What Do Birds Eat in the Winter?

Bohemian Waxwing Eating Fruit in Winter

Silver Leapers / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Anyone who has been birding in the winter quickly realizes that there are a lot of birds to be seen even in the coldest months. Those birds need adequate food sources to stay safe and warm through the long cold season, but when there are no buds, fruits, or flowers available, plants are dormant, and insects are scarce, what do winter birds eat?

Foods for Winter Birds

Birds are clever and resourceful, and winter birds can find abundant food sources even when the snow is deep and the temperatures are below freezing. The foods available for winter birds include:

  • Seeds: Many plants and flowers keep their mature seed heads well into winter, and birds can cling to or perch on the plants to reach the seeds. Seeds that fall can also be found in leaf litter or under plants where the snow is not as deep.
  • Nuts: Fallen nuts are a great food source for many woodland birds. Acorns, beechnuts, and other nuts are popular food sources for jays, titmice, and other species with sturdy bills to crack the nuts, and pine nuts are an important food source for winter finches.
  • Insects: While there may not be flying insects in the winter, dormant insects and larvae are a critical food source for birds. Chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers, and other birds will forage in tree bark for hidden insects that provide valuable protein.
  • Sap: Sweet tree sap is a tasty treat for woodpeckers, and they will drill deep into a tree's bark to reach whatever residual sap is not frozen in the winter. Other bird species may then sip from those same sap wells.
  • Fruit: Fresh fruit may not be available in the winter, but leftovers from the fall harvest will remain on trees and bushes for birds to take advantage of. Robins, bluebirds, and waxwings are especially fond of winter fruit.
  • Grain: Even the most efficient fall harvest spills grain on the ground, and game birds, doves, and blackbirds will take advantage of that bounty by foraging in agricultural fields. Wild grain is also a valuable source of food for many birds.
  • Carrion: Winter is a harsh season and many animals don't survive. Opportunistic birds such as common ravens, bald eagles, and American crows will take advantage of other animals' misfortunes to feast on their carcasses. Carnivorous birds will also visit gut piles from hunters' kills for a fast, easy meal.
  • Small Animals: Birds of prey are effective hunters in any season, and even in winter they will feed on mice, voles, small birds, fish, and other prey. Prey can be more scarce, but the best raptors successfully find enough food all winter.

How Winter Birds Find Food

There may be many sources of food available for winter birds, but finding that food can be a challenge in poor weather and harsh conditions. Many winter birds are nomadic and travel to find the best food sources, moving to a new location when each source is depleted. Some birds will also cache food throughout the late summer and autumn to store up extra supplies, which they will visit all winter long. Birds have good memories and can recall where they found exceptional food sources earlier in the year or in previous winters, and they will often revisit the same areas in search of more resources.

Winter Birds and Bird Feeders

Backyard bird feeders are an important source of food for winter birds. Even though the birds can survive on wild foods, feeders provide an easy, convenient source of nutritious food. Bird mortality is high in the winter, and having access to a feeder can mean the difference between surviving the season and a starvation death when other birds are competing for limited food. To keep your winter backyard birds from going hungry when snow flies:

  • Fill your feeders with the best winter bird foods to provide nutritious energy.
  • Provide natural food sources with fruit-bearing shrubs and fruit trees for birds.
  • Allow leaf litter to accumulate for the food it can provide ground-feeding birds.
  • Keep winter bird feeders clean to avoid spreading disease among hungry birds.
  • Refill feeders quickly after storms so birds can refuel to keep warm and safe.

Winter can be a harsh season for birds, but there is plenty of food available for the birds that know how to find it. Supplementing wild food sources with bird feeders can attract plenty of birds to your yard and will help them survive even the coldest winter without going hungry.