What Do Birds Eat? (Everything You Need to Know)

If you’ve noticed some birds gathering in your garden and you’re looking to attract them by giving them some food, you might want to know just what type is safe and nutritious. 

What do birds eat in the summer or in the winter? How do their nutritional needs depend on their species? We’ll answer these questions and more in today’s article, so read on. 

What do birds eat?

To find out what birds eat, you will first have to determine which birds you want to feed. Even though a bird’s diet varies largely from one species to the next, here’s what most eat: 

  • A wide range of bird seed types
  • Insects, grubs, larvae, and worms
  • Plants (especially when nothing else is available)
  • Fruits, vegetables, and nuts
  • Pollen or nectar
  • Small mammals

The vast majority of songbirds feed on spiders and insects in the summer. On the one hand, insects aren’t very difficult to catch, and they also have a healthy dose of protein in them. 

In the colder season, on the other hand, most birds feed on seeds, nuts, and even acorns. If the situation gets really desperate, they can even feed on dead animals or human leftovers, which aren’t excellent sources of food, but they provide them with the sustenance they need. (1)

In general, all birds can be split up into several categories, such as the following:

  • Seed-eating birds (the vast majority of garden birds from finches to budgies)
  • Frugivores (the cotinga, some species of parrots, and the toucan eat fruit)
  • Nectar-eating birds (broad-tailed hummingbirds, black-bellied hummingbirds, sunbirds, and others)
  • Insectivores (nighthawks, flycatchers, bluebirds, and others)
  • Worm-eating birds (robins)
  • Fish-eating birds (such as seagulls, for example)
  • Bird-eating birds (hawks)
  • Amphibian-eating birds (Night-Heron)
  • Mammal-eating birds (owls)
  • Egg-eating birds (finches)

How do birds find food?

The eating habits of birds don’t resemble those of humans. Since they are warm-blooded and smaller than us, birds have to eat a lot more frequently, so they will do whatever they can to come across wild bird food.

Most of them will fly around and survey the areas around them either from the tops of the trees or, in case they are ground birds, they’ll move across large distances to see whether they come across a new source of food. 

Some birds, such as eagles, parrots, and kiwis, are equipped with an excellent sense of smell, which is why they can locate their food with the assistance of their olfactory glands. However, most other birds will rely on their vision to find new food sources. 

Over the years, sunbirds have become acquainted with the design and functionality of bird feeders, for example, so they will learn the routine of people so as to know when the latter place food for them in the garden.

Can birds get fat?

No matter the type of food for birds you place in the feeder, you might have noticed that wild birds don’t tend to put on weight that easily. They have a high metabolism and are always full of energy, and since they are used to moving for long distances in search of food or a mate, they aren’t going to get fat. 

On top of that, some birds have to constantly be on the lookout so that they hide from predators. Many have developed excellent hiding and escaping mechanisms, but this keeps them in a state of alert that backyard birds, for instance, don’t have. 

The types of birds that can and will get fat if you don’t pay attention to what you are feeding them are pet birds and domestic poultry. In these, weight gain can cause a series of health problems, most of which affect their musculoskeletal system. 

Do birds eat other birds?

While not all birds eat other birds, there are some species that need so much protein in their diet that they will do just that. These are called avivores as the largest portion of their diet is composed of other birds. 

Here are some examples of bird-eating raptors (2): 

  • Northern Shrike (which eats anything from small birds to rodents and insects and kills its prey by impaling it on barbed wire fences, for example)
  • Great Blue Heron (which eats anything from fish to amphibians, birds, and insects)
  • Shikra (which kill their prey (birds, reptiles, insects, squirrels and more) by using their sharp and hooked beak)
  • Besra (which has a hunting technique that is similar to that of small hawks and eats anything from dragonflies and lizards to birds and rodents)
  • Red-tailed hawk (which eat anything from rabbits to birds and even crabs)
  • Peregrine falcon (which rely on their sharp and strong talons to capture birds even as they fly)
  • Red-headed Woodpecker (which eats anything from nestling birds to arthropods)
  • Blue Jay (which mostly eats nestlings and eggs, but can also feed on the corpses of dead birds)
  • American Crows (which eats eggs and nestlings of species such as jays, robins, loons, and terns)
  • American Ravens (which eats anything from baby tortoises to birds and can scavenge for food) 

Hawks, owls, and falcons are the typical predators of other birds. If you have a bird feeder installed in your backyard, it’s quite likely that a falcon or a hawk nearby could have noticed it and even consumed one of the birds that come and feed in your garden. 

