A pair of adult birds feeding each other is one of those rare and surprising sights you may see in your backyard. Here's a look at the handful of situations where you might witness this behavior.
Birds feeding each other as a courtship offering
When spring arrives, as birds pair up to build their nests and lay eggs, feeding can be a part of a songbird’s courtship ritual. A male may approach an interested female, carrying an insect, worm, or even a tasty nugget from a nearby bird feeder. The female may quiver her wings and open her beak, in an imitation of the baby bird. And then he feeds her. Perhaps they’re acting out an understanding of what they’re about to take on, with the male making a promise that he will help her feed the nestlings.
Not all birds practice courtship feeding, but it’s an important step for Blue Jays because once the female accepts the food, it’s understood they are life partners. Throughout their time together, the male will occasionally present another token of food. When adult birds feed one another, the term is allofeeding.
Food offerings are also part of the mating ritual in pairs of Northern Cardinals as well as Eastern Bluebirds. While the female is on the nest, the male will bring her morsels of food.
Parent birds feeding fledglings
When the nestlings grow up and leave the nest, they’re free, but they’re not independent. Parents and juveniles are never far from each other, as the adult birds continue to forage and then feed their young. In late spring and early summer, it’s common to see the scruffy, adult-sized juveniles tagging along after the adult birds, begging for a bite.
Parent birds feeding parasitic cowbirds
Finally, some observant bird watchers have seen birds feed a bird from a different species — and the recipient is much larger in size! One thing to rule out is whether one of the birds is a juvenile cowbird. This species is known as a “brood parasite” because they’ll secretly deposit an egg into another species' nest, instead of raising their own young. Once the eggs hatch, the unwitting parents feed the cowbird baby as their own. Sadly, cowbird nestlings are often larger than the host species, so unless the parent recognizes the parasitic egg and pushes it out, the parasitic species gets most of the food, and the other babies die. But once the Cowbird leaves the nest, host parents continue nurturing the bird. So that’s when you might see a small sparrow feeding a much larger cowbird.
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