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Bird Diets

Pileated Woodpecker’s Winter (and early spring) Diet

The mainstay (up to 60%) of a Pileated Woodpecker’s diet is Carpenter Ants (especially in the winter) with wood-boring beetle larvae (early spring) not far behind.  Flies, caterpillars, grasshoppers, termites, cockroaches and a variety of other insects are also consumed in summer.  However, these woodpeckers are not strictly insectivores.  During the fall and winter they seek out fruit (and nuts), including the fruit of Wild Grape, Virginia Creeper, Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac, American Holly, Elderberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Hackberry and Crab Apple (pictured).  Roughly one-quarter of a Pileated Woodpecker’s diet may be fruits and nuts.  (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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Wild Turkeys Foraging on Sensitive Fern Fertile Spores

Congratulations to Deb Marnich, the first of many Naturally Curious readers who identified the Sensitive Fern fertile frond visitors as Wild Turkeys.  I had neglected to check and make sure I hadn’t addressed this subject recently on this blog, which is my custom with every post, and indeed, just a year ago there was a post on this very subject.  Judging from the number of correct entries, either I have a very informed readership or their memory is better than mine – quite possibly both!

Wild Turkeys usually forage in flocks as they search the ground for food. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, ironwood and white ash seeds, hawthorn and witch hazel fruits make up a lot of their diet in fall, winter and spring. In the summer, seeds of grasses and sedges as well as invertebrates are eaten. In winter, when snow has accumulated, leaves of sedges, evergreen ferns, hemlock buds, burdock seeds and spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns tend to be more accessible and readily eaten.

The fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) persist all winter, sticking up out of the snow as if beckoning to hungry turkeys. Upon finding a clump of these fertile fronds, a turkey will peck repeatedly at them, causing the sori (clusters of sporangia which produce and contain spores) to burst and release thousands of spores onto the surface of the snow.

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Spruce Grouse Foraging

While Ruffed Grouse are plentiful throughout most of New England, one has to go to northern Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine to see its cousin, the Spruce Grouse.  Associated with boreal forests, this largely herbivorous bird feeds primarily on the needles of pine, spruce and fir (a small amount of animal matter is consumed in the summer as well as ground vegetation). Especially in the winter, a large volume of conifer browse is consumed in order to meet energy demands.

The grouse holds the needle between the tips of its mandibles and breaks it off by flicking its head.  This action, and the fact that Spruce Grouse feed exclusively on needles in the winter, leads to the wearing off of the tip of the bird’s upper mandible by spring.

If you are searching for a Spruce Grouse, you might want to concentrate in the middle of the crowns of trees, as this is where the birds tend to forage. Theories for this preference include the fact that needles in this location have higher nutritive value, branches provide sturdy support, and grouse can see approaching avian predators while remaining partially concealed. (Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology). (Photo: male Spruce Grouse browsing on Tamarack needles and (inset) looking for grit on the ground.)

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Hungry Barred Owls Near Feeders

3-4-19 barred owl _U1A2992Over the past few weeks many people in northern New England have discovered Barred Owls perching near their bird feeders during the day. At this time of year, with snow on the ground, food is harder to find and owls are forced to hunt during the day as well as at night. Bird feeders are a sure source of food, as mice and voles are coming out to feed on spilled seed (most often at night).

The owls we see are relying primarily on their sense of hearing to locate small rodents. Their ear openings are asymmetrically placed, which means that sounds reach the owl’s ears at different times. This helps them zero in on the exact location where the sound is coming from, both when they are perched as well as in flight.

Although Barred Owls can detect the sound of a mouse scurrying through tunnels two feet beneath the snow, this winter has been more challenging for them than many. Almost every snow storm has been followed by rain, which has created multiple layers of icy crust. Although sound may be heard through solid, liquid, or gaseous matter, one wonders if these multiple layers of crust compromise an owl’s ability to hear. In addition, these conditions can’t help but impede an owl’s ability to reach its target as quickly as it normally does.

A dear friend whose compassion for creatures big and small is unmatched was going to great lengths (coating balls of hamburger with hair cut from her dog’s coat so they would bear some resemblance to small rodents) to help a resident owl in a time of need. Some would argue that nature shouldn’t be interfered with, but those readers with a desire to come to the aid of a hungry owl could let a little seed fall on the snow that’s packed down around the feeder in hopes that a large supply of accessible food might attract more rodents which might fill more owl stomachs.

