How do chickadees and sparrows (and other birds who stay in Idaho all winter) find food?

Answered by Dr. Chuck Trost, Emeritus Professor, Idaho State University

Chickadee1Chickadees cache food all fall, and can remember thousands of cache sites. Their brains grow larger every fall to help them remember. Sparrows eat seeds, which are abundant in the fall, especially at bird feeders.

Why Do Birds Migrate?
For a bird to journey hundreds or thousands of miles between its breeding and non-breeding ranges is a difficult, perilous journey. The physical stress of the trip, lack of adequate food supplies along the way, bad weather, and increased exposure to predators all add to the hazards of the journey. Not all birds survive migration. So why do birds migrate? It all comes down to survival. Idaho birds migrate to places where they are able to find an adequate food supply year round.

Do All Birds Migrate?
In areas that have cold winters, some common bird foods, such as nectar and insects, may not be available year-round. Birds that eat those foods must fly south to find food to survive. Other birds that eat seeds or bugs that live under tree bark often hang around, since they can continue to find food all winter long.

Winter Food for Resident Birds
Birds are clever and resourceful, and winter birds can find abundant food sources even when the snow is deep and the temperatures are freezing.

The foods available for winter birds include:

  • Seeds: Many plants and flowers keep their mature seed heads well into winter, and birds can cling to or perch on the plants to reach the seeds. Seeds that fall can also be found in leaf litter or under plants where the snow is not as deep.
  • Nuts: Fallen nuts are a great food source for many woodland birds. Acorns, beechnuts and other nuts are popular food sources for jays, titmice and other species with sturdy bills to crack the nuts, and pine nuts are an important food source for winter finches.
  • Insects: While there may not be flying insects in the winter, dormant insects and larvae are a critical food source for birds. Chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers and other birds will forage in tree bark for insects that provide valuable protein.
  • Sap: Sweet tree sap is a tasty treat for woodpeckers, and they will drill deep into a tree’s bark to reach whatever residual sap is not frozen in the winter. Other bird species may then sip from those same sap wells.

Chickadees, nuthatches, some woodpeckers, jays, and crows store, or “cache,” food. Those that do store food may hide hundreds, or even thousands, of seeds every year. Many species not only remember their hiding places, but what kind of tidbit they hid in each particular place.

Our brain forms, organizes, and stores memories in the hippocampus. This tiny organ helps you form long-term memories, connect memories to other memories, and connect memories to emotions and senses. When you smell cookies and think of your grandma, that’s the hippocampus at work.

Long-Term Memory: Long-term memory is that capacity that allows us to recall information from day to day, a week later, and a year later. This information has been organized and stored properly. However, we still have to fight forgetting, so we need to review and use the information. “Use it or lose it!”

Improve Your Memory
Materials: playing cards, partner, timer

  1. Face your partner on opposite sides of a table.
  2. Flip five cards face up. Your partner has 10 seconds to look at the cards.
  3. Have your partner close their eyes.
  4. Remove one of the five cards.
  5. Your partner opens their eyes and tries to recall which card is missing.
  6. Switch places as you become the recaller.

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