how birds find their food, with ellen blackstone of ‘birdnote’

I SPENT much of the summer transfixed by this year’s pair of phoebes who nested on the back porch as usual, and from a favorite low perch just across the way from there, launched themselves repeatedly into mid-air to catch insect after insect.

How do birds get their food, and what do they eat, anyway? Well that depends on the bird, and Ellen Blackstone of BirdNote.org has some answers. A million people a day and more than 200 radio markets hear the 2-minute public radio show called BirdNote, and now “BirdNote” is a book too, which Ellen edited.

Read along as you listen to the Aug. 20, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

how birds find food, with ellen blackstone



Q. I’m so glad to finally talk to you on the air. The book is so much fun.

A. We had fun doing it. It was hard work. We had to translate the book from the stories from the radio presentation to the printed page, but it was really fun.

Q. Yes, and I love the fact they’re illustrated. The illustrations are very charming. I was at a friend’s house recently, not far from me, a farmer friend, and she had it on the dining table. And I said, “Where’d you get that?” and she said I took it out of the library because it looked so good.

A. Well, in the library. We’re happy to hear that.

Q. In Nowheresville, New York, we had it in the library.

A. That’s great, that’s great.

Q. So I was mentioning Phoebes a kind of fly catcher I guess, in the intro and are they are fly catcher I can’t remember. No they’re not really. Well what are they? Are they a fly catcher? Yes.

A. It’s a flycatcher.

Q. So who else grabs dinner out of thin air like that? [Laughter.]

A. Swallows and swifts, hummingbirds, Mississippi kites—raptors that are big hawk-sized birds grab dragonflies out of the air and cicadas and so forth.

Q. And then of course there are the naughty big birds who grab other birds out of the air. They’re not really naughty, but that could be a little shocking at the first time you see that happen. [Laughter.]

A. Yes, nature.

Q. When a Cooper’s hawk or someone comes and gets a little song bird.

A. Nature at its most shocking sometimes.

Q. So you said swallows?

Barn swallow babies (photo by Rebecca B).A. Barn swallows that might nest over your porch, cliff swallows that might nest on the side of a barn or a building, with their mud nests. All of them eat and drink on the wing and a lot of them mate on the wing as well. So they spend their entire lives in the air. [Young barn swallows on the nest, above; photo by RebeccaB.]

Q. Birds eat so many different things. So barn swallows, for instance, they would be going after insects, yes?

A. Right. People kind of curse them for the mess they leave on the porch, but they should be grateful because they eat so may mosquitoes.

Q. As I said in the introduction watching the phoebes, they’re very systematic and they know how to do it. I don’t know if the parents teach them or if it’s just innate; I don’t know in that particular species. But wow. They have a particular perch, and they use that spot and it’s their spot, and they have their little circle that they fly to catch those insects. It’s really as I said systematic. It’s fascinating, right, to watch.

A. Right. And they’re beautiful little birds, I think, both the Eastern version and the birds in the West are gorgeous little birds.

Q. So you have a phoebe, do you?

A. We have Say’s phoebes and black phoebes out here.

Q. And you’re in the Seattle area specifically?

A. Right.

Q. And we should say to people that BirdNote really started as an offshoot from Seattle Audubon, is that right?

A. That’s right. The executive director of Seattle Audubon at the time had heard a program about astronomy called StarDate, and thought, “Oh, we can do that for birds.” She went to her local NPR station and they said, “Yes, we’ll carry it.” Just that encouragement got her started, and she put together the team.

Q. I love BirdNote of course, and one of the most fun things since I’ve had my website, my little funny garden website, was when I discovered it, and then reached out to you and we became pen pals and you helped me.

A. [Laughter.]

Q. Pen pals and Skype pals, and you helped me to do … we used to do a series together of, based on the audio of little 2-minute Bird Note episodes. We would do sort of Q & A together and that was fun. I learned a lot. That was where I learned, I believe, from you that hummingbirds which I think of as nectar eaters, right, that they also eat some insects. I don’t think I knew that.

A. Right. Picture that the baby birds need protein as they’re growing. So the mama hummingbird—and it is only the mama hummingbird—feeds the babies a mixture of insects of all sorts. Spiders and creepy-crawly things and nectar, both. [More about mothering style of birds.]

