How Do Birds Find Food? (From Sight to Smell to Sound)


Written by

Clinton Atkins



George Dukes

How Do Birds Find Food

Birds flocking to a feeder is a wonderful sight. However, it also makes you wonder – how do birds find food? The answer is the same for most species: they use eyesight.  

Many birds – especially birds of prey – have incredible eyesight that lets them see potential food sources from distances. They also learn to associate human-made feeders with food.  

However, some species may not rely on eyesight only, as they may also use hearing or scent to track food.

How Birds Locate Their Food Sources

These are the ways by which birds locate their food sources:

1. Birds Mainly Use Eyesight to Find Food


Birds primarily use their eyes to find food because most do not have a keen sense of smell. Some species, known as birds of prey, even have such powerful eyesight that they can see prey from far away (as far as 1 mile!).

Thus, birds find bird feeders easier when the color stands out to them.  

Hummingbirds, in particular, are attracted to the color red. Meanwhile, another research found that UK garden birds favor silver and green feeders.  

However, if birds don’t find the treats you set out immediately, you can guide them by spreading seeds around your yard. When birds see food on the ground, they will likely stop and search for more things to eat. Hopefully, they’ll chance upon your feeder while doing so.

2. Birds May Associate Items, Places, and Other Animals with Food


Besides sight, birds use association to find food. How so?  

Firstly, many avians have learned to associate feeders with food. Thus, if you put out one of these items, most likely, the birds to first approach it are those who have fed from other feeders already.

Birds may also associate places or humans with food. If they have become used to your area having seeds and nectar, they’ll come back. They may also become familiar with your habits, so they can come for food so quickly when you go to fill the feeder.  

Some avians may also seek out other animals for food. Cattle egrets, for instance, would follow cattle and elephants to eat the insects that come out of the ground upon being disturbed by these mammals.  

Meanwhile, honeyguides would partner with honey badgers. The honeyguides would search for the bee hives while the honey badgers would destroy them. Then, both can feed as the honeyguides eat beeswax while the badgers suck up honey.

3. Sounds May Attract Birds to Food


Another way birds may find food is through sounds. For instance, they will likely join the mob if they hear many birds gathering around your feeder.  

The sound of moving water may also attract a bird. Thus, if you hang feeders near fountains, birds may see the feeder while drinking or bathing. Then, they’re likely to go near and feed from it.

4. Some Birds Use Their Sense of Smell to Find Food


For a long time, it was widely believed that birds do not have a sense of smell. After all, they do not have noses like humans and other animals. However, careful studies have shown that they can detect and track scents, and they’ve used those abilities to find food.  

For instance, kiwi birds – which have nostrils on the tips of their bills – use their sense of smell to find worms and other food in the ground. Vultures are also believed to use scent to find carrion or dead meat.  

Gabrielle Nevitt, a scientist and professor, also studied birds’ ability to smell for food. She was particularly excited when she found that seabirds were attracted to the scent of dimethyl sulfide released by phytoplankton, because it led them to krill, which seabirds eat.

Can Birds Smell Food?

Birds can smell food, but only a few – like seabirds, kiwis, and vultures – are known to truly use that ability to find their meals.

For birds who find their food by sight, it is not apparent or studied much whether they use their smelling capabilities to search for nourishment. Thus, for some time, many believed birds could not smell.


How do birds find food? Most birds find food using their eyesight, especially those with a powerful vision like raptors. A few other species, like vultures and kiwis, use smell to search for meals. Some birds like honeyguides would also work with other animals to find food.  

Another way avians find food is by association. Once they’ve associated certain places, sounds, or items with food, they’ll likely approach or look for those again if they need a meal. They may even familiarize themselves with humans’ habits, so they know what time to visit a newly-filled feeder.

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