However you like to watch birds—in the woods, at your feeder, or on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s live streaming feeder cams – you will often see them flying with food in their beaks. If it’s in the spring, the food could be destined for their young. But what about in the fall or winter? Why does a bird fly off with its food instead of eating it on the spot?
There are at least three reasons: the birds could be trying to stay safe; or they might need to work on the seed in order to open it; or they might be caching the food item to save it for later.
Small birds like the ones that visit feeders are constantly obsessed with finding safety from predators. If food is at a risky, exposed location, such as a feeder, birds must remain vigilant, continuously scanning their surroundings for threats. Birds such as finches and grosbeaks, with their seed-crushing bills, can eat and scan simultaneously, looking down only briefly to grab another seed. Birds that must look down and hammer at seeds, however, prefer to fly to a safer place with their food instead of working on it in an area exposed to predators. This is why you often see chickadees flitting back and forth from feeder to trees or shrubs and back with their seeds.
Some foods—such as shelled seeds and nuts—might even require specialized methods to crack them open. True to their name, nuthatches often wedge seeds into bark crevices and hammer at them with their bill to “hatch” them open. Blue Jays use a similar technique, but they manage to wedge the seed between their toes. Looking down to work on a seed is still risky, however, and you will often see Blue Jays quickly scan their surroundings before hammering away.
But arguably the most fascinating reason is “caching”—the behavior of storing up food supplies in a safe place for later. This is one of the main reasons you see birds fly off with their food instead of eating at the feeder—they are setting up a personal “insurance policy.” Lots of birds—and even mammals such as squirrels, beavers, and bears—cache food for consumption later on, during lean times.
When do birds cache food? Some birds cache year-round, although the behavior is most apparent in the fall when an abundant food source like a bird feeder or a natural seed crop enables birds to quickly fulfill their daily energy needs while leaving ample leftovers. Once winter sets in, it pays to have food “squirreled” away instead of competing for an unreliable or scarce source.
Caching is like a giant game of concentration. Caching isn’t as straightforward as it might appear. A bird must not only fly back and forth, one or a few seeds at a time, over hundreds of trips. They also have to make sure the caches aren’t stolen and remember where all the food is hidden when hunger comes a-calling. Most common North American feeder birds can have anywhere from hundreds to thousands of separate caches scattered around their home ranges.
Species in 15 bird families cache food in various ways, and so do many mammals and arthropods, so it seems to work well as a survival strategy. Overall, more than 300 species of birds, mammals, and arthropods are known to cache food in some way! So next time you’re watching birds, keep an eye out for these expert strategists.
8 Strategies for Caching Supper
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