Q. So birds eat so many different things as I was saying before. We’ve been talking about insects, and I think among songbirds most are or at least partly insectivorous. I think that’s a fair statement. Certain birds specialize in fruit, seeds. We mentioned birds who eat other birds. Some birds eat roadkill. Now I know you’re a crow and raven person so let’s give them a little shoutout for their bizarre diet. [Laughter.] [Learn how to tell a crow from a raven.]

A. Right. Part of nature’s cleanup crew, along with the vultures. Absolutely.

Q. It is quite amazing. I remember, I think it was the great ornithologist [Pete Dunne] from the Audubon in New Jersey who told me that the reason that vultures have those naked heads is because if you were going to stick your head in a carcass for dinner [laughter] you wouldn’t want to have a lot of feathers on it. He said it in a little more elegant way than I just did. Right?

A. Right. That’s exactly right. All of them have naked heads. [More about vultures.]

Q. And some birds eat other things that we might think of are gross like hairy, squirming things—like tent caterpillars. Tell us about that.

A. There’s a story in the book about cuckoos eating hairy tent caterpillars. Both the yellow-billed and the black-billed cuckoos. The black-billed cuckoos are a little farther North but you might have yellow-billed cuckoos. [Listen to a BirdNote show about cuckoos and tent caterpillars.]

Q. Yes.

A. In your area, both of them eat tent caterpillars and they’re hairy as you know. And when the hairy stuff builds up enough in their intestines they just regurgitate their entire stomach lining.

Q. Whoo!

Yellow-billed Cuckoo © Phil Brown-600A. Yes. I don’t know exactly how it starts over. I haven’t studied that part of the science, but they just start over. [“The bristly spines of hairy caterpillars pierce the cuckoo’s stomach lining giving it a furry coating,” says Cornell’s “Birds of North America” encyclopedia. “When the mass obstructs digestion, the entire stomach lining is sloughed off and is regurgitated as a pellet.”]

Q. Wow. When we have gypsy moth outbreaks in the Northeast—I don’t know if you have gypsy moths in the West;  I’m not up on the range of gypsy moths. When we have those, and those have a nasty caterpillar also, the two species of cuckoos that we have here, you’ll see them—especially in Connecticut, that’ll be the nearest place I’ve heard or seen them—they will be in a frenzy to enjoy those delicious morsels. [Above, yellow-billed cuckoo with caterpillar; photo by Phil Brown.]

A. [Laughter.] And they don’t have much competition probably.

Q. I don’t think anybody else wants to eat those. But caterpillars are a big important food for birds and for baby birds, yes?

A. Right. Not just tent caterpillars, all kinds of caterpillars. Yes.

Q. Right. So without caterpillars, I think songbirds especially would be in big trouble.

A. All those warblers that you see in the treetops are eating bugs from the tops and the bottoms of the leaves.

Q. You just said warblers, and as I was driving over to the studio today, I saw a flash of some little warbler-like birds sort at the road edge, in the thicket-y areas, rushing around, flying around. And I was thinking it feels like birds are on the move. Are you noticing any signs? It’s not fall yet, it’s sort of mid- to late August, but are you seeing any kind of sense of departures where you are?

A. I think part of what you see about migration is just what you described, where you start seeing birds you haven’t seen. It’s because they’re passing through and they’ve stopped in your yard for some reason.

We have a hummingbird in the West called the rufous hummingbird. And they’re already leaving. And of course shore birds head South in July from the ones that nest in the Arctic Circle and so forth—the adults head South in July. The young follow a couple of weeks behind, but shore birds are on the move absolutely. [Listen to a BirdNote show about the rufous hummingbird. Photo of rufous hummingbird, below, by Mike Yip.]

Rufous hummingbird © Mike YipQ. Hummingbirds. We only have the ruby-throated and they, starting in late July for me, early August for sure, I see a lot more individuals. I see more males. I think the males head South first? Do the males sort of go first?

A. I think you’re right. They certainly come North first, and I think they head South first, too.

Q. Yes and I see. And they are not “my hummingbirds” that I’ve maybe had visiting during the spring and summer. They’re populations or individuals that have been coming from farther North, and are already making the journey and they stop in the garden. It’s kind of fun cause I see the most right around this time of year into early September. I see many more individuals.

In fact this morning I was outside and I was just walking, going to get a tool out of the garage and someone I swear almost hit me in the head with that hilarious sound, that really buzzing sound. I mean there’s nothing like that sound and I thought, wow, I wonder what it’s like to get hit in the head with a hummingbird. [Laughter.]

A. I’ve always thought that they do that on purpose because sometimes they make the sound and sometimes they don’t. It feels to me like they’re doing it on purpose maybe just to bug you.