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Pileated Woodpeckers Foraging For Last of Wild Grapes

12-17-18 pileated woodpecker and grapes IMG_7731

Carpenter Ants and wood-boring beetle larvae are the mainstay of the Pileated Woodpecker’s diet.  Long slivers of wood in trees and logs are removed in order to expose ant galleries, creating large rectangular excavations.  The woodpecker’s long, pointed, barbed tongue and its sticky saliva enable it to catch and extract ants from the ants’ tunnels.

While ants and beetle larvae are consumed year-round, fruits and nuts are eaten when available. A study that took place in the Northeast found seasonal shifts in primary food items: fruit in fall, Carpenter Ants in winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in summer.

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American Goldfinches Dining On Thistle Seeds

A. goldfinch and thistle seed_U1A8258

American Goldfinches are almost exclusively granivorous (consumers of seeds/grains).  Very few insects are consumed by these birds, even when feeding nestlings.  This is highly unusual in that spiders and insects are an essential part of 96% of N.A. terrestrial bird species. At the very least, most seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects. (Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the raising of their young up to the host bird. It is rare that a cowbird chick will survive to leave an American Goldfinch nest, probably because it cannot thrive on a diet of virtually all seeds.)

The seeds of plants in the Composite family (sunflowers, thistles, dandelions, etc.) are the preferred food of goldfinches. Thistle seeds, being high in fat and protein, are high on the list. There appears to be a correlation between the late nesting period of goldfinches (late June or early July) and the flowering of thistles.  By the time American Goldfinch eggs have hatched, there is an ample supply of thistle seed for the nestlings.

Now is the time to keep an eye on the seedheads of thistles, dandelions and other composites for the acrobatic seed-plucking antics of American Goldfinches.

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Why You See Birds On Dirt Roads

1-5-17 goldfinches in road 049A1683There are two parts to a bird’s stomach, each of which has a different function. The proventriculus, or glandular stomach, secretes enzymes that begin the digestive process. Lacking teeth, birds also have a gizzard, or muscular stomach, that grinds up the food that a bird has eaten. For this reason, the gizzard is usually very strong and muscular. Seed-eating birds often eat seeds whole and need to break them into tiny pieces in order to digest them. Many of these birds can be seen on dirt roads, picking up small stones and grit which then collects in their gizzards and helps pulverize the food they’ve eaten.  (Photo:  American Goldfinches)

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A Killdeer’s Diet

8-4-17 killdeer2 049A1132Ninety-eight percent of  a Killdeer’s diet  consists of animal matter.  Beetles, insect larvae, earthworms, grasshoppers and crayfish make up the majority of what a Killdeer eats. In the summer, adult beetles (see photo) and beetle larvae make up almost half of what they consume.

Much of the time we observe Killdeer they are running, stopping, waiting and then running again. This is typical feeding behavior. Another method of obtaining food consists of patting the ground or the bottom of a pond in shallow water with one quivering foot. Killdeer also engage in probing into mud and chasing prey, and they have been known to follow tractors in search of earthworms.

Food normally passes through a Killdeer’s digestive tract in about two hours, but the spore-bearing structures of some ferns that it eats take five to sixty hours. All birds have gizzards, where food is ground up. Some birds swallow grit to aid in the grinding process, and the Killdeer is one of them. It has been proposed that the sporocarps take longer to pass through a Killdeer because they are retained in the gizzard where they function as grit.

 

 


Cedar Waxwings Feasting on Fruit

1-31-17-cedar-waxwing-049a3342

Cedar Waxwings are strictly fruit eaters in the winter, expanding their diet to include insects during the warmer parts of the year. As their name implies, one often finds these birds in areas where there are a lot of cedars, as they’ve historically fed on cedar berries in winter. However, they increasingly rely on the fruit of mountain ash as well as apple, crabapple and hawthorn in the Northeast. Waxwings run the risk of intoxication and even death after eating fermented fruit such as the apples pictured. In recent years Cedar Waxwings have started feeding on the fruits of invasive honeysuckles, a habit which ornithologists feel might be responsible for a shift in waxwing distribution as well as regional population increases.