There are some types of birds that specialize not in just eating adult birds per se, but also their eggs. However, they do not rely on this practice exclusively, as eggs are only available in the nesting season. Some of those that can eat birds’ eggs are ravens and crows, tree-pies, and coucals. 

What is the best bird feeder food?

What do you feed a bird throughout the year? In the spring and summer, the best bird food for feeders consists of seed, mealworms, fruit and jelly, and nectar, but all of these depend on the species you are feeding. Freshwater is also a must, especially when temperatures begin to get high. 

In the fall, birds should have a diet composed of nectar (especially for Hummingbirds), peanuts or peanut butter, black oil sunflower seeds, and Nyjer seed. 

Winter is a bit more challenging for birds, and many of them can die or begin to suffer from health problems because of the cold. That’s why they need better sources of protein and fat, such as suet, black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and peanut butter, as well as White Proso Millet. 

In the spring, feed them fruit, mealworms, seed (especially hulled sunflower seeds and safflower seed), and nectar. (3)

1. Nyjer seed (thistle)

What is the best food to attract birds if you live in North America? It sure seems to be nyjer seed, as the vast majority of bird species prefer it, and American ones even more so. Here are several examples of species that like to eat Nyjer:

  • American and European goldfinches
  • California quail
  • Common redpolls
  • Song sparrows
  • Pine siskins
  • Purple finches
  • Mourning doves

Nyjer is a great food to give birds in the winter, too, especially since most species can feed on it. Since Nyjer seed tends to be expensive on its own, you can purchase finch or canary bird seed mixes as these will often contain it, too.

2. Suet

Not every bird is a suet feeding bird, but here are some that love it and thrive on it.

  • Woodpeckers
  • Wrens
  • Chickadees
  • Nuthatches
  • Flickers
  • Warblers
  • Jays
  • Goldfinches

Many bird varieties can be attracted to your garden if you offer them suet, but especially woodpeckers. The two seasons that are the best when it comes to giving birds this type of food are fall and winter, as that’s when birds seem to look for it the most. 

If you make your own suet at home, make sure to avoid adding a variety of ingredients that might not add any nutritional value whatsoever and might simply increase the number of calories. Sugary ingredients are best avoided, in this case.

3. Safflower seed

What can birds eat when it comes to seeds? Well, safflower seed is one of the most popular and nutrient-rich options, especially for backyard birds. 

It’s a great way to supplement the birds’ diet during the colder season as it contains as much as 38% fat, 38% carbs, and 16% protein.

The types of birds that are well-known for having a particular interest in safflower seeds are listed below.

  • Grosbeaks
  • Jays
  • Cardinals
  • Doves
  • Sparrows
  • Finches
  • Chickadees 

The reason safflower seed is the best when it comes to feeding backyard birds is that squirrels, which are known to steal food from bird feeders, don’t like it at all, so they’ll just leave it alone.

4. Black-oil sunflower seed

There are many types of bird seeds out there, but out of all, black-oil sunflower seeds are some of the richest in fat. That’s why they make the best choice for winter birds. 

While striped sunflower seeds are equipped with a thick shell, their black-oil counterparts have thin shells, so they’re easy to open by the birds. But what types of birds prefer this type of seed over others? Here are some examples.

  • Finches
  • Blackbirds
  • Grackles
  • Northern cardinals
  • Gray catbirds
  • Mourning and Eurasian doves
  • Magpies
  • Pine siskins
  • Grosbeaks

Besides being capable of providing them with the sustenance they need when it’s cold outside, these seeds are also rich in B vitamins, potassium, vitamin E, iron, as well as calcium. So they make a great choice for every bird’s breeding and nesting season, too.