Q. Yes. So what about earthworms? There are a couple places in the book that earthworms come into play as part of birds’ diets.

A. Our lead writer Bob Sundstrom wrote a story called “Earthworms, Underground Super Food,” or something like that.

Q. Oh wait. It’s something like “cold storage.” Super food in cold storage.

A. Cold storage. That’s it.

Q. Yes, yes that made me laugh.

A. That they when it’s cold they do go farther into the ground. So when you see your robin running on the lawn in the spring, it’s not an accident that the robins are back just about the time the earthworms are ready to come up a little closer to the surface. We know they don’t die off. They just dig down. And yes the “cold storage” is a beautiful image, isn’t it? [Laughter.]

Q. Yes, not exactly what I’m putting in my pantry for the winter, however. I’m sorry, I’d prefer not to. So robins in particular eat worms, and I was trying to think of any other birds—if I’ve ever seen any other birds go after worms, but I guess not really. [American robin photo, above, by Joanne Kamo.]

A. You mentioned crows. Crows eat worms.

Q. Oh yes! Of course. O.K. Well they eat anything, don’t they?

A. They do. They love your lawn. They can just find all kind of things in your lawn. If the garbage can is secured they’ll turn to your lawn for sure.

Q. [Laughter.] From the book, are there some favorite food-related stories that you wanted to share with us? Any that you particularly enjoyed or that are memorable?

A. One of the ones that I like, and it’s visual and if you can find videos you should definitely do that, is a bird called a green heron, which is nothing like the great blue heron. It’s much smaller and has a different body shape entirely.

It baits its prey in the water. It will take a feather or a leaf or a twig or something like that, and drop it in the water, and watch it as it moves—hoping that a fish will come up wondering what that is. And then the heron will nab it. And it obviously does that on purpose. [Listen to a BirdNote show about the green heron’s foraging. Above, green heron lunges; photo by Mike Hamilton.]

Q. Wow.

A. Amazing birds to watch. And beautiful birds.

Q. So the green heron: it baits its prey?

A. Yes.

Q. That’s pretty crazy.

A. It is. It is.

Q. Pretty smart, huh?

A. Yes. Another one—we mentioned this bird earlier, the Mississippi kite. It is an incredible acrobat on the wing as it goes after dragonflies and such. But when it migrates, at the same time that it’s migrating the green darner dragonfly migrates. It’s very handy food on the wing for the Mississippi kite. The two critters are flying together in-

Q. So it’s a concurrent, well-timed-

A. Right.

Q. And I guess they co-evolved to do that?

A. I’m not…

Q. I mean it’s not an accident; it can’t be an accident.

A. I’m not sure why the green darner dragonfly wanted to do that evolutionarily. [Laughter.] But yes, I think you’re right. [Listen to a BirdNote show about the Mississippi kite.]

Q. Huh. Yes that’s really interesting. That reminds me of the… I’m going to get this probably imprecise because I am no ornithologist over here, or entomologist. The sap wells that I think the yellow-bellied sapsucker open up here when the males come into their breeding grounds; they open up the sap wells. And how other birds follow them at that time because they know they’re going to be able to get to take advantage of that.

When I say “know” I don’t mean “know” as in they all talked about it, or studied it in school or something. [Laughter.] There’s other opportunities that two species seem to know about and they do concurrent behaviors that are, always fascinate me when I read about that.

A. Absolutely and one of those are hummingbirds. Because of all the insects that are drawn to the sap wells, the hummingbirds will often be in attendance with the sapsuckers.

Q. Do you have sapsuckers in the West, in the Northwest?


A. Yes, we have red-naped and red-breasted sapsuckers, and Williamson’s sapsuckers that are sort of localized in the mountains.

Q. Here, again that ruby-throated hummingbird will come to the sap wells, and then later on that the yellow-bellied makes. For me the yellow-bellied is resident, because I’m in the breeding area as well as where they live the rest of the time.

I think the sapsuckers don’t migrate as much as the others but I don’t know exactly. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe they do migrate more but I’m in a breeding area so all I’m saying. So I always have sapsuckers. Much to the dismay or my, some of my ornamental trees by the way. In the garden [like the lacebark pine, above]. [Laughter.]

[Update to clarify on woodpecker migration: Most woodpeckers in the world re sedentary; they do not migrate. In North America there are several migratory woodpecker species. Most of the sapsuckers are migratory, and the yellow-bellied sapsucker happens to be the most migratory woodpecker in the world. More on woodpecker behaviors.]

