do birds store food for winter

Here in Michigan we know as temperatures cool and the change of season is upon us, birds in your garden are looking for secret hiding places for their winter foods.

Many wild bird species store food for winter as a precaution against potentially meager food supplies in the colder months. This activity is called caching, and it typically takes place in the late summer and fall months when food is abundant. If you have trees full of nature’s bounty of acorns or a birdfeeder filled with seeds, you can witness firsthand the numerous quick trips being made by your garden birds between those food sources and a secret hiding place.

Bird species that frequently cache foods include jays, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and crows. These birds store hundreds of seeds a day, and each seed is placed in a different location. With some birds using hundreds of caches, a large memory is required to relocate the seeds. It has been proven that in some species, the chickadees and titmice in particular, the birds use a physiological response to the need for memory: their brains grow larger! The portion of the brain that is responsible for memory is called the hippocampus and it increases in size in these bird species during the autumn and winter. When spring arrives, it shrinks smaller again in response to the newly emerging insects that provide a bountiful food source.

What about the non-migratory birds in your yard that do not grow a larger memory brain section? What do these wild birds do in the winter? Researchers hypothesize that these birds simply relocate the stored food. By providing an easily accessible food source, you can help your birds with their caching needs. You can also have a great time watching birds locate secret hiding places and discovering them throughout your yard.

The location of caches (hiding places) will vary depending on the bird’s habitat. Popular storage areas include seeds and nuts wedged into the bark of trees or beneath house eaves or shingles, and many birds will cache food by burying it or covering it with leaves or mulch, or pushing the food into soft soil. Birds have been observed pushing seeds into flower petals in an effort to hide them. In forested areas, birds are often responsible for helping tree growth from their stored nuts and seeds.

Chickadees cache more frequently during the middle of the day and will carry seeds (in the shell and out) and nuts, typically within 100 feet from feeders. Chickadees also cache insects and other invertebrate prey. Some of their favorite places to cache is in knotholes, bark crevices, under shingles, in the ground and on the underside of small branches.

Nuthatches prefer to cache hulled sunflower seeds, because they are easier and faster to cache and occasionally they will cache mealworms. Nuthatches generally choose heavier seeds because they are larger and have a higher oil content, caching within about 45 feet from feeders. Different from Chickadees, the Nuthatches are most active with caching early in the day, storing food in bark crevices on large tree trunks and on the underside of branches.

Tufted Titmice cache sunflower, peanuts and safflower, typically cached about 130 feet from feeders. Titmice cache one seed at a time and typically choose the largest seeds available, often removing seeds from their shell (80% of the time) before hiding them.

Insects are also looking for secret hiding places during the winter to avoid being found by predators – specifically the birds in our yards. Insect hiding locations include under the leaves of trees, under leaf litter, mulch, rocks and logs, in bark crevices and behind loose tree bark, as well as in, under and around rotting logs or dead branches of trees and bushes, inside seed heads of flowers, inside of woodpecker holes and within bird nests, and in openings in cement, mortar and bricks.

Insects can also create galls, which are orb-like formations in plants. They burrow into the plant and suck the inner plant tissue, causing the tissue to swell and form a sort of bubble. They sequester themselves inside the bubble, and the bubble of plant tissue protects them from the elements during the winter. These galls are no match for the Downy Woodpeckers in our yards. Their light weight allows them to cling onto stems without breaking the plant, and their strong bill taps a perfect hole for their barbed tongue to enter, extracting the insect from the gall with precision.

Autumn is a great time to sit back and take a moment to look for those secret hiding places and marvel at the wonders that happen in your own garden. Enjoy your birds!

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What about the non-migratory birds in your yard that do not develop a larger part of the memory brain? Historians speculate that these wild birds just move the food they have stored away during the winter. You can assist your birds with their caching needs by offering them a readily available food source. You can also enjoy watching birds find their way around your yard, where they have hidden spots.

In Michigan, we know that as the weather cools and the seasons change, birds in your garden will search for covert locations to store their winter food.

As a safeguard against potentially limited food supplies during the colder months, many wild bird species store food for the winter. Caching is the term for this practice, which usually occurs in the late summer and early fall when food is plentiful. You can see directly how often your garden birds fly between those food sources and a hidden hiding spot if you have trees full of nature’s abundance of acorns or a birdfeeder full of seeds.

Among the bird species that often store food in their caches are woodpeckers, crows, jays, chickadees, and nuthatches. Every day, these birds store hundreds of seeds, and they store each seed in a different spot. Relocating the seeds requires a large memory because some birds use hundreds of caches. It has been demonstrated that in certain species, notably chickadees and titmice, birds use a physiological response to the need for memory: they enlarge their brains! The hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, enlarges in these bird species during the fall and winter. It contracts once more as spring arrives in reaction to the newly emerging insects that offer an abundant food supply.

Chickadees tend to cache more during the middle of the day and will typically carry seeds and nuts, both inside and outside of shells, within a 100-foot radius of feeders. Chickadees also cache insects and other invertebrate prey. They like to hide in spots like knotholes, cracks in the bark, beneath shingles, in the ground, and on the underside of tiny branches.

Cache and Carry: Storage Techniques of Birds

While it might seem like a simple matter to store food—just stash it somewhere hidden, right? Well, not for our feathered companions. They have quite the dexterity when it comes to hiding food.

Some birds, like the nutcrackers and jays, prefer ‘scatter-hoarding. They will store their food in different locations, forming an extensive network of makeshift pantries. Others, like the shrikes, take a slightly more ‘ghoulish’ approach. Shrikes skewer their food to consume later, much like a kebab, on thorns or barbed wire.

The kind of food and the particular species of bird determine where to store it most of the time. Certain birds have a preference for hiding food in the snow, on the ground, or in the cracks of trees.

The care and thought put into this behavior is amazing. It’s not only about surviving; they also need to make food plans.

Bird Caching 101: More than Just Bird Hoarders

“Bird caching” isn’t a term you hear every day. It is, however, as exciting as it sounds.

Caching is the clever way that birds preserve their food for later use. They do this in a variety of locations and methods, including the ground, tree bark, and beneath leaves. You could refer to it as their take on hiding emergency snacks in the glove box or that hidden candy drawer.

Nonetheless, its not solely a matter of chance. Birds arent just tiny hoarders in the animal kingdom. Birds’ ability to adapt, remember, and display shrewd behaviors is demonstrated by their fascinating behavior of storing food during the winter or other times of scarcity. They do this to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of resources available during the most severe weather conditions.

Keep in mind that a bird may be concealing tomorrow’s dinner the next time you see it fluttering around a tree.


Should you leave bird feeders out in winter?

Bird feeders can help attract birds to your space during the winter when natural food sources might be buried beneath snow or limited in supply. Keeping your feeders up into the spring can help support birds on their long migrations north.

How do birds store food?

Most chickadees and nuthatches cache food one by one in bark crevices and tree crotches, while corvids generally cache multiple seeds at once under ground. Canada Jays, however, are corvids that cache in trees. They use their saliva to form a bundle containing multiple food items and stick it to arboreal surfaces.

How do birds get their food in the winter?

Natural Foods for Wild Birds in Winter Fallen leaves will also hide seeds, windfall fruit, and other foods for many ground-foraging birds such as quail and doves. Chickadees and nuthatches are adept at finding insects and seeds on plants throughout the winter, while sparrows forage for fallen seeds and grain.

Do Blue Jays stockpile food?

Jays are smart. Many jays, including the Blue Jay, store food for sustenance in harsher seasons. Over a few months, an individual bird may cache nuts, insects, even worms, in several thousand spots. And relocate nearly all of them as needed.