Headwater riparian areas occupy a large proportion of the land base in Pacific Northwest forests, and thus are ecologically and economically important. Although a primary goal of management along small headwater streams is the protection of aquatic resources, streamside habitat also is important for many terrestrial wildlife species. However, mechanisms underlying the riparian associations of some terrestrial species have not been well studied, particularly for headwater drainages. We investigated the diets of and food availability for four bird species associated with riparian habitats in montane coastal forests of western Oregon, USA. We examined variation in the availability of arthropod prey as a function of distance from stream. Specifically, we tested the hypotheses that (1) emergent aquatic insects were a food source for insectivorous birds in headwater riparian areas, and (2) the abundances of aquatic and terrestrial arthropod prey did not differ between streamside and upland areas during the bird breeding season. We found that although adult aquatic insects were available for consumption throughout the study period, they represented a relatively small proportion of available prey abundance and biomass and were present in only 1% of the diet samples from only one of the four riparian-associated bird species. Nonetheless, arthropod prey, comprised primarily of insects of terrestrial origin, was more abundant in streamside than upland samples. We conclude that food resources for birds in headwater riparian areas are primarily associated with terrestrial vegetation, and that bird distributions along the gradient from streamside to upland may be related to variation in arthropod prey availability. Because distinct vegetation may distinguish riparian from upland habitats for riparian-associated birds and their terrestrial arthropod prey, we suggest that understory communities be considered when defining management zones for riparian habitat.