A. And you’ve seen the hummingbirds at the sap wells? How fun.

Q. I’ve seen certain butterflies use the sap wells later on. So it’s very interesting. You know, something will catch your eye—it looks like, “Why is that other creature at the bark of a tree?” Do you know what I mean? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a leaf, it’s not a flower, it’s bark, and then you realize what’s going on.

A. Right.

Q. It’s pretty cool. Are there other good ones?

A. There are two birds that come to mind. One is the brown creeper

Brown creeper with insect, photo by Mike HamiltonQ. Awwww, I love them. [Above, the brown creeper; photo by Mike Hamilton.]

A. …which you always see going up the trunk of a tree. And a nuthatch, which you always see going down. And they’re finding different things, though, especially the nuthatch that’s going down sees totally different things then the bird going up sees. Because of its perspective looking down into the bark, it sees all different insects that the bird moving up the trunk misses.

Q. You know the brown creeper—we did a story together about the brown creeper and that’s just one of my favorite birds, I think because it seems sort of shy and it’s not conspicuous but it’s very beautiful. [More on the brown creeper.]

A. It so blends in with the trunk of a tree. It’s very hard to see, I think.

Q. And then the nuthatches are more… you see them about and they’re a little more talky and so forth. At least for me. Do you have both there in the Northwest?

A. We, we have mostly the red-breasted. Yank, yank, yank, yank. Kind of monotonous.

Q. They’re nasal aren’t they?

A. They are nasal.

Q. So wait. So the nuthatch travels down the tree looking? Are they looking under the bark or what are they doing?

A. Yes. They’re getting the bugs that have been left by woodpeckers and brown creepers and other birds that work their way up the tree, because you don’t see woodpeckers working their way down a tree. You see them working up or around, and then when they get to a certain point that they can’t move, they’ll mostly fly—they won’t go down.

So picture everything that’s left for those little nuthatches that are looking down into crevices. Nobody’s eaten that stuff yet.

Q. And the brown creeper when it finishes, when it gets up as far as it’s going to go, it goes back down to the bottom and starts again sometimes. [Listen to a BirdNote show about the nuthatch and brown creeper.]

A. Exactly.

Q. It’s quite amazing: determination. Those are some good ones. Any others on your list?

A. You know there’s a gull. Some of the birds that work together, like there are Harris’ hawks that hunt together, which is unusual when you picture raptors. And there’s a gull called the Bonaparte’s gull, which I think is the smallest gull in North America. It’s a beautiful little bird with a black hood during breeding season. A lot of them, they’ll gather in a group and sort of dance at the water’s edge, and it fluffs up shrimp and other little crustaceans. In the book we call it a chorus line. [Listen to a BirdNote show on the Bonaparte’s gull’s chorus line.]

Q. [Laughter.] That is funny.

A. They’re sweet little birds, too. They’re beautiful.

Q. So they sort of flush out, by dancing at the edge of the water, they sort of flush out these crustaceans that they want to eat?

A. Right.

Q. Oh, that’s makes me think of the….. is it the….. is it the redstart or the blackburnian. It’s the American redstart, a little warbler, that flushes its tail to scare insects out of the branches. Do you have … maybe you don’t have that bird.

A. No we don’t have that bird.

Q. And it does this crazy…it spreads its tail in this very dramatic way. I call it a fan dance. Of course it’s not a fan dance, but that’s what it looks like. And it’s a device like what you’re just saying to get the desired prey in reach. Do you know what I mean? To stir it up.

A. Right.

Q. Oh, wow, that’s interesting.

A. Another one similar to that is a phalarope. There are three species, I think of phalaropes that go in circles. And they do that same thing. They start a swirl that brings food up to them. And it’s very funny to see these birds spinning around in circles. [Listen to a BirdNote show about the phalarope. Red-necked phalarope female, above; photo by Tom Grey.]

Q. I don’t know about that bird. Big, little? What’s it like?

A. It’s probably about 12 inches long. It’s a good-sized bird shore bird.

Q. Oh, a shore bird. Interesting.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the book in general. How long did you all work on it? How did. The project must have been kind of epic because you have a lot of years, how many years of Bird Note programs?

A. We started in 2005. More than 1,500 shows.

Q. And these are like 2-minute sort of segments. Are they 2 minutes; is that right or did I make that up? [Laughter.]

A. No. They were 2 minutes and now they’re now 1:45. We had to cut it a little while ago. So obviously the first task was to pick 100 stories out of 1,500. Which was no easy task.

