We have all heard the phrase he or she “eats like a bird.” This usually implies a very small appetite. This could not be further from the truth for birds. If you “ate like a bird” you would eat more than 25 pizzas a day. Birds’ high metabolism and high body temperature use a lot of energy, which means, they need a lot of food. Birds spend most of the daylight hours foraging and consuming food.
The Golden-crowned kinglet for example, is a very small bird at only 4 inches long. Kinglets eat mainly insects and need about 8 calories per day. This doesn’t sound like much, but in a human comparison, this would equate to over 60,000 calories per day. The larger American robin can consume up to 14 feet of worms a day.
Most birds find food by sight. Ground feeding birds like quail and sparrows uncover food by scratching the ground with one or both feet. Robins hop on the ground and tilt their head to look for signs of earthworm activity. Woodpeckers excavate small holes in trees to reach hidden insects. Herons and egrets will sometimes lure in their prey by touching the tip of their bill on the water’s surface to mimic a struggling insect and then catch fish that come to investigate the disturbance.
The majority of birds use their bill to handle their food. The house finch uses its thick bill to crack the shell of a seed, discard the shell and swallow the food whole. Some birds like the chickadee, which has a small, thin bill, will hold a seed with its feet and open the shell with its pointed bill. Hummingbirds use their tongues to capture nectar and carry it to their bill.
Birds are very much aware of the nutritional quality of their food and seek out higher-quality foods. The optimal food has just the right amount fat, calories, calcium and protein birds are looking for. If you feed the birds, it is important to offer nutritional foods such as black-oil sunflower seeds, high-fat quality seed blends and suet with added calcium. Birds have a need for calcium and some birds have even been observed eating calcium-rich paint chips from buildings. Providing native, natural food-producing flowers, shrubs and trees is also beneficial. If planting for the birds, be sure to check with your local nursery for seed and berry producing native plants that local birds are attracted to.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”