In the spring, summer and fall, when birds have insects and other favorite foods available, many of us see moderate numbers of avian visitors at our feeders — although there are always exceptions, such as parents looking for easy meals to satisfy the voracious appetites of their offspring. Come wintertime, though, we may have whole flocks of different species flying busily to and fro to take food from our feeders.
Our avian friends need to eat more, and more often, in autumn and winter to ensure that they can gain sufficient fat reserves to see them through the cold weather. Some of the smallest birds will consume up to 30% of their body weight. Nuts are a favored food for tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).
In the autumn, there are still many berries available and these are a popular food. Birds that tend to eat insects much of the year will switch to berries in winter since their prey has died, is dormant and awaiting rebirth in larval form, or otherwise scarce. The berries of honeysuckle (Lonicera), privet (Ligustrum, an invasive plant) and other plants are popular foods for species such as cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).
Holly berries (Ilex opaca) are a favorite for American robins (Turdus migratorius).
Even when much of the vegetation has dried up, seeds and seed pods remain. Pine siskins (Spinus pinus), downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) will feast on the seeds found in the pods of honeysuckles and trumpet vines (Campsis radicans).
In some cases, dried leaves and the remains of caterpillar tents form clumps that attract tufted titmice and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) as they search for sustenance.
Pine siskins will eat moss growing on tree trunks. Other birds search the vegetation alongside ponds, like this song sparrow (Melospiza melodia).
The seed pods of my crepe myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia) are a magnet in winter for various avian species such as pine siskins, white-throated sparrows, red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), as well as Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).
Various species of smaller birds will flock together in winter, both for purposes of safety and help in finding food. As the season progresses, the supply of seeds, pods and berries diminishes. In addition, the variety of natural plants has often decreased in urban areas as homeowners remove “weeds” from their yards. Wildlife organizations therefore encourage bird lovers to add native plants to their property, especially those that attract birds, and to provide extra food through feeders.
Making available mixed seeds, oil-rich sunflower seeds and suet (traditional or vegetarian made with vegetable shortening) will help the birds like this Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) keep up their energy. And it’s a good idea to keep those feeders filled — did you know that many songbirds are able to collect food in a special storage pouch within their esophagus so that they can then digest it after dark and overnight? This may help account for the fact that certain birds come back to the feeders over and over again within a short span of time.
The area where I live has had a long winter, with alternating days of relatively high temperatures and then very cold days and nights. Crocuses, daffodils and tulips are beginning to emerge in my gardens despite snow and ice and trees and shrubs are beginning to bud, giving the Eastern gray squirrels and house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) a new source of food. I think that both the birds and I will be happy when spring arrives and stays! In the meantime, I’ll keep the feeders filled.