Q. Who’s going to make the cut?

A. Right. So we went after unusual behavior, more common species, that sort of thing in a variety of birds. And then as I mentioned rewriting the stories because they were originally written for radio and had sound breaks for sound. And oftentimes had first-person elements that are appropriate on a radio story but not so much on the printed page. So we had to rewrite those for the printed page, and editing back and forth. Sasquatch Books was just amazing to work with. We were so excited to be working with them on that.

Q. They do a lot of interesting things about or by experts in the Pacific North West, right? It’s an interesting company. I’ve enjoyed many of their cookbooks and so forth. I have some friends who do cookbooks with them.

A. Yes, I was going to say I think you’d love the cookbooks. There are a few sort of gardening books, or books about foraging.

Q. I’ve seen a few of them. Well I, as I said I love this different incarnation of BirdNote. I’m so used to hearing it out loud, but it’s kind of fun to sit with it and be able to just browse through and sample some of the best-of, as the cover says. It says “BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show.”

more from birdnote

enter to win a copy of ‘birdnote’ the book

I’LL BUY A COPY of “BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

Is there a bird who dines in your garden, perhaps on a plant you planted for their pleasure? (I’m crazy about all the thrush relatives and the cedar waxwings who enjoy the fall-into-winter fruit in my garden, like holly berries and aronias and viburnums.)

No answer, or feeling shy? Just sy something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Aug. 20, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Sallie Rund says:

    I planted several deciduous hollies for winter color but have now found that the robins want and need them more. In one day all the red berries go and then a month later the orange ones disappear. At first I was disappointed that I would not enjoy them in the cold winter months but then I realized that I was in a fly zone. Interestingly, Vincent Simone at Planting Fields retains his berries in the Fall! I live just down the street!

    1. Judy says:


      I could have written your comment. I have a red winter berry tree, usually the berries are gone in a day by the end of the year. I also have one with orange berries, that are devoured shortly after. The robins love it. About a mile from me, is a yard filled with the red winter berry bushes, that aren’t touched and the berries remain intact into the spring. The pretty berries are very short lived for me, too. Go figure.. lol.

  2. Krista says:

    I love it when I see hummingbirds at the cannas. I would enjoy this book so much because I always have a curiosity about what the birds are doing and why.

  3. Deborah Stein says:

    I don’t deadhead and leave the seeds for the birds. Finches and chickadees love to pick at the coneflowers. My favorite, chipping sparrow, also known as the hair-bird for the hair lined inner cup of its nest usually raises a couple of broods in the front yard maples and I find the nest–sometimes lined with black hair from my dogs or white hair from me–blown down after winter storms.

  4. Judy says:

    I have coneflowers for the goldfinches, lantana for hummingbirds and butterflies, tubular flowers for the hummingbirds. I have seed feeders, hummingbird feeders and a suet feeder. It’s a little bird sanctuary in my small townhouse yard. Today, a Cooper hawk grabbed one of the songbirds..sad, but they need a meal, too. Count me in for the book, thank you.

  5. Janice Weakland says:

    I live in the woods in SC and have cuckoos, phoebes, downy woodpeckers,ruby hummingbirds, titmice, wrens and Carolina chickadees. This year I planted sunflowers and have had chickadees too!

  6. Connie Young says:

    I love watching the finches eat the dried seed heads from my coneflowers and sunflowers, the swaying of the plants drawing my attention to their feasting. Plants like that please me in that they serve many crowds: pollinators then birds and always, humans as we savor their beauty in each stage.

  7. Mary Katharine (Kathy) Oburg says:

    Very much enjoyed all your comments about the birds and the pictures also. I agree, watching the birds is a wonderful way to pass the time. Would love the book too.


  8. Sharon Elaine says:

    I’ve been a bird watcher for over 40 years and try to plant a variety of flowers and plants for them. I found that a service berry tree bring the unusual and common birds, also a mulberry. Today, I’ve enjoyed two hummingbirds battling at the feeder just outside my window, they also like my hanging impatiens. Thank you for the opportunity to win this book.

  9. Karen Gaskin says:

    I’m delighted by the ear-ful of cedar waxwings that swoop in during the spring and gobble up the wintered-over berries of the vertical cranberry shrub just outside my kitchen window. They stay until they’ve eaten them all, then disappear all together.

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