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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
What is a Baby Sparrow’s Diet?
The house sparrow is the most common of North America’s 35 sparrow species. Generally, he eats a lot of grains and seeds, but will enjoy the protein of insects during the summer. A baby sparrow’s diet depends on what mom and dad feed it; where they live affects the menu options.
A baby sparrow eats whatever his parents give him to eat, which means he’s eating the same things they are. The house sparrow is opportunistic in his dining, eating whatever’s available. Commercial birdseed and discarded food will work, as do various grasses, ragweed and seeds he comes across. He’ll indulge in insects in the summer, such as caterpillars and grasshoppers. Other sparrows, such as field sparrows, forage for seeds and insects on the ground. Mom and dad regurgitate their food finds to feed to their nestlings.
If you come across a baby sparrow in your yard, pause a moment before deciding he’s in distress. A fledgling, which is a baby bird with his feathers, may be on the ground because he’s learning to fly. If the baby doesn’t have feathers, you can return him to his nest — despite the myth, his parents won’t abandon him because of human touch. If there’s no nest, or you determine the baby sparrow needs your assistance, a proper diet is important to putting him on the path to independence.
Baby birds grow quickly and require protein to grow properly. Mom and dad take care of their nestlings’ protein requirements with insects, but you can use cat food to meet the baby sparrow’s protein needs. Soak one cup of cat food in enough water to make it mushy and add 1/4 cup of applesauce, one chopped hard-boiled egg, a crushed calcium carbonate tablet and avian vitamins, dosed according to the package. Mix everything together with enough water to give the mixture the consistency of cooked oatmeal. Freezing the mixture in ice cube trays gives you a fresh inventory of food on hand, so you can thaw only what you need. Chopsticks or plastic forceps make good feeding utensils.
How Much How Often
A baby sparrow should gain weight daily to get ready to fly. If his eyes are closed and he’s featherless, he’ll need fed every 15 to 20 minutes, dawn to dusk. When he starts growing feathers and his eyes are open, feeding can occur every 30 to 45 minutes during the same time. As he grows, the time between feedings and the amount you feed can increase. When he’s hopping out of the nest, he can be fed once an hour; by the time he’s confident outside the nest, every two or three hours is sufficient. Try leaving food by his bowl when he’s about a month old, though he won’t be weaned for another few weeks. If he continually refuses to eat, call a vet or wildlife rehabilitation center.
Avoid pasta and bread products, which are empty calories and won’t help him grow, as well as dairy products because baby birds don’t handle lactose well. If he’s well hydrated, the inside of his mouth will look moist; if he’s dehydrated, his skin may look reddish. Don’t give him drops of water in his mouth because he can inhale them and drown. Instead, use Gatorade as a hydrating fluid, dipping your fingers in it and placing drops on his beak.
What to do about house sparrows
There are many different kinds of sparrows in North America. But, the house sparrow—the little brown bird we see hopping boldly on city streets—is the most widespread and most often in conflict with people. In fact, house sparrows are one of the most widespread animals on this planet. Likely this is because they are excellent at taking advantage of the opportunities we supply.
Living in close quarters with us, house sparrows can get under our skin when they get into our houses and stores, crowd other birds at feeders or birdbaths, or simply hang around in large numbers in public places. And the fact that people introduced them to this continent is sometimes held against them.
House sparrows are often one of the only birds willing to live in inner cities. Would we be better off if these places were empty and lifeless? Let’s accept these naturalized citizens and deal with the conditions we control to minimize problems.
What attracts house sparrows to urban areas?
House sparrows thrive on the food and shelter we provide. They prefer to live anywhere there are people. Like other common urban wild neighbors, we create perfect habitat for house sparrows.
House sparrows eat grains and seeds, our discarded food, and insects. They’re happy to eat many commercial birdseed mixtures. We commonly see them diligently collecting our leavings at outdoor cafes and picnic spots. Early morning commuters notice house sparrows dart from the road just in front of them, eating moths and other insects struck by cars the night before.
True to their name, house sparrows will make themselves at home in our homes. Dryer and other vents, attic vent louvers, and crevices, such as around window-mounted air-conditioners, are favorite nest locations.
