What do birds eat in winter?

Updated: Apr 15

You might be surprised at what birds can find to eat in winter! Read on to learn more!

Brown Creeper eating a spider in single digit temperatures.

Often, when we think of birds feeding in wintertime, we restrict our thoughts to birds appearing at bird feeders. While a large number of north-wintering species do utilize bird feeders, there are a large number of natural food sources these birds find. Below, I highlight 4 very different species of birds with a very large variety in their winter diet.


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Red-breasted Nuthatch Winter Diet


During the winter, studies have shown that Red-breasted Nuthatches keep a high percentage of arthropods in their diet. In a study in Oregon, Red-breasted Nuthatches were found to have a diet of approximately 56% beetles (34% leaf beetles, 22% weevils), 18% sedges, and 26% other food items.


Red-breasted Nuthatches are well-known food cachers. They cache both seeds and arthropods, though seeds are often cached more frequently. Locations cached food has been found include in crevices under bark, or in holes created by sapsuckers. They have also been known to cache in the ground. There are also studies documenting Red-breasted Nuthatches covering caches with small fragments of bark, lichen, or small rocks, presumably to conceal food from competitors. Approximately half of the caches, in some studies, were covered. The cover is typically obtained without the bird having to leave the cache. Some species, like Hairy Woodpeckers, may watch caching nuthatches to find and pilfer caches when they are unattended. Who knew Hairy Woodpeckers were such scoundrels? Me. I did.


Red-breasted Nuthatch


Red-breasted Nuthatch Range Map

Red-breasted Nuthatch Range - The diet of wintering nuthatches in Texas and Alaska may be very different.


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Winter Diet


In winter, rosy-finches feed almost exclusively on seeds. In the two most-observed subspecies of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, the fall and winter diet is known to consist of Russian thistle, wild grass, mustards, sunflowers, Whitlow grass, willowweed, spring beauty, and bear grass. Even if you do not know what those are, you can see they are all likely plant names. Spring beauty might be the exception to an exclusive plant name, but a quick Google search would reveal that it is indeed a plant and not a champion horse or pig. (It's worth a peek.)


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range - Rosy-finches winter across the Rocky Mountains.


Brown Creeper Winter Diet


The Brown Creeper, a name synonymous with terrible bathroom jokes, is a largely insectivorous species that resides in some of the harshest locales in the country. Yet, in wintertime, their diet is comprised of mostly arthropods. In one wintertime study, Brown Creepers were found to have stomach contents consisting of 34% aphids/leafhoppers, 23% true bugs, 12% beetles, 12% spiders, 4% ants/bees, 4% unknown insect fragments, 3% other, 6% corn, 2.0% mast, and 0.4% unknown vegetable matter. I frequently find only 0.4% unknown vegetable matter in my diet, so I understand the ambiguous label by the researchers who put that study together.


Brown Creeper eating a live spider in winter


Brown Creeper Range Map

Brown Creeper Range - Brown Creepers have an extensive range, with some of the population living year round in Alaska where they are still likely working hard to find insects, even in winter.


Horned Lark Winter Diet


The Horned Lark is the final species of interest in this winter diet post. For this barren-loving bird, seeds are 80-100% of the wintertime diet. Short and simple. That means this article is over, right? Not quite. How could I not include this little fact about Horned Larks showing high feeding rates associated with fallouts of invertebrates, especially true flies, on snowfields? You would have been left with an empty hole without that little bit of information! Mission complete.


Horned Lark in winter


Horned Lark Range Map (kind of)

Horned Lark Range - This map is somewhat incomplete, likely a product of insufficient data at the time of rendering. However, Horned Larks are year-round across much of the US.


Conclusions


Arthropods are hardier than often credited, that much is clear. Because arthropods are an available food source, even in winter, some birds can still have a high animal protein diet during the worst of conditions. Now, when your birding friends ask what birds eat in wintertime, you can say, "I do not know. A lot?" It is a great answer. Kind of.


Go enjoy your winter diet. Thanks for reading. Oh, and subscribe to this blog!





Credits/References

Beason, R. C. (2020). Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.horlar.01
Ghalambor, C. K. and T. E. Martin (2020). Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.rebnut.01
MacDougall-Shackleton, S. A., R. E. Johnson, and T. P. Hahn (2020). Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.gcrfin.01
Poulin, J., É. D'Astous, M. Villard, S. J. Hejl, K. R. Newlon, M. E. McFadzen, J. S. Young, and C. K. Ghalambor (2020). Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.brncre.01
Range Maps - Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, O. Robinson, S. Ligocki, B. Petersen, C. Wood, I. Davies, B. Sullivan, M. Iliff, S. Kelling. 2020. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2018; Released: 2020. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. https://doi.org/10.2173/ebirdst.2018
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