Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Birds Really Go For Bug Chow

Animals that feed on insects are known as insectivores. There are many kinds of insectivorous birds. In fact, the "Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds" lists 64 families of birds, and 37 of these families contain species that feed on insects. That does not count birds that dine on other arthropods. For example, some ocean birds feed entirely on insect-related crustaceans like shrimp.

Of the birds that will make a meal of  insects, some feed on insects when available, while others feed exclusively on insects. As their names suggest, the flycatchers and gnatcatchers are part of the latter group. The flycatchers include such familiar birds as the kingbirds and the phoebes. These birds sit on a fence or branch to sally forth and snap up flying insects. The kingbirds are known to even feed on honeybees and are, therefore, not the favorite birds of beekeepers. 

The goatsuckers, including the whip-poor-will and the common nighthawk, use only insect food collected during the nighttime hours. The nighthawk gets its common name from its habit of diving and swooping in search of night-flying insects.

Other birds that depend on insect food include the familiar swallows and swifts. As these birds fly around during the day, they catch small insects. It is the reason swallows fly in front of a tractor that is mowing hay, since the mowing operation flushes insects from the vegetation and provides a dining opportunity for the birds.

Vireos, warblers, wrens and finches also feed on insects, and many are exclusive insect feeders. One only has to sit and watch a pair of wrens feeding their young to realize that many insects are consumed by these birds during the course of the summer. Unlike most other insect-eating birds, wrens will also feed on spiders. 

Most birds that depend entirely on insect food are summer residents of temperate regions. As winter approaches, their cold-blooded insect food disappears and these insect feeders are forced to move south, some even to the southern hemisphere, in order to find food. For most of us, the return of swallows and wrens to our lawns and barns is a joy. It is a sure sign that winter is over, but it also signals that the insect food is back!

One totally insectivorous group of birds does spend the winter in North America. Since the insect food of woodpeckers is under the bark of trees, it is there for the taking in summer and winter.

Other birds that eat some insects include kingfishers and hummingbirds. Turkeys, grouse, quail, pigeons and doves also will not turn down a tasty insect as food. Even some of our least favorite birds, the starlings and house sparrows, consume many insects during the summer months. To some gardeners it is nice to know that even the house sparrow has at least one redeeming characteristic!  


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann