Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Finding Food In Winter – It’s Tough Out There

If you are feeding birds in your backyard then you are probably going through bags of birdseed so fast that you might need to take out a second mortgage just to keep your feeders full.

Sometimes it seems that our backyard birds are eating nowhere else but at our feeders all day long 7 days a week. No sooner do you fill them up that they are empty again. The Blue Jays even stare in my window wondering what is taking me so long to bring them out their daily allocation of peanuts.

But things in the backyard may not be entirely as they seem. Ornithologists tell us that birds only get about 10 to 20 percent of their food at our backyard bird feeders. So what else could they be eating out there, especially where there are no feeders to be found?

Setting aside our birds of prey that are consuming rodents, fish and of course even some of our backyard birds, our more familiar feeder birds are spending time finding food that they have hidden for a cold winter’s day when food would become scarce.

Like squirrels, some birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, blue jays and woodpeckers will cache their food to dine on at a later time. They hide hundreds of seeds all over their territory to help them survive during bad weather and when food sources are low. Of course, some of that food may be the sunflower and peanuts from your backyard feeders, but much of it can come from other natural food sources.

Most years acorns would make up a big part of a bird’s diet. Everything from Titmice to Towhees depends on the fall crop of food from New Jersey’s many oak trees. But some years acorns are almost nonexistent or like now they are gone from the trees and buried under the frozen ground. So what else might they be eating, especially as the long winter days continue on?

Cedar berries

In healthy habitats where there is good biodiversity there are many wild foods that our birds are foraging on that hang on into winter such as the little blue fruit of the Eastern Red cedar. The fruit of the Cedar is a critical food source for birds such as Mockingbirds, Bluebirds, Hermit Thrush and of course Cedar Waxwings. The tree itself provides good cover to protect them on a freezing February night.

Cedar Waxwing

Woodpeckers can be seen tapping on the bark of trees and shrubs; they are still very able to find dormant insects and larva under the bark and in the crevices, the same as Chickadees, nuthatches and many other birds can. One day I watched a Downy pecking on the stalk of a phragmite of all things. Being curious, I decided to cut open one of the phrags and there to my surprise was a small caterpillar inside, a welcome nutritious treat on this winter morning.

Fox Sparrows along with Juncos and White-throated Sparrows can be found scratching on the ground under stands of Birch trees. Though the catkins that hold the seeds are mostly gone, the birds are finding seeds that still remain under the leaves.

Mourning Doves can be seen on the Sweetgum trees. Their funny round balls will hold their tiny seeds well through the winter, also helping Juncos and Goldfinch make it until spring.  Crossbills, Redpolls and Pined Siskins make important use of this very important tree also.

Sumac berries

Staghorn Sumac berries still dangle on their branches for dear life waiting for a Cardinal or Woodpecker to finish them off. Sumacs are an important winter food source for many birds of New Jersey. There were still a few about as winter continues on.

A small number of seeds remain on a stand of Switchgrass, Swamp,  White-throated, White-crowned and Savannah Sparrows depend on these native grasses, but they were at a premium now.


The winter food is out there, but like all winters it is tough to find, few and far between. Winter is conducting its big push now. Things will get harder for a while, natural food will become more scarce and survival for our birds will get tougher. Many of them will not make it through the next brutal, cold night. Ye like they always have since millennium, many will survive. They will be able to make it all the way to spring, to migrate, to nest and bring on the next generation. Either way, given a chance, their species will continue.

Spring will come and food again will be abundant. Nature’s drama will continue as it always has. Put on your warm coat and winter boots. Get outside and watch the winter spectacle of endurance survival unfold for yourself. There is nothing else like it.

One thought on “Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Finding Food In Winter – It’s Tough Out There

  1. Madeline Giotta

    Thank you, Don!
    I’m new to Audubon and recently decided to break some rules at my residence (condo)
    and put out a small glass pie dish filled with a lovely mix of seeds. I’m so enjoying my feathered neighbors!
    It will be good to join your group in the near future. Best wishes, Madeline


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