Common problems and solutions
In the long run, we can best deal with any problems house sparrows cause us through the habitat we control. For instance, prompt trash cleanup using bird-proof trash containers goes a long way to limit house sparrow activity around outdoor eateries, picnic spots and dumpsters.
Nesting in building crevices and vents
Nesting sparrows can be very noisy. And house sparrows strongly prefer to nest in, on, or near our buildings. The noise can be annoying, especially because they start singing at the very first light. But their habit of packing nesting material in stove, dryer and fan vents may prevents use of the vents—a more serious problem.
Excluding house sparrows from places we don’t want nests before they build is the first—and best—approach. Install covers over vents and check screening over louvers before birds find their way inside.
If the birds have already started to move in, the basic steps are simple. See where birds are nesting, wait until there are no young present, remove nesting material, and block openings with netting, hardware cloth, or other appropriate materials.
If you find eggs or young birds in building crevice nests, leave the nesters to their task. The young hatch at different times and leave over a staggered period. So, you may have to wait 2 to 4 weeks. Check the nest frequently. When the young leave, as swiftly as possible, remove nest material and exclude the birds before they can start a second nest.
Dryer and stove vents
These can be slightly more complicated. Vents with nests inside may not function properly. This can be inconvenient or, in some cases, unsafe. The nesting material may need to be removed immediately.
Birds using vents make noise that the vent itself tends to amplify. Act right away if you hear scratching and shuffling. If eggs or young are already in the nest, can this vent be left unused until they fledge? If so, treat this nest like a nest in a building crevice.
If young are present in the vent and there is no option to leave them there until they fledge, the parents can still raise their young in an alternate nest.
- Make a substitute nest from a wicker basket, a plastic gallon jug, or a small birdhouse.
- Cut an U shape opening in the plastic jug and flip the “door” up to keep rain out.
- Attach the substitute nest as close as possible to the original nest, but in as much shade as possible.
- Carefully remove nesting material and nestlings, and place in substitute nest.
Noisy nestlings usually attract the parents who will continue to care for them. Watch the substitute nest to see that the adults return. They should not take more than a half hour or so, as growing young birds need constant feeding. If the adults do not return to nestlings, contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area for advice. This procedure won’t work with eggs, and you can remove house sparrow eggs when cleaning nest material out of ducts. However, we recommend leaving them to complete the cycle for this one nesting period, and bear in mind that virtually all birds but starlings and house sparrows are protected by federal law, and to remove their nests or eggs would be illegal.
Finally and importantly, promptly install a vent cover to keep other sparrows, and other birds, out.
Competing with other songbirds
Sparrows will use birdhouses we may intend for other species. They fiercely defend their nests, so they are vilified for edging out more popular native species, especially bluebirds.
Some believe there are fewer native birds because of competition from sparrows. Certainly, there are instances where individual native birds came out the losers against house sparrows. And bluebirds did decline in the early 1900s when European starlings and house sparrows were getting established. As a result a few nest-box providers resort to extreme measures—killing house sparrows for the perceived crime of occupying nest boxes.
But, the idea that house sparrows are causing widespread declines in native songbird populations today is not proved. In fact, house sparrow numbers have been declining across the United States over the last few decades while eastern and mountain bluebird numbers are up. And, bluebirds are as successful fledging young where they have sparrows as neighbors as where they do not.
If you want to offer nest space only to birds who are not house sparrows, there are several things you can do.
- Use nest boxes designed for your preferred species. Place them where that species likes to nest and where there’s plenty of their favorite food. what appeals to the birds you wish to attract to your yard. Many native species enjoy black oil sunflower seeds, but house sparrows do not. Avoid foods sparrows favor, such as millet, milo, wheat, and cracked corn.
- Place nest boxes away from human activity and buildings (about 300 feet). House sparrows strongly prefer to nest near buildings; bluebirds prefer to nest farther from buildings.
- House sparrows stay put all year while native songbirds migrate. So, sparrows can get a jump on claiming nest boxes early in the season. Some nest box providers wait until migrants arrive to install boxes. Or they keep the entrance holes plugged until migrants get to the area.
