Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus, adult feeding in hedge of Wild privet Ligustrum vulgare, Bedfordshire, England

What do wild birds eat?

Next time you watch the birds in your garden, don't just look at the ones queuing up for the birdfeeders.

Blackbird, Turdus merula

Stop, look and listen

Blackbirds feed mainly on the ground. They run and pause, run and pause, run and pause. Each time they stop, they scan the ground for prey. If they see a worm, they search more thoroughly before moving on. This is because worms tend to live in small groups, so if a blackbird has found one another won't be far away. 

As well as feeding on lawns, blackbirds love fallen leaves. They toss leaves away to find small edible creatures underneath. They will even do the same with snow! But how do they know to dig under that particular bit of snow or to look under a certain leaf? They listen, with very sensitive ears. 

Blue tit (Parus caeruleus) showing aggressive behaviour

Which way up?

A blue tit's beak is short and thin, just right for picking up insects and spiders. But how many of these do you see in the depths of winter? If your life depended on it you would certainly find more! At this time of year, most insects are hidden in bark, on the undersides of leaves or safe inside seed heads, perhaps as grubs. 

Blue tits, however, examine everything very closely - just in case they can eat it. They spend only half their time on a branch the right way up. Often, they hang upside down, peering under leaves and into cracks in bark. It can take a blue tit half an hour to search through a whole tree, examining each branch and leaf as it goes. 

Dunnock illustration

Seed hopper

You can watch a dunnock hopping forward, pecking all day under bushes without apparently picking up anything. You'd think it would struggle to survive. 

Dunnocks mostly eat insects, but will eat nettle, grass and weed seeds in the winter. A dunnock has to spend nearly all its time in winter feeding, just to survive the long, cold nights. If you don't think there are enough seeds to keep a dunnock alive, just think where the weeds in your garden come from - all from seeds that dunnocks and other birds missed! 

House sparrow male and female artwork

Gaining grain

House sparrows mainly eat plants, whatever the time of year. Sparrows have chunky, seed-eater's beaks, and they will tackle all manner of seeds and grain.  

They either separate the seed from its husk with their beak or they pull the seed apart to get to the good bit - the starch that the seed would have used when it was time to grow. We use this same starch to make flour for bread. This is why many birds are happy to eat scraps of bread from your birdtable. 

Starling illustration

Frozen food

Thousands of starlings come here every winter, some from as far away as Russia. They come to escape the cold winters - especially the frozen ground. To feed, a starling sticks its beak in to the ground and then opens it to make a hole.   

A starling's eyes swivel to point forward so it can see if there's a tasty insect grub in the hole. But when the ground freezes a starling can't push its beak in. Even if it could, it would find most of the grubs have dug themselves in deeper to avoid the frost.   

At this point, the starling switches to berries, seeds and grain. It's harder to digest these so the starling's gut grows longer in the winter to get the most out of its food.