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Small Birds Beware of Sharp-shinned Hawks

coopers-and-blue-jay-by-jeannieShort, powerful, rounded wings and a relatively long tail enable Sharp-shinned Hawks to maneuver in dense cover in pursuit of small birds, which compose 90% of their diet. Small mammals and insects are consumed, but not nearly as frequently as birds. The size of the birds eaten range from hummingbirds to Ruffed Grouse. Long legs and toes (especially middle toes) enable individuals to reach into vegetation and large eyes enhance its ability to catch fast-moving prey.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are familiar sights to those of us with bird feeders – this species is responsible for 35% of 1,138 predation incidents reported at feeders in continent-wide survey. In this photograph, a Blue Jay is successfully warding off an attack by a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk. (Photo by Jeannie Killam.)

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Attracting Fruit-eating Birds

7-11-16  birds and oranges 519.jpgThere are many birds, such as waxwings, that have a frugivorous (strictly fruit-eating) diet.  The only time they usually expand their diet to include insects is during the breeding season, when growing hatchlings require high amounts of protein for proper development.  Others, such as orioles, show a marked preference for fruit but also eat significant quantities of other foods.  All of these birds play an important role by spreading fruit seeds to distant areas either by caching food or distributing the seeds through their droppings.

Bird lovers often put out seed to lure birds in for a closer look (a practice discouraged during the summer in black bear country), but there is an equally effective magnet for some species, and that is fruit. (Due to the high sugar content, little nutrition and potential bacteria growth in jelly, it may be best to provide fruit over jelly.) Grapes often attract Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, Gray Catbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, House Finches and American Robins.  Raisins and currants (soaked in water overnight) appeal to Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and Eastern Towhees.  Species that find orange halves hard to resist include Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, Gray Catbirds and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.  (Photo: Gray Catbird (left), female Red-bellied Woodpecker (middle) and female Baltimore Oriole (right) enjoying breakfast at The House On The Hill Bed & Breakfast, Greenfield, MA.)

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American Crow Bills Used As Tools

1-13-16  American crow tracks 147American crows obtain most of their food on the ground as they walk along in search of seeds, insects, frogs, snakes, bird nests and small mammals. Their hunting techniques are varied and most involve the use of their bill. In search of invertebrates, crows will probe the soil with their bill, flick aside leaves, dig in the soil and even lift cow paddies. They fish for tadpoles and dig nearly an inch deep with their bill for clams. In winter, their foraging continues and as these tracks indicate, when the snow is only a few inches deep they will walk around and around in a given area, probing tufts of grass for hibernating insects, mice, voles, or any other form of life these opportunists find.

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Pileated Woodpecker Droppings

11-12-15 pileated droppings 015Pileated Woodpeckers usually defecate frequently during the day at their foraging sites. As they pry off long slivers of wood to expose carpenter ant galleries, the wood chips pile up on the ground. A substantial pile usually indicates that the woodpecker has been working long enough at this site for there to be some droppings in the pile.

Pileated Woodpeckers eat ants, primarily carpenter, and beetle larvae throughout the year. Fruit and nuts are eaten when available. The primary food shifts seasonally, with fruit mainly in the fall, carpenter ants in the winter, wood-boring beetle larvae in early spring, and a variety of insects in the summer.

Like humans, birds excrete metabolic waste products, mainly nitrogen, which remains after food is broken down. Humans excrete waste nitrogen as urea in urine, which is diluted with water. Birds, needing to be as light as possible for efficient flight, do not have heavy, water-filled bladders. They excrete nitrogen as a chemical called uric acid in a concentrated form with no dilution necessary. The white outer coating of bird droppings is uric acid. The insides of the droppings are the actual feces, or the indigestible parts of a bird’s diet. A Pileated Woodpecker’s droppings at this time of year consist of bits of carpenter ant exoskeletons and a surprisingly small amount of wood fiber (see insert). Birds simultaneously evacuate uric acid and feces from an opening just under the tail called the cloaca or vent.

