Small Farmer's Journal

or Subscribe

By F. E. L. Beal
Farmers’ Bulletin 630, USDA, February 1915

“Whether a bird is beneficial or injurious depends almost entirely upon what it eats. In the case of species which are very abundant, or which feed to some extent on the crops of the farmer, the question of their average diet becomes one of supreme importance, and only by stomach examinations can it be satisfactorily solved. Field observations are at best but fragmentary and inconclusive and lead to no final results. Birds are often accused of eating this or that product of cultivation, when an examination of the stomachs shows the accusation to be unfounded. Accordingly, the Biological Survey has conducted for some years past a systematic investigation of the food of those species which are most common about the farm and garden.

Within certain limits birds eat the kind of food that is most accessible, especially when their natural food is scarce or wanting. Thus they sometimes injure the crops of the farmer who has unintentionally destroyed their natural food in his improvement of swamp or pasture. Most of the damage done by birds and complained of by farmers and fruit growers arises from this very cause. The berry-bearing shrubs and seed-bearing weeds have been cleared away, and the birds have no recourse but to attack the cultivated grain or fruit which has replaced their natural food supply. The great majority of land birds subsist upon insects during the period of nesting and molting, and also feed their young upon them during the first few weeks. Many species live almost entirely upon insects, taking vegetable food only when other subsistence fails. It is thus evident that in the course of a year birds destroy an incalculable number of insects, and it is difficult to overestimate the value of their services in restraining the great tide of insect life.

In winter, in the northern part of the country, insects become scarce or entirely disappear. Many species of birds, however, remain during the cold season and are able to maintain life by eating vegetable food, as the seeds of weeds. Here again is another useful function of birds in destroying these weed seeds and thereby lessening the growth of the next year.

In the following pages are discussed the food habits of more than 50 birds belonging to 12 families. [We are featuring four of the 50 in this issue, ed.] Many are eastern forms which are represented in the West by slightly different species or sub-species, but unless the food habits differ they are not separately described. In some cases specific percentages of food are given, but for the most part the statements are made without direct reference to the data on which they are based.



The eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis shown in Fig. 1), one of the most familiar and welcome of our feathered visitors, is a common inhabitant of all the States east of the Rocky Mountains from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada. In the Mississippi Valley it winters as far north as southern Illinois, and in the East as far as Pennsylvania. It is one of the earliest northern migrants, and everywhere is hailed as a harbinger of spring. Very domestic in habits, it frequents orchards and gardens, and builds its nests in cavities of trees, crannies in farm buildings, or boxes provided for its use.

The bluebird has not been accused, so far as known, of stealing fruit or of preying upon crops. An examination of 855 stomachs showed that 68 per cent of the food consists of insects and their allies, while the other 32 per cent is made up of various vegetable substances, found mostly in stomachs taken in winter. Beetles constitute 21 per cent of the whole food, grasshoppers 22, caterpillars 10, and various other insects 9, while a number of spiders and myriapods, about 6 per cent, comprise the remainder of the animal diet. All these are more or less harmful, except a few predacious beetles, which amount to 9 per cent. In view of the large consumption of grasshoppers and caterpillars we may at least condone this offense, if such it may be called. The destruction of grasshoppers is very noticeable in August and September, when these insects make up about 53 per cent of the diet.

It is evident that in the selection of its food the bluebird is governed more by abundance than by choice. Predacious beetles are eaten in spring, as they are among the first insects to appear; but in early summer caterpillars form an important part of the diet, and these are later replaced by grasshoppers. Beetles are eaten at all times, except when grasshoppers are more easily obtained.

So far as its vegetable food is concerned the bluebird is positively harmless. The only trace of any useful product in the stomachs consisted of a few blackberry seeds, and even these probably belonged to wild rather than cultivated varieties. Following is a list of the various seeds which were found: Blackberry, chokeberry, juniperberry, pokeberry, partridgeberry, greenbrier, Virginia creeper, bittersweet, holly, strawberry bush, false spikenard, wild sarsaparilla, sumac (several species), rose haws, sorrel, ragweed, grass, and asparagus. This list shows how little the bluebird depends upon the farm or garden to supply its needs and how easily by encouraging the growth of some of these plants, many of which are highly ornamental, the bird may be induced to make its home on the premises.

Two species of bluebirds inhabit the Western States—the mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) and the western bluebird (Sialia mexicana subspecies). In their food habits they are even more to be commended than their eastern relative. Their insect food is obtainable at all times of the year, and the general diet varies only in the fall, when some fruit, principally elderberries, is eaten, though an occasional blackberry or grape is also relished. In an examination of 217 stomachs of the western bluebird, animal matter (insects and spiders) was found to the extent of 82 per cent and vegetable matter to the extent of 18 per cent. The bulk of the former consists of bugs, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. Grasshoppers, when they can be obtained, are eaten freely during the whole season. Caterpillars also are a favorite food and are eaten during every month of the year; March is the month of greatest consumption, with 50 per cent, and the average for the year is 20 per cent. Two stomachs taken in January contained 64 and 50 per cent, respectively, of caterpillars, Beetles also are eaten and comprise mostly harmful species.

