A female house finch perches atop a feeder to eat a sunflower seed.

A bird is three things: Feathers, flight and song, And feathers are the least of these.

~Marjorie Allen Seiffert

I’ve never given much thought to why I feed birds. At some point during my many years of doing it, it simply became a routine activity that didn’t require much more than my being aware of what was going on at my feeders, how low my seed supplies were, and whether or not the feeders needed cleaning. But ultimately, I suspect the practice enhances my life as much as it does theirs, if not more so on some levels.

Here’s how I see it: I provide food for them and they return the favor with their beauty and their songs. I take joy from knowing that I’m performing a valuable service for them particularly during the winter months when their natural sources of sustenance can become severely limited and when the heat generated by the calories they consume is what keeps them alive. In turn, I get to enjoy their colorful plumage, their lively antics, and their songs and calls, as well as the knowledge that, like butterflies and bees, birds also act as pollinators. That in itself is a very comforting thought.

There is, however, something else going on here that has nothing to do with the give and take but everything to do with learning to be patient in my observations of them in order to gain an understanding of how they function or behave in certain situations. And one of those situations involves something as basic as how the different species consume the food I put out for them.

A quick glance at a busy feeding station might typically show one bird or several pecking at the feeders in order to extract the seeds. Depending on the type of feeders, that can involve a lot of work or it can be simply a matter of perching on the edge of a tray or platform and digging in. Here’s where it gets interesting, as not all birds deal with the seeds in the same way, and it generally has to do with the type of beak they have.


Black-capped chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and other such birds generally have tiny beaks. These birds tend to pull a seed out from a feeder and find a safe place to perch where they can hold it in their claws and break it open with their sharp little beaks. This takes a lot of effort, particularly when it involves black oil sunflower seeds, a favorite among many songbirds. The safe place can be the top of a feeder, a feeder hook, a roof or window overhang, or a nearby shrub or tree branch. Which explains why there is such a flurry of activity when chickadees and nuthatches are around, as they spend as much time flying back and forth between their safe places and the feeders.

Other birds, such as Slate-colored Juncos, are primarily ground-feeders, cleaning up the mess the others make when they knock seeds down. And still others, like House Finches, do both: eat at the feeders and on the ground. Ever determined, these small lively clumps of feathers will take the food wherever they find it.

Certain species of birds demonstrate an entirely different way to get at the tender kernel inside a sunflower seed. These include grosbeaks, finches, sparrows, cardinals and several others, all of whose larger beaks serve as seed-crackers. The skill with which these birds crack open even the tiniest seeds is nothing short of amazing. I’ve been left speechless many times watching the dexterity they exhibit during this process.

Recently, I observed two female house finches, both lacking the distinctive bright red headband and breast of their male counterparts. I had recently hung a new birdfeeder that has a small pan attached to the bottom, and both finches were ensconced happily in the pan, eating away. Unlike the chickadees and titmice, however, they weren’t flying away to enjoy their snacks privately in the nearby maple tree. Rather, they were cracking open the sunflower seeds using nothing more than their large beaks. With several very deft movements of their beaks and tongues, they maneuvered the whole shells back and forth, breaking them apart and finally releasing the actual heart of the seed. They let the empty shells fall to the ground and proceeded to do it all over again with another seed. On and on it went, and it was soon easy to see why I spend a good portion of my time sweeping up empty sunflower seed hulls from my front stoop.

Not long ago, I hung a small sock that contained black Nyjer seed, which is a favorite of the lovely American goldfinches, among other large-beaked birds. A single Nyjer seed is extremely small and very slick to handle. Yet, these birds are capable of expertly breaking the seed open with just a few moves of their beaks. I am always in awe as I watch the bright yellow males and their less-colorful mates make quick work of those seeds.

Moral of the story: feeding birds provides us with many benefits, not the least of which is getting a first-hand glimpse of how able and resourceful they are in their constant and tireless quest for sustenance. Added to all the other gifts they give us, we hardly need anymore reasons to keep them around.

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