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Tree Swallow Nestlings Well Fed

7-21 tree swallows 068Tree Swallow parents begin feeding their four to seven nestlings as soon as they hatch, and they continue doing so until their young depart the nest and sometimes for several days afterwards. The adult carries food in its bill and places it directly into the open mouth of a begging nestling. The small insects gathered by the parent may be formed into a rounded ball, or bolus, which they hold in their mouth or throat (often not visible to an observer). Both parents feed the nestlings, together averaging about ten to twenty deliveries per hour. During periods of peak nestling demand, parents may feed as many as 6,000 to 7,000 insects in a single day. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Waxwings Supplementing Sugary Fruit Diet With High-Protein Insects

4-3-15 bohemian waxwing IMG_2383The diet of both Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings is primarily sugary fruits throughout most of year. Research shows that they can subsist on this diet exclusively for as many as 18 days. However, in winter when feeding on fruits, they also feed on buds and available insects. In warmer months, waxwings will fly out over water from exposed perches, much like flycatchers, and snatch emerging aquatic insects such as mosquitoes, midges, mayflies, caddisflies and dragonflies out of the air. They also glean for vegetation-borne insect prey, such as scale insects. At this time of year they are taking advantage of winter stonefly hatches over open streams. (photos: bohemian waxwing & stonefly)

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White-winged Crossbills Nesting

White_winged crossbill by garth mcelroyrWhite-winged Crossbills inhabit the boreal forests of northern New England, the southern edge of their breeding grounds. This species, as well as Red Crossbills, are named for their bill which is supremely adapted to extracting seeds from conifer cones. Crossbills use their crossed bills to wedge open cone scales, after which they lift the seeds free with their tongues. Individuals can eat up to 3,000 conifer seeds per day.

White-winged Crossbills are erratic nesters that have been found breeding every month of the year. The birds nest whenever the available food supply is sufficient for egg formation and is likely to remain sufficient for at least three weeks, during the more energy demanding nestling stage.

Three nesting periods have been observed, each corresponding to the ripening of cones from different conifer species. The first season occurs in early July, when the cones of Tamarack, or American Larch, and White Spruce mature. The second nesting period begins in January and February, when they rely mainly on White and Red Spruce cone crops and the third season is starting now, as Black Spruce cones begin to open up. (Photo: public domain, male White-winged Crossbill)

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Returning Red-winged Blackbirds Announce the Arrival of Spring

3-10-15  red-winged blackbird IMG_3155Regardless of the deep snow that remains on the ground and the frigid temperatures we’ve had recently, spring has announced itself with the arrival of red-winged blackbirds this week. Most redwings that breed in New England migrate approximately 500 miles further south to spend the winter. In the spring, males begin migrating first, flying north in flocks during the day to their breeding grounds. (In the fall, females depart first.) While they eat primarily insects during the breeding season, redwings subsist mainly on seeds and grain this early in the season. Before you know it, females will return, and up to fifteen of them will be nesting on the territory of each male (though he doesn’t sire all of the nestlings).

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Pileated Woodpecker Feeding Hole Embellishment

3-2-15  pileated horizontal lines 057Large rectangular excavations in trees, indicating Pileated Woodpecker feeding activity, are relatively common. These holes give the woodpecker access to carpenter ants living in galleries within the tree. What are not common are the horizontal lines radiating out from either side of the top rectangular Pileated Woodpecker feeding hole (and, more subtly, the bottom two holes) in the pictured tree.

Pileated Woodpeckers use methods other than drilling rectangular holes to locate insects – they glean branches, trunks and logs, peck bark and scale bark off of trees. But these lines are unusual, to say the least. If anyone is familiar with this pattern, and would care to explain the function of these horizontal lines, it would be greatly appreciated. After racking my brain and checking several resources, I cannot come up with a plausible explanation, though inevitably there has to be one, for no pileated woodpecker, or any other creature, is about to waste precious energy, especially in a winter as cold as this one. (Thanks to photographer, naturalist and keen-eyed John Snell (http://stilllearningtosee.com/about/) for finding and sharing this discovery with Naturally Curious.)

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Mourning Dove Diet

1-28-15  mourning dove IMG_0746Seeds, including cultivated grains, grasses, weeds and berries, make up 99 percent of a Mourning Dove’s diet. Because they can find enough food to sustain themselves, Mourning Doves are permanent residents, remaining year round, even in northern New England.

