called generalists, while others that concentrate time and effort on specific food items or have a single strategy to obtain food are considered specialists. (And that previous Dawn Chorus I linked to talks about how bill shapes figure into all this.)

Time to intersperse a photo or two. Here's a Black Phoebe that has just captured a dandy dragonfly for lunch, followed by a Great Egret with perhaps the World's Tiniest Fish (a guppy maybe?).

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Birds' feeding strategies vary by species. Many birds glean for insects, invertebrates, fruit, or seeds. Some hunt insects by suddenly attacking from a branch. Nectar feeders such as hummingbirds have specially adapted brushy tongues and in many cases bills designed to fit co-adapted flowers.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Shorebirds with long bills probe for invertebrates; shorebirds' varied bill lengths and feeding methods result in the separation of ecological niches.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Loons, diving ducks, penguins and auks pursue their prey underwater, using their wings or feet for propulsion, while aerial predators such as and terns plunge dive after their prey. Flamingos, and some ducks are filter feeders. Geese and dabbling ducks are primarily grazers.

Red-throated Loon
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Canvasbacks are diving ducks . . .
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

As are Buffleheads . . .
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

And Lesser Scaups (front) and Greater Scaups (rear)

Greater Scaup Pair

Dabbling ducks that graze include Northern Pintails . . .

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

and Northern Shovelers . . .

Northern Shoveler

and Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Some species, including frigatebirds, gulls, and skuas, engage in kleptoparasitism, stealing food items from other birds. Kleptoparasitism is thought to be a supplement to food obtained by hunting, rather than a significant part of any species' diet.

Whose fish is it? Gull tug-o-war!

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Other birds are scavengers; some of these, like vultures, are specialised carrion eaters, while others, like gulls, corvids, or other birds of prey, are opportunists.

A favorite opportunist, the Western Scrub Jay.
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Crows like peanuts, too

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Birds eat many things that seem none-too-appealing to us: beetles, flies, spiders, earthworms, rotting fish, offal, poison oak berries, weed seeds, and so on. Not only that, most birds have diets that are quite monotonous -- some passerines may go for weeks on a diet composed largely of grasshoppers, Brants dine almost exclusively on eelgrass, and Snail Kites rarely if ever taste anything but snails. In spite of this, the nutritional requirements of birds are not very different from ours; they need proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.

Western Bluebird snatches a berry

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

And a Willet finds something soft and crunchy

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Birds use carbohydrates and fats primarily as energy sources, but proteins are needed for construction of tissues, enzymes, and so on. Reproduction, growth, and molting all require more nitrogen than simple maintenance of the body, and proteins are the source of that nitrogen. Birds, such as Red-winged Blackbirds, that are omnivorous (eating both plant and animal food) increase the proportion of protein-rich animal food they eat in the breeding season. Many that are herbivorous (primarily eating plant foods), such as sparrows, may subsist for much of the year on a relatively low-protein vegetable diet, but in the breeding season they take as many insects as possible, and often provide their young with a diet comprised entirely of insects.

Speaking of insects, this Northern Mockingbird has a catch

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

This gull managed to find some sort of crustacean in a rice field
Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Here's an American Robin grabbing a berry

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

And with all this talk about food, here's a last photo to remind us that birds need water no matter what type of food they eat. Here's an enterprising Yellow-billed Magpie that has learned where he can count on finding it.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Please use this as an open thread to share your bird thoughts and photos. Have a great Sunday, happy birding to all, and Go Niners!


Originally posted to Kestrel on Sun Jan 12, 2014 at 06:03 AM PST.

Also republished by Birds and Birdwatching.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site