5. Mealworms

Mealworms have a lot of protein in them, which is why they can supply birds with a good amount of energy, especially when the going gets tough and the other types of food might be scarce. 

You can feed mealworms to your birds either by buying them freeze-dried and mixing them with seeds, fruit, nuts, and veggies or by breeding your own. 

Naturally, the latter is only possible if you don’t have a sensitive stomach as you will effectively have to leave some oatmeal, bran, or grains along with some vegetables or fruit to rot in a warm place.

But what birds love to eat mealworms? Here are several.

  • Wrens
  • Blackcaps
  • Robins
  • Blackbirds
  • House sparrows
  • Starlings

6. Milo

What do small birds eat? Well, many ground-feeding, small-sized birds prefer milo, and some even go for it when they have sunflower available, despite the latter being rich in fat. 

According to a study performed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, it seems that Western species and ground-feeding species are those that prefer milo over other varieties. By contrast, birds that live in trees prefer sunflower seeds, as do Eastern species. (11)

Milo is particularly rich in carbs, especially since it is a type of grass grain, so it’s not a winner when it comes to nutrition. However, some species still prefer it, and here are several examples.

  • Large doves
  • Game birds 
  • Ground-feeders (grackles, starlings, cowbirds, plain chachalacas)

7. Hulled sunflower seeds

Among the many types of bird seed that you can place in your bird feeders are hulled sunflower seeds, too. 

These don’t make a mess since they have no shell, and they’re also easier to eat. However, they are rich in fat, so they should be fed in limited amounts, especially during the warm season.

Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive compared to their regular counterpart, but they should be considered, at least in the winter, when birds have to get something nutritious to eat and fast. 

The species that love hulled sunflower seeds are the following:

  • Finches
  • Chickadees
  • Woodpeckers
  • Doves
  • Sparrows 

8. Nectar (sugar water)

There isn’t a bird species that feed on nectar or sugar water alone, but there are some that prefer it over anything else. Some examples of nectarivorous birds are listed below.

  • Hummingbirds
  • Honeyeaters
  • Sunbirds

You can purchase ready-made nectar, but you can also make your homemade version by mixing four parts water with one part sugar, along with some supplements for birds. 

If you can’t be bothered with all of this effort and you want to get the commercial version, you should avoid nectar that contains any dye whatsoever as it can be toxic to birds. 

Try to steer clear of varieties that contain any preservatives or artificial flavors, as these two can be dangerous, too.

9. Fruit & jelly

There are many birds eating seeds out there, but what you might not know is that a surprising number of species love to eat fruit and jelly, too. Grape jelly is the favorite of some species, such as orioles, tanagers, and woodpeckers.

Jelly, jam, and other such fruit-based products have to be fed in limited amounts as they contain a lot of unnecessary sugar. While they do provide the birds with a lot of energy, it’s not a good idea to overdo it as excessive sugar can lead to digestive imbalances and other health problems.

In terms of fruit, most birds love it, too, but you should avoid giving birds the pits or seeds of some, such as apples, for example, whose seeds contain cyanide. Most species love fresh raspberries and blueberries.

10. White proso millet

You can get white proso millet from a variety of online retailers, whether Chewy, Petsmart, or any other marketplace you prefer. In general, it’s a small and inexpensive type of grain that many backyard birds love. Here are some species that thrive on it.

  • Tanagers
  • Sparrows
  • Warblers
  • Finches
  • Wrens
  • Cardinals
  • Doves
  • Buntings
  • Towhees

Like other varieties of millet, this one, too, is rich in phosphorus, magnesium, as well as calcium and protein. 

With its delicate taste and interesting texture, it appeals to many birds, including those that are in the breeding or nesting season. Plus, millet is richer in fiber compared to wheat or rice, so it’s better to feed to birds.

