Choosing Wild Bird Foods

Most birds prefer eating black oil sunflower seed.

Choosing the right bird foods does make a difference in the kinds of birds you attract—and how much you spend on your hobby. Some people ask, “Why pay more for seed from a specialty catalog or a specialty store when you can get the same thing cheaper at the grocery store?” Well, it’s not the same thing! — Cheap bird seed is often full of sticks and other harvesting debris. And it usually contains a lot of “filler” seeds that most birds won’t eat, such as milo, wheat, and millet. These seeds are fine in limited quantities, but you don’t want them too dominant in the mix because they only appeal to a few types of birds. Since you’re paying by the pound, it makes sense not to pay for sticks and seeds most birds won’t eat. Premium seed gives you more edible seed per pound, making it a much better value per dollar.

Pure, black oil sunflower seed wins the award for Best All Around bird seed and attracts the widest variety of birds. It’s economical and all seed eating birds love it — it’s rich in nutritious oils and the thin shells are easy for small birds to crack. It should be the foundation of any bird feeding plan. Sunflower hearts are a real favorite, too. They’ve had the hulls stripped off and are relished by birds because they’re so easy to eat. Gray striped sunflower seeds are larger than black oil sunflower seed and have a harder shell. They’re fine for heavy-billed birds such as grosbeaks, jays, goldfinches and cardinals.

Suet — either plain, flavored or mixed with seeds — is a food that attracts even more birds than just seed eaters. If you can only feed one other food besides black oil seed, make it suet. Wrens, catbirds, bluebirds and mockingbirds are a few of the insect eaters that come to a suet feeder, along with chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches and titmice, to name a few.

Suet is a high fat food that provides birds with lots of energy for winter survival, spring nesting and also helps them load up on the extra fat needed for migration. Suet is a year-round food, not just for winter feeding! Suet is technically beef fat, but any foods that supply fat in quantity can also be used, such as vegetable shortening and peanut butter. Suet cakes are a convenient way to offer suet, needing only an inexpensive suet basket to place them in — get one labeled No-Melt for hot climates. And sometimes grocery stores sell beef fat for bird feeding. It’s all good!

Nyjer seed, also known as thistle seed, draws finches. Goldfinches can’t resist it and Indigo Buntings like it, too. Feed it alone or mixed with other seeds to attract these birds. Nyjer is very small seed. If offered alone, be sure to purchase a feeder specially made for Nyