By Keith Michael
Millie is lying a few feet away while I’m editing photos—still catching up on my summer “takes.” Because I haven’t clicked on an image looking remotely like a bowl of kibble, Millie’s corgi gaze is equivocal.
The combination of scrolling past an August shot of an Osprey from the Salt Marsh Nature Center in Marine Park in Brooklyn bringing home take-out to the family, and the question that a neighbor asked me this week while I was out walking Millie—“What do Mourning Doves eat?”—got me to thinking more broadly about “What DO birds eat?”
Well, depending on what kind of bird you are, the answer is “Almost anything!” What each bird finds delicious is so connected to where they live and how they find food (and how they have evolved to that niche of finding their food) that knowledge about these three factors are nearly as important in identifying a bird as what a bird looks like.
There are three loose avian dining strategies connected to three bird categories: land birds, water birds and birds of the air. Certainly these dining strategies are infinitely intertwined because almost all birds fly to help them eat.
Our most common neighborhood land birds—pigeons, sparrows and starlings—are all scavengers. Being flexible helps them be so successful. They prefer a diet of seeds, insects and fruit, but can make do with our leftovers that they find on the street. Robins love our lawns. They dine on the bugs that crawl through the grass and the worms and grubs that live under the grass. Robins hunt by sound as well as sight, so you will see one take a few steps in the grass, stop, and cock its head to listen for miniscule tunneling in the soil beneath its feet. Mockingbirds take a more active approach by flashing the white patches on their wings and tail to scare up insects from grass or tree branches. Catbirds use stealth, like their namesake, to track down the denizens of the green leafy world in which they live. Blue Jays are omnivorous, occasionally adding protein by stealing baby birds from others’ nests to feed their own families.
Members of the woodpecker family peck on wood to harvest the creepy-crawlers that live in tree bark. It’s an endless food source throughout the year, and their skulls have evolved so that they don’t damage their brains with all of that hammering. Sapsuckers use their wood-pecking to a different end: they drill holes that fill with sap, then they “suck the sap” and lick up all the insects attracted to the sweet, leaking goo. Flickers feast on the ants parading up and down tree trunks.
Nuthatches, chickadees and titmice specialize in pine nuts, which are not in the expensive gourmet section for these cheerful birds.
The most familiar water birds are ducks, geese and swans. All of these find sustenance from tidbits they glean from the surface of water or from aquatic plants. Dabbling ducks (the ones that tip up their tails to reach underwater) are primarily vegans whereas diving ducks (the ones that can stay under water for lengths of time), catch fish and scavenge for bottom-dwelling crustaceans using their serrated bills. While Robins love our lawns for the critters that live in the grass, geese love our lawns because of the green grass itself. In fact, the proliferation of our lawn smorgasbords as well as milder winters have contributed to many geese no longer migrating south for the winter—they have everything they need right here. Swans, though pretty, have messy table manners. Instead of grazing through aquatic vegetation, they pull plants up by the roots, strip the tasty bits and discard the rest, which can wreak havoc on a picturesque pond.
Other birds that depend on water are cormorants, herons and egrets; shorebirds; and gulls. Cormorants are familiar year-round along the Hudson River, diving for the abundant fish that have returned to our water: black fish, striped bass, perch, flounder, and eels. They can stay under water for minutes at a time, and you’ll often see them perched on a piling “hanging their wings out to dry” because they get waterlogged in the process. Herons and egrets have perfected the slow-motion surprise attack. They can stand still on their long legs at water’s edge seemingly for hours until something tasty swims by, then in a blur, nab and swallow it all in one motion. I’ve often felt sorry for the fish or frog. Shorebirds, frequently called sandpipers, scurry along rocks, waves or mudflats probing for whatever lives there. Sensors at the tips of their bills can discern something edible from the muddy soup. Gulls are opportunists. They take whatever they can get, including your picnic lunch if you’re not careful.
Birds primarily of the air range from the tiniest hummingbirds to our grandest raptors. A hummingbird in its hovering pursuit of flower nectar can outmaneuver a helicopter, and an eagle (yes, I’m still waiting to number a Bald Eagle over the West Village as an addition to My List) can see a squirrel scrambling from limb to limb miles away. We might have an Osprey family move into Hudson River Park, if there was suitable housing, so that we could delight in their summer fishing expertise. They spot their prey from above, hang in the air, dive feet-first to make the catch, then remarkably maneuver the fish in their talons head-into-the-wind for the most aerodynamically efficient flight home. Kingfishers and terns are each proficient in their own version of the diving game. Other denizens of the sky: flycatchers, who do just that—catch flying insects on-the-fly, then return to a perch to enjoy the delicacy of their labor; swallows, who swoop through the air with the greatest of ease while curbing insect populations also with the greatest of ease; and that true master of the air, the Chimney Swift, who spends nearly its entire life on the wing—even sleeping while flying on through the night.
Millie’s foraging skills extend to GPSing her food bowl when it is put down in the middle of the floor. In all fairness, Mille has also perfected hunting along the cracks in the cobblestones on Perry Street for that one cowering French fry.
Oh, and Mourning Doves? If you put out some seed on your windowsill, they’ll be your friends for life.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs, and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.