- Put up two next boxes between 5 and 15 feet apart. Some nest box providers believe that if house sparrows claim one box, these territorial birds will keep other sparrows from using the other leaving it free for another species.
In public places
House sparrow visit open-air restaurants to help themselves to leftovers and dropped crumbs. Prompt clean up is the best way to discourage visits. Also, look for inviting habitat nearby such as convenient nest sites and open trash. When other attractions are removed, sparrows are likely to spend less time at cafes.
These clever little birds occasionally take up residence in warehouses, large stores, and shopping mall food courts. Here they are protected from the elements and provided plenty of (our) food.
The loading docks of these buildings are often open during business hours so birds can just fly in. Some house sparrows deliberately trigger the motion sensors that automatically open store doors for customers. Others learn to follow us in and out.
Some building managers hire wildlife control companies to come in after hours and shoot these birds using pellet guns. Other try to save expense by putting out glueboard traps—perhaps the most inhumane consumer product on the market—on perching surfaces.
Bird-proofing obvious entry points humanely deals with house sparrows getting inside. Strip doors or curtains, a series of overlapping flexible stripes, part to let people and things through. These can keep birds out of doors that must remain open for long periods.
Once sparrows are inside, they can be removed humanely by catching them with nets or in live-traps. Once caught, house sparrows can be released outside. This short-term solution removes the bird without killing, but it obviously is not a long-term solution to this problem. Only by working with store managers on more comprehensive strategies can the issue of problem birds in stores be successfully addressed and resolved.
What Will Sparrows Eat?
The wee little brown birds that you see congregating around people dining outside are probably house sparrows (Passer domesticus). Dull in color but socially vibrant, the sparrow likes to live close to humans, and it is an opportunistic eater. But beyond cheerfully snatching bits of French fries that fall to the ground, sparrows will happily eat many other types of food.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)
Sparrows are highly social birds that have followed human habitation for thousands of years. As such, they will eat fruits, seeds, vegetables and even waste and food crumbs, which are just a few examples of sparrow foods.
Interesting Facts About Sparrows
House sparrows are stocky birds with thick bills that are about 6 1/2 inches in length. They are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day and not at night. House sparrows are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different from each other. The males are gray-headed with white cheeks and a large black mark called a bib across their chests. Their wings are black-tipped. The undersides of the males are buff in color, and their rumps and tail are gray. The females are more muted in color, mostly reddish brown. Both have brown backs with some black feathers as well. Sparrow weight and size differ slightly between the male and female. The average male sparrow weight is 28.5 grams or 1 ounce. The average female sparrow weight is 25.3 grams or 0.89 ounces.
House sparrows are not native to North America. In fact, they are Eurasian sparrows that were introduced, possibly in the 1850s. Their populations have grown well in urban areas where people live. When people moved to farms, sparrows followed. With large corporate farm development, however, sparrows dwindled in the countryside. House sparrows do not tend to live in deserts, grasslands, tropical regions or thick forests. The denser the human population is in an area, the more attractive it is to sparrows.
The name “house sparrow” describes the behavior and favored location of these little birds. They like to live where people live. They build nests on people’s houses and on manmade structures like street lamps. House sparrows like to roost in vines and other plants near human structures.
House sparrows nest in late winter or early spring in a male sparrow’s territory, which he will fiercely guard. Sometimes other kinds of birds get evicted from their nest to make room for house sparrow eggs! This negatively affects many native bird populations, such as the bluebirds and swallows whose cavities and houses are usurped. A typical sparrow nest is a messy little dome that can be made from feathers, paper, dried plants, leaves, string, sticks, grasses or any available soft materials. Sometimes the highly sociable sparrows will build nests next to each other and share walls. Females will lay up to five eggs in a clutch on average. A female can lay more eggs fairly quickly so that she has as many as four broods in a season. It is primarily the female who incubates house sparrow eggs, though the male occasionally assists. House sparrow eggs range from white to very pale green or blue with gray or brown spots, and they are just under 1 inch in length and about 0.6 inches wide. Because of the great number of house sparrow eggs laid in one year, sparrow populations are able to grow quickly. Both the mother and the father feed their young.