These birds feed on the ground and in the open, consuming 12 to 20 percent of their body weight per day, or 71 calories on average. Mourning Doves swallow the seeds and store them in an enlargement of the esophagus called a crop. Once their crop is filled (the record is 17,200 bluegrass seeds in a single crop), they can then fly to a protected area where they can safely digest their food.

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Common Redpolls Appearing

1-26-15 common redpoll male 077The birds most commonly associated with winter irruptions are the winter finches — Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, and Evening Grosbeak. Their food supply, or lack thereof, in the Canadian boreal forests where they normally overwinter, determines whether or not they will be seen as far south as the U. S. Key trees affecting finch movements in the boreal forest are spruces, birches and mountain-ashes.

Common Redpolls feed primarily on the catkins (seed-containing fruit) produced by birch and alder trees. When catkin production is low further north, as it is this winter, Common Redpolls leave these areas and irrupt into areas where food is more plentiful. (Photo: male Common Redpoll)

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Wild Turkeys’ Struggle for Food Begins

wild turkey in snow121Wild Turkeys do not migrate. During the winter they often separate into three distinct groups — adult males (toms), young males (jakes) and females (hens) of all ages — and spend their days seeking out plant (90 percent of diet) and animal (10 percent of diet) matter. In the summer, greens and insects make up much of their diet; in the winter, Wild Turkeys rely heavily on acorns, beechnuts, crabapples and hawthorn fruit, as well as agricultural grains such as corn, buckwheat, soybeans and oats.

The winter survival of Wild Turkeys depends much more on snow conditions that impact the procuring of food than on the temperature. While research has shown that turkeys can tolerate very cold temperatures, they need adequate food to keep from losing significant body weight and eventually starving to death. In parts of northern New England, the current Nor’easter has dumped a large amount of deep, loose fluffy snow, which turkeys can’t walk on or dig through in order to reach nutritious nuts. For this reason, turkeys frequently seek out agricultural fields that are windblown and provide relatively easy access to grains.

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Why Cardinals Are Red

12-12-14 cardinal DA8A9669The diet of a Northern Cardinal consists mainly of seeds, fruits and insects (average annual consumption is 29% animal and 71% vegetable matter). As fall progresses, the proportion of vegetable matter in its diet increases until it reaches a high of 88% during winter. The red plumage color of both males and females (females have some red feathers in wings and tail) results from the ingestion of carotenoid pigments obtained from their diet during the fall molt (September/October). Fruits and insects are high in carotenoids, while most seeds are poor sources. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, new research has shown that brighter males have higher reproductive success and territories with greater vegetation density, and that plumage brightness in both the male (breast color) and female (color of underwing-coverts) is positively correlated with parental care (feeding nestlings).

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Canada Geese Switch Diet to Berries & Grains

12-4-14  Canada geese2 IMG_5615During migration and throughout the winter, Canada Geese are highly gregarious, often gathering and feeding in flocks that consist of over a thousand geese. Almost exclusively herbivorous, they are efficient grazers, having serrations on their stout, flat bills. During summer they feed primarily on grasses and sedges. Considered a nuisance by many people with large lawns Canada Geese are attracted to these lawns not only because they can digest grass, but also because they have an unobstructed view that allows them to detect approaching predators. During and following migration, berries (especially blueberries) and agricultural grains including sorghum, corn and winter wheat make up most of their diet. When you see them in cornfields, they are feeding on fallen kernels as well as corn still on dry cobs — they are very good at removing the kernels.

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Tufted Titmice Caching Seeds for Winter Consumption

tufted titmouse2  379Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees are in the same family (Paridae), and share several traits, one of which has to do with securing food. They are both frequent visitors of bird feeders where they not only take seeds and soon thereafter consume them, but they also collect and cache food throughout their territory for times when there is a scarcity of food. Tufted Titmice usually store their seeds within 130 feet of the feeder. They take only one seed per trip and usually shell the seeds before hiding them.

In contrast to most species of titmice and chickadees, young Tufted Titmice often remain with their parents during the winter and then disperse later in their second year. Some yearling titmice even stay on their natal territory and help their parents to raise younger siblings.

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