The vegetable matter consists of weed seeds and small fruits. In December a few grapes are eaten, but elderberries are the favorites whenever they can be found. It is only when these are in their greatest abundance that vegetable exceeds animal food.



Seven common species of swallows are found within the limits of the United States, four of which have abandoned to some extent their primitive nesting habits and have attached themselves to the abodes of man.

In the eastern part of the country the barn swallow (Hirundo erythrogastra shown in Fig. 2) now builds exclusively under roofs, having entirely abandoned the rock caves and cliffs in which it formerly nested. More recently the cliff swallow (Petrochelidon lunifrons) has found a better nesting site under the eaves of buildings than was afforded by the overhanging cliffs of earth or stone which it once used and to which it still resorts occasionally in the East and habitually in the unsettled West. The martin (Progne subis) and the white-bellied, or tree, swallow (Iridoprocne bicolor) nest either in houses supplied for the purpose, in abandoned nests of woodpeckers, or in natural crannies in rocks. The northern violet-green swallow, (Tachycineta thalassina), the rough-winged swallow, (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), and the bank swallow (Riparia riparia) still live in practically such places as their ancestors chose.

or Subscribe to read the rest of this article. is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: People

Farmrun A Reverence for Excellence

A Reverence for Excellence

A portrait of Maple Rock Farm and Hogstone’s Wood Oven, a unique farm and restaurant on Orcas Island where the farmers are the chefs, A Reverence for Excellence strives to be an honest portrayal of the patience, toil, conviction and faith required of an agrarian livelihood.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The Craft of the Wheelwright

from issue:

In these days of standardization and the extensive use of metal wheels you might think there is little call for the centuries old craft of wheelwrighting, but the many demands on the skills of Gus Kitson in Suffolk, England, show this to be very far from the truth.

Farmrun - Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor is an educational farm on Shelter Island, whose mission is to cultivate, preserve, and share these lands, buildings, and stories — inviting new thought about the importance of food, culture and place in our daily lives.

To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig

Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew

Changing of Seasons

LittleField Notes: Changing of Seasons

from issue:

We are blessed who are active participants in the life of soil and weather, crops and critters, living a life grounded in seasonal change. This talk of human connection to land and season is not just the rambling romantic musing of an agrarian ideologue. It is rather the result of participating in the deeply vital vocation that is farming and knowing its fruits first hand.

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

ODHBA 2016 Plowing Match

ODHBA 2016 Plowing Match

The Oregon Draft Horse Breeders Association hosted their 50th Anniversary Plowing Match at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center in McMinnville, Oregon on April 9, 2016. Small Farmer’s Journal was lucky enough to attend and capture some of the action to share.

The Real Work Karbaumer Farm

The Real Work Karbaumer Farm

from issue:

A bold and opinionated German, Klaus moved to the midwest over 25 years ago from Bavaria and is currently running the only tractor-less farm in Platte County, Missouri operated by draft horses. Karbaumer Farm tries to “live and grow in harmony with Nature and her seasons” and produces over 50 varieties of chemical-free, organic vegetables for the community, providing a CSA or the greater Kansas City area.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

Richard Douglass, Self-sufficient Farmer

from issue:

I’ve got two teams of Belgians that power all the things on the farm. I don’t have a tractor, I don’t have a truck or anything like that. Everything must be done by them. I have two buggy horses that I use for transportation. I have a one-seater buggy for when I’m going into work or into town by myself and then I have a two-seater one for when I’m with the kids.

ocean wave rope trick

Rope Tricks

a short piece on rope tricks from the 20th anniversary Small Farmer’s Journal.

Fields Farm

Fields Farm

Located within the city limits of Bend, Oregon, Fields Farm is an organic ten acre market garden operation combining CSA and Farmer’s Market sales.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 3

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 3

Working with horses can and should be safe and fun and profitable. The road to getting there need not be so fraught with danger and catastrophe as ours has been. I hope the telling of our story, in both its disasters and successes will not dissuade but rather inspire would-be teamsters to join the horse-powered ranks and avoid the pitfalls of the un-mentored greenhorn.

Farm Drum? What’s That?

An ever changing mixture of hints, thoughts, howdies and hoohahs.


The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

Mule Powered Wrecker Service

Mule Drawn Wrecker Service

This will only add fuel to those late night discoursians about the relative merits of horses over mules or viciversy. Is the horse the smarter one for hitching a ride or is the mule the smarter one for recognizing the political opportunity which this all represents? In any event these boys know what they are doing, or should, so don’t try this at home without horse tranquilizers. Remember that politics is a luke warm bowl of thin soup.

Kombit: The Cooperative

Kombit: The Cooperative

We received word of a new environmental film, Kombit: The Cooperative, about deforestation in Haiti — and an international effort to combat it by supporting small farmers on the island.

Building a Community, Building a Barn

Building a Community, Building a Barn

from issue:

One of the most striking aspects of this development is the strength and confidence that comes from this communal way of living. While it is impressive to build a barn in a day it seems even more impressive to imagine building four barns or six, and all the rest of the needs of a community. For these young Amish families the vision of a shared agricultural community is strong, and clear.

Journal Guide