11. Shelled and cracked corn

Bird feeding is made easy if you decide to add some corn into their diet. But as you can expect, not all species like to eat corn, and not just because it’s rough, unappealing, or simply too large to be swallowed. 

The truth is that shelled, or cracked corn doesn’t have a lot of fat, so it’s less of a good option during the colder season. However, it is rich in fiber and protein, and some birds seem to enjoy it. Here are some examples of such species.

  • Doves
  • Ducks
  • Crows
  • Jays
  • Ravens
  • Quails
  • Pheasants
  • Cranes
  • Cardinals

Unfortunately, corn is very appealing to squirrels, too, so you’ll have to decide whether to add it to your bird feeder or not. Many pet birds like corn, too. 

12. Oats

What do birds like to eat when nothing else is available? Kitchen scraps are a solution to this problem, and the best foods that you can pick in this sense are cooked rice, potatoes, but also porridge oats.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should always feed porridge oats uncooked. If they are cooked, they can harden around a wild bird’s beak, making it impossible for it to feed or even breathe properly. 

Here are some species that like to eat oats and for which they are completely safe:

  • Doves
  • Pigeons
  • Pheasants

13. Peanuts

If you’ve ever seen a bird eating a peanut, you’ve probably had a parrot before. But not only pet birds enjoy peanuts — wild ones do, too. The species that love to nibble on peanuts are some of the following:

  • Jays
  • Titmice
  • Nuthatches
  • Chickadees
  • Woodpeckers
  • Northern cardinals

Peanuts have the advantage of being very rich in fat, which is why they can supply birds with the energy that they need, especially when the weather is starting to turn cold. 

They do pose a problem in terms of safety as peanuts can be moldy and you might not even realize it.

14. Rapeseed

Does rapeseed make the best bird feed for all species? Of course not. 

But for some, such as juncos, redpolls, doves, quails, or finches, it does. The rest aren’t that interested in this food variety, so the rapeseed will be left to spoil on the ground. 

Rapeseed is a distant relative of the mustard seed that’s particularly rich in fat, so that’s why it’s appreciated by larger bird species as they need more energy. 

However, this type of seed also contains a dangerous substance, which makes other birds steer clear of it — erucic acid. In small amounts, it is safe for most species.

15. Canary seed

One type of seed that you might want to add to your bird food feeder is a canary seed. This one has been getting a lot popular over the years, ever since it has been approved for human consumption in Canada and the United States. 

If it’s good for us, it’s good for the birds, which was intended for, right? Well, yes, and that’s because this type of seed is an excellent source of protein, containing as much of 20% of it. On top of that, it also has a high content of unsaturated fatty acids. 

Furthermore, it has folate and iron, so it’s very nutritious. It’s particularly popular with cowbirds and house sparrows, which some house owners might not want to attract.

What should you NOT feed wild birds?

What can birds not eat and why? Hunger can be convincing for many species, but there is a list of foods that you should always avoid giving to wild and pet birds alike. 

Don’t feed them sugary or salty foods, especially those made for human consumption, like sugary snacks, bacon, chips, or even heavily processed crackers.

Avoid feeding them desiccated coconut as it poses a choking hazard. Moreover, any spoiled or moldy foods are a no-go, as is milk, since it can cause digestive distress. (4)

Some foods can be downright toxic, and here is a list of those: (5)

  • Avocado
  • Chocolate
  • Raw potatoes
  • Cooked porridge oats
  • Fruit pits or fruit seeds
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as xylitol
  • Garlic and onion
  • Coffee

Although it’s not dangerous per se, very cheap varieties of bird food mixes, such as those containing sizable amounts of oats, cracked corn, wheat, or milo, are going to be avoided by the birds. Many of them will simply toss them around and look for something more nutritious, especially if they aren’t that desperate. 

Bread is also something that you should avoid feeding wild birds, even doves, pigeons, or ducks. Unfortunately, commercial bread nowadays contains preservatives and artificial flavors that can be dangerous to wild animals.

When should I stop feeding birds?

It can sometimes be your personal call, but there are people who feed wild birds during the cold season, and then they stop when spring comes along. 

