miscellaneous menus

  • A bear balances on a railing to get to a birdfeeder. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 5/11/2020 8:20:44 AM

Many of us have modified our eating habits lately because of closed restaurants and changed food distribution systems. However, our wild neighbors regularly adapt their food consumption, often based on seasonal changes and cycles of abundance and scarcity. Dietary diversity among local birds and mammals may surprise you.

A great example of this is the black-capped chickadee, a common visitor to our bird feeders. A chickadee will flit in, grab a seed, then just as quickly dart away with it. It will either hide it for later or pound it open with its beak to release the rich kernel inside. The high fat and carbohydrate content of the seeds is a great energy source helping the birds keep warm in the winter. But in the spring, these avian residents have another priority – feeding young. Baby birds need a higher concentration of protein to grow and develop. Parent birds shift to foraging for insects to feed their chicks and themselves. Chickadees consume thousands of caterpillars, spiders, beetles, wasps, flies and other invertebrates. So don’t feel bad about taking down bird feeders at this time of year, because the flighty diners will likely be visiting a restaurant with a different menu anyway.

Other birds that we think of as herbivores include mallard ducks snatching up weeds from the edge of a pond. During breeding season they also add insect larvae, worms, snails and freshwater shrimp to their diet. Blue jays – great consumers (and movers) of acorns and nuts, can be found eating insects and the eggs and young of other birds at this time of year to meet their nutritional needs.

Birds aren’t the only diet shifters. Many local mammals take advantage of an increased buffet as green plants emerge. Deer move from a diet consisting of woody twigs and buds consumed through winter to one of grasses, leaves and herbaceous plants eaten from now until fall. At that time they will fatten up on acorns and other nuts in preparation for the winter.

Beavers, having spent the winter nibbling on branches that they stored under the ice near their lodge, will add aquatic plants, leaves, sprouts and even fruit to their diet. The inner bark of trees will still be a prime source of food, but even that will be more nutritious as it contains sugars formed by the newly sprouted leaves.

Some mammals that we think of as cunning predators like the red fox, actually eat a lot of fruit in the summer. Insects also make up a portion of their diet. Depending on their habitat they might hunt for fish, frogs and crayfish. Rodents, other small mammals and birds are readily consumed. Their diet is impacted not just by the season but general availability of food. As true opportunists, they eat a wide variety of plant and animal matter.

Bears follow this pattern too. Some people are surprised to learn that they eat meat – perhaps stories of Pooh and his honey-pot or the porridge of Goldilocks’ hosts have distorted our image of real bears. Other people think of bears as vicious predators because of their size. Both perceptions have some validity, but bears are omnivores, like most people. They fatten up on acorns and beech nuts in the fall so they can make it through their winter sleep without eating. For several months, they live off their stored fat and lose about a quarter of their weight. When they emerge in the spring they are hungry and seek out succulent emerging plants, roots, insects and whatever they can get their paws on. If they are living near humans (which is more and more the case as we encroach on their habitat) they may help themselves to bird feeders and suet (this is why you should take them down after April 1), bee hives, garbage cans and small livestock, including chickens.

Some people still prefer to eat local foods, harvested in season, as our ancestors did before the onset of global markets and large grocery stores. When I savor the earthiness of asparagus spears in May, or pluck fresh red strawberries from local vines in June, I appreciate what wildlife experience as they transition to the fresh food of spring and nature’s dietary diversity.

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