Gardeners are always happy to see insect-eating birds. Anything that helps control the black fly, aphids and caterpillars which can ruin our flowers and munch through young veg is welcome. But insect and invertebrate numbers in drastic decline, our insectivorous birds can struggle to find the food they need to survive. So let’s take a look at which birds eat insects in our gardens and how can we help them.
Which Birds Eat Insects?
A huge range of garden birds count insects and invertebrates as major part of their diet. These include:
- House Martins
- Blue Tits
- House Sparrows
The list goes on. Insects have a part to play in the diet of a huge array of birds. And they can get through a lot of insects
How Many Insects Do Birds Eat?
Scientists estimate that worldwide, birds eat more than 400 million tonnes of insects each year. I said it was a lot! That is roughly the same weight as all of the meat and fish eaten by us humans in a year.
A single bird can eat more than 100 times it’s own body weight in insects in a year.
When you look at these numbers it’s easy to see what an important role insectivorous birds have to play in our ecosystem.
Why Are Insects So Important for Birds?
Some birds are truly insectivorous with insects making up almost the entire diet, other birds are omnivores and eat insects as part of a more varied diet. Still others, granivorous birds like pigeons, and water or wading birds like ducks and swans, just pick up insects almost accidentally, along with their other food.
Insects are an important food source for birds because they provide essential nourishment.
Insects and bugs are a high protein food. Protein is essential to birds for keeping up energy and body mass. Although all birds have to eat a lot to keep up their energy levels, insect-eating birds need to consume less volume relative to their body weight, than birds that eat less densely nutritious foods such as grains or greens.
Protein is especially important for growing baby birds. This is many adult birds, like house sparrows for example, who rely mainly on plant-based food themselves, will still seek out insects and invertebrates to feed to their chicks.
The exoskeletons of beetles and other insects are full of calcium which is vital to birds.
Calcium is important for strong bones, as we all know. So this is another reason why insects are an important food for the chicks of many birds.
Calcium is also needed when you want to grow an eggshell. This is why most birds need to up their calcium consumption during the nesting season. Insects have a key role to play here and many birds will choose nesting sites in invertebrate-rich areas for just this reason.
Just like us, birds need to drink water to live. Insects and invertebrates provide a great source of liquids for birds.
Some insectivorous birds can get nearly all the water they need from their food, without the need to search out drinking water sources.
This is in sharp contrast to granivorous birds such as doves and pheasants. Their diet is so dry that they need to drink large amounts of water. This is why pigeons might be such frequent visitors to your birdbath.
How Do Birds Catch Insects?
If you’ve ever tried to remove a pesky bug from your home you will know that catching insects isn’t an easy task. Different species of birds have developed different strategies for catching their insect prey.
Eating on the Wing
Swifts, swallows and house martins don’t forage for food in trees and on the ground. they prefer to eat as they fly. They feast on flying insects such as flying ants, aphids, mosquitos hoverflies and small beetles. They are also fond of aquatic insects and will often swoop low over water to scoop them up.
Blackbirds are famed for their love of worms, but insects are also firmly on the menu for these birds. Primarily ground feeders you can watch blackbirds sorting through leaf litter and overturning leaves to reveal a tasty insect treat.
How do they know where to look? They listen very carefully and can hear insect movement under a leaf, or even underground.
The Tree Inspector
ever wondered why blue tits hang around at such acrobatic angles when they eat? Well, it’s not just for our entertainment.
Blue tits love to fed on small insects and rather than capturing them in flight or foraging for them on the ground, blue tits find their prey in trees, A blue tit can spend up to half an hour carefully inspecting a tree from every possible angle to track down any insects that might offer a meal.
Hammer It Out
Woodpeckers are primarily insectivorous birds in the summer months. Many people assume that the characteristic drumming noise that is the woodpeckers’ trademark is the noise they make when drilling into trees for food.
Some people even believe woodpeckers eat wood or tree bark.
Woodpeckers do use their beaks to dig insects our of trees, They favour beetles, grubs spiders and ants.
But feeding is usually a relatively quiet affair. The drumming is a communication device: either a mating call or a territorial warning.
And woodpeckers may peck wood but they don’t eat it. They do quite enjoy a drink of sap though.
What Happens to Insectivorous Birds in Winter?
As the weather gets colder insects, particularly flying insects, become more scarce. At the same time, small birds need to eat even more food to keep up their energy reserves during the cold weather.
So what’s the solution for our insectivores?
Follow The Food
As swifts and swallows have very particular dietary preferences focussing strongly on flying insects the UK offers them little chance of sustenance in the winter months.
These birds follow the food and fly south for the winter to warmer climates where insects are still airborne.
Other birds like the robin and the blackbird stay with us for the winter but change their diets to suit the season.
As most insects disappear as a dietary option during the winter these and other songbirds switch to other food sources such as berries and seeds.
Just Because You Can’t See Them
Although flying insects all but vanish during the winter insects aren’t gone completely from the garden bird menu.
Larvae, insect eggs and beetles will still be present in the ground and in leaf litter. These insects may be hard to find. But for a bird, it’s well worth the effort as they provide a vital source of protein during the lean winter months.
How To Help Insect Eating Birds In Your Garden
Insects are the worlds most abundant and varied group of living creatures, but they are also the most threatened. Recent studies have shown that 40% of the world’s insect species are now endangered.
We are losing 2.5% of our insect population every year. If we continued at this rate there would be no insects, left at all in 100 years. And as insects are the base of the food chain for so many species that spells big trouble for us all: not least our insect loving garden birds.
So how can we help?
Feed The Birds
Although many of our bird species are in decline especially in agricultural areas, things aren’t so bad in urban areas and people who feed birds and take a large portion of the credit for that.
Mealworms are the larvae of the corn beetle and are the closest thing to natural we can offer to insect eaters.
But as we’ve seen many wild birds who primarily eat insects will also take other foods. So a good seed mix can offer valuable nutrition and suet products provide valuable fats, especially during the winter months.
Kitchen scraps like dried fruit or a little grated cheese will also be very welcome.
Feeding the birds is important year-round. In the winter when food is scarce, in early spring at the start of the breeding season, but also in summer and autumn when dry spells may make feeding difficult. young birds are growing and migrants are building strength for their travels.
Encourage Insects In Your Garden
Keen gardeners may shudder at the thought of encouraging insects in the garden. But you don’t necessarily have to lay out the welcome mat for aphids and caterpillars who will chew through your vegetables. Bees, butterflies ladybirds and many larger insects will actually eat the bugs that you think of as a pest.
And of course, many beneficial birds will help with your pest control. If we want to attract birds to our gardens we have to provide their natural foods: insects. An abundance of insects in your garden will encourage birds to feed and nest there.
Here are a few easy ways to encourage insects in your garden:
Build a wildlife pond – you’ll be amazed how many insects this brings in, as well as frogs, and even more birds!
Have a Wildflower Patch. If your garden isn’t big enough for a full-blown meadow, even a small patch of wildflowers are great for pollinating insects.
Plant Native. Although adult insects will take nectar from many flowers larvae can often only live on very specific native plants. So choose natives where you can to encourage insects for birds.
Get Messy. Weeds and decaying vegetation provide food and habitat for insects and foraging grounds for birds. So try not to be too tidy in the garden.
Ditch the Pesticides. Obviously, pesticides kill insects, but they can have unintended ill effects on other wildlife too. Take a look at our article on slug pellets for more information.
Thanks for Reading!
We hope you’ve found this article interesting and useful and that we’ve answered some of your questions about birds and insects.
If you still have questions, or have ideas to share, we would love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below.