That’s because the birds begin to have other sources of food readily available in their natural environment. A big part of the bird species available across North America migrate in the fall and in the spring, but this does not apply to all of them. 

To name a few, robins, orioles, bluebirds, and goldfinches all come to North America when spring comes along (March or April), but they leave in October or November. 

These species love to spend their winters in South America or the Southern part of the United States. Therefore, since they go away, you can stop adding food to the bird feeder in November and then begin feeding them in mid-March or April. 

A reason to stop feeding wild birds during the summer would be that it might attract some pests, and even bears, if they are active. 

For example, in Central and Western Massachusetts, it’s recommended that you stop feeding wild birds between April 1st and November 1st as there is a high number of black bears in this area.

What time of day do birds feed?

It actually depends on the species. It is a good idea to add some bird feeder food early in the morning or late in the evening, as most wild birds tend to be particularly active in the morning. 

However, some research (6) has found that there is a so-called second wave of feeding in the middle of the day, particularly for birds that haven’t found anything else in their environment and need a bit of energy to make sure they stay out of their predators’ way. 

So, if it were possible for you to keep your bird feeder full at all times, but especially until noon, then your garden birds would be happy and have their bellies full when they need it the most. Remember that birds have a much higher metabolism than we, humans, do, so they need to feed more often than people and even some small animals.

Frequently asked questions

Can birds eat bread?

Bread doesn’t make a good option when it comes to the top bird food you can add to your backyard feeder. Most commercial varieties contain too much sugar, preservatives, additives, and artificial colors. 

Can birds eat rice?

While it doesn’t make the best bird food nutrition-wise, cooked and uncooked rice can be consumed by most birds, without it having any negative effect on their health. 

Can birds eat chocolate?

Chocolate is not birds’ food and should never be a part of a bird’s diet. It’s unhealthy and toxic and can even lead to death, in some cases.

Can birds eat popcorn?

Popcorn can be bird feed only for species such as grackles, crows, wild geese, and European starlings. Some pet birds, such as large parrots, like it as a snack. 

Can birds eat grapes?

Since grapes are very rich in sugar, they should be fed in limited amounts. However, they do provide wild birds with a lot of energy. Seedless grapes are safe.

Can birds eat bananas?

Feeding wild birds bananas is safe, but as is the case with any other fruit, you shouldn’t overdo it. One banana once in a while is enough. 

Can birds eat cooked rice?

Cooked rice is a little better than uncooked rice, but the truth is that even the latter doesn’t expand in a bird’s stomach, so it’s just as safe. 

Can birds eat Cheerios?

If you feed them in moderation, Cheerios can be safe to give to your garden birds. Fortunately, it’s whole-grain and low in sugar and it doesn’t contain any artificial colors.

Can birds eat chia seeds?

Many ground feeding birds can nibble on chia seeds. Limited amounts are safe, but larger ones could cause digestive distress in some cases.

Can birds eat peanut butter?

Want to know how to feed birds high-fat, high-protein snacks? Well, peanut butter is a great option, especially for jays, woodpeckers, and chickadees as they love it.

Can birds eat flax seed?

Yes, but most birds aren’t going to go crazy about it. Some of the fillers used in commercial bird seed mixes are flax seed and millet. 

Can birds eat oatmeal?

Yes, especially raw oatmeal. Cooked porridge oats can make a bird’s beak sticky and can cause them to become incapable of feeding or even breathing.

Can birds eat apples?

Feeding birds apples is safe so long as you remove their seeds. In case you didn’t know, apple seeds contain cyanide, so they are toxic to birds.

Can birds eat watermelon?

So long as you remove the seeds, you can give birds watermelon. It’s especially enjoyed by more exotic species that live in the Southern hemisphere. 

Can birds eat cheese?

If you have nothing else available, feeding birds a piece of hard or stale cheese can be a solution. Avoid soft cheese and go for cheddar, but make sure that it’s not rancid. 

Can birds eat raisins?

Yes, a variety of birds eat and love raisins, and some of the best-known to do so are blackbirds, robins, as well as song thrushes. 