Sparrows do have natural predators. Ecologically, they are an important prey species for many animals. House cats are a major enemy of sparrows. Other predators include dogs, raccoons, merlins, various species of owls and Cooper’s hawks. Snakes are known to take sparrow eggs. Because sparrows are highly social animals, hanging out in groups helps protect them from predators because so many can keep watch.
Sparrows may move around a little to be warmer in winter, but they do not migrate out of an area. Sparrows can live as long as 13 years.
What Do Sparrows Eat?
Sparrows like to hop along, rather than walk to find their food, usually on the ground. Sparrows are omnivores, meaning they eat a variety of foods, both plant and animal-based. The many foods in the sparrow diet depend on where the sparrow lives. The sparrow diet may consist of berries, grapes, loquats, apples, nuts, cherries, pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, peas, lettuce, soybeans, rice, weed seeds, grains, crumbs from bread, dropped French fries, restaurant waste, flowers, buds and oil seeds such as sunflower seeds. At fast-food restaurants, sparrows seem almost ubiquitous, ready to snatch up any little bit of dropped food from customers, or plucking their way through garbage. People seem unable to resist intentionally tossing crumbs to the birds as well. Sparrow also enjoy wild foods like crabgrass and other grasses, as well as buckwheat and ragweed. Sparrow babies are fed insects. The parents make sure to time their reproduction based on the opportunity for high insect populations to feed their young.
Not only do insects and other invertebrates make up part of the sparrow diet, but some other animals do as well. It may be hard to imagine, but sometimes even little vertebrates such as frogs and lizards can become sparrow food!
Sparrow Diets and Human Food
Scientists now think that sparrows adapted to human food as part of their evolutionary process. Their skull shapes changed and their bodies developed traits that helped them to break down and digest starch, much as domesticated dogs did. Sparrows changed and so did sparrow food, as a result. Perhaps most intriguing, these changes coincided with the development of human agriculture some 11,000 years ago! More research is needed to determine what other changes took place in sparrows to make them so dependent upon humans.
Because the sparrow diet is so intertwined with human food sources, sparrows can become a pest to farmers. Those sparrows that live on farms enjoy consuming the corn, wheat, oats and other grains that makeup livestock feed. Sparrows will pillage orchard crops as well. Significant grain loss can occur on farms. Unfortunately, sometimes new shoots and seedlings become sparrow food as well. Their constant chatter and large flocks (some even in thousands!) make a lot of noise and mess that can irritate farmers and other people as well. Even their feces can become a problem. Since many farmers have moved to single-crop farms, however, since the 1960s fewer sparrows have made farms their preferred homes.
Attracting Sparrows to Feeders
Sparrows are not a pest to everyone. They are lively, social, brazen little birds that can be a joy to watch. Sparrows enjoy dining at bird feeders. A mix of seeds such as commercial birdseed makes good sparrow food. If you would like to offer a mix of seeds to attract house sparrows, try using sunflower seeds, millet or corn. Milo, or sorghum seeds, is a common ingredient in commercial mixes but may not be that appetizing to sparrows that have other choices. Offer sparrows water to drink and an area to dust-bathe, which they love to do. While sparrows will certainly find food no matter where they live without your help, watching them hop and chirp can provide a great deal of entertainment. Sparrows, known for their chipper and seemingly friendly dispositions, have even been referenced in poetry in many cultures.
Sparrows can be found nearly everywhere. In fact, the only continent without any sparrow populations is Antarctica. In some ways their adaptability rivals the humans whose food they love! It is fascinating to think that wherever humans have ventured and settled, eventually sparrows have followed.
Plants for Sparrows
Sparrows eat plant material as well. Ornamental grasses and sunflowers are excellent choices for gardeners hoping to feed them. These plants offer plenty of seed for the birds to eat. And if you have an abundant garden filled with native plants, trees and shrubs, you might draw sparrows during nesting season. Then, the adults will snack on a variety of insects including caterpillars, wasps and beetles, and feed them to their young.