Birds, too, are methodical about their food
March 1, 2023 | View PDF
It is midnight, and hunger strikes. You creep down to the refrigerator to find something to eat. You pick up a container, peer inside, and decide there are better options in the cabinet. You decide on peanut butter and crackers. The glass jar of natural peanut butter has yet to be opened, so you struggle to break the seal and twist off the lid. Next, you select the best container to store the peanut butter in after stirring it.
This scenario isn't unique to humans. Birds must also figure out what to eat, how to get their food, and where to store leftovers. Some birds who spend the winter with us have unique adaptations to help them accomplish these goals.
The seeds protected inside spruce cones are a favorite food of white-winged crossbills. After using their offset (crossed) bill to get under the scales of a cone, they move their lower bill sideways to pry the cone apart fully and access the seeds.
Pine grosbeaks use their thick and robust beaks to bite through berries and crush seeds and cones. They can peel the scales off of spruce cones with ease. When there is more food than they can eat, they store the extra food in a pouch on either side of their tongue. This storage pouch is used in the summers to hold the food paste they make for feeding their nestlings. If you see a common redpoll with a puffy-looking neck, it has extra food stored in its esophagus.
Pine grosbeaks, redpolls, and Steller's jays will shake, rattle and roll seeds and nuts and even see how they fit in their beaks before deciding if it is of good quality. If a seed or nut meets approval, a Steller's jay packs them in a sublingual pouch under their tongue and transports them to a perch to eat immediately or to a cache site to eat later.
Now you know that when you're searching for the right snack, struggling to open a jar, or storing food to eat later, you have something in common with the birds in your backyard.
Upcoming bird festivals
As winter slowly gives way to spring, our year-round birds will be joined by the migratory birds who come to Alaska for the summer. Festivals across the State celebrate the return of these birds:
Stikine River Birding Festival, Wrangell, April 27-30
Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, Homer, May 3-7
Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, Cordova, May 4-7
Yakutat Tern Festival, Yakutat, June 1-4
Lisa Pajot is an ornithologist and Bird Treatment and Learning Center volunteer.