Can birds eat peanuts?

If you’re wondering what to feed wild birds like hummingbirds, peanuts are a no-go as they aren’t going to eat them. They’re safe for larger species as long as they aren’t moldy. 

Can birds eat sugar?

Most birds can’t eat processed sugar, but there are nectivorous species such as hummingbirds and honeyeaters that can actually digest it and thrive on it.

Can birds eat tomatoes?

While birds can eat dried tomatoes and spaghetti sauce, raw tomatoes are a no-go as they are acidic fruits and can cause digestive imbalances in most cases.

Can birds eat dog food?

So long as you feed your garden birds canned dog food only, it is perfectly safe. Blackbirds will eat it readily and even feed it to their offspring. 

Can birds eat uncooked oatmeal?

Yes. In fact, this is the only recommended way of feeding oatmeal to birds as cooked porridge can pose a variety of health risks to them.

Can birds eat noodles?

Yes, especially for granivorous birds. However, you should chop the pasta into small and soft pieces so that they can be carried away by the birds. 

Can birds eat sunflower seeds?

They sure can, and they’re right at the top of seeds that have a great nutritional value, especially in the winter months, when birds need more fat for more energy. 

Can birds eat blueberries?

Yes. Blueberries are safe to eat by birds, whether they are wild or pet birds. Plus, they contain plenty of vitamin C and antioxidants, so they’re healthy, too. 

Can birds eat pumpkin seeds?

Pumpkin seeds are safe to give to wild birds so long as you don’t add any seasoning or salt on them. Feed them raw only. 

Can birds eat cinnamon?

No. Unfortunately, some types of cinnamon can be toxic to wild and pet birds, and since it’s not worth the risk, you should avoid it altogether.

Can birds eat almonds?

Yes. Almonds, along with pecans, peanuts, walnuts and a variety of other nuts are safe to give to birds. Make sure they are clean and mold-free, though.

Can birds eat oranges?

Yes, they can. Some species are going to avoid it, but others, such as the scarlet tanager, the brown thrasher, or the gray catbird, are going to love it.

Can birds eat quinoa?

Quinoa is a safe and excellent food for birds as it is rich in protein and also contains phosphorus, calcium, potassium, as well as vitamins B and E.

Can birds eat avocado?

No. Avocado contains persin, a toxin that can make birds very sick, if not kill them. It is best avoided, especially for pet birds like canaries and budgies. 

Can birds eat honey?

While they can eat it, it’s not going to provide them with too much nutritional value, and it can also be contaminated with bacteria and mold. 

Can birds eat carrots?

Yes. Carrots are healthy, appealing, and tasty, and they also support the ocular health of birds. They are best fed raw, especially shredded.

Can birds eat cashews?

Cashews are nuts, so they are safe to give to birds, whether wild or pet birds. However, make sure that you offer them only in moderation as they are rich in fat.

Can birds eat dried fruits?

Yes. All birds can eat dried fruits, especially currants, raisins, and sultanas. They’re particularly enjoyed by robins, thrushes, and blackbirds. 

Can birds eat dry beans?

No. Feeding cooked beans is safe, but dry beans can cause a variety of health problems. Uncooked beans contain hemagglutinin, which is toxic to birds. 

Can birds eat bell pepper?

As long as you don’t also feed them the seeds, you can give bell peppers to birds. Even chili peppers or spicy chilies are safe without the seeds.

Can birds eat popcorn kernels?

Yes. However, wild birds aren’t going to show much interest in it. Larger pet birds are going to love it, though, as will some backyard birds. 

Can birds eat strawberries?

Yes. Strawberries are safe to give to wild and pet birds alike. Other berries that they love and that are healthy are blueberries and raspberries. 

Can birds eat cereal?

So long as it contains as little sugar and as few artificial dyes, preservatives, and flavors, cereal is a safe treat for birds. 

Can birds eat cherries?

Yes, but you do have to remove the pits as they can pose both a choking hazard and they contain several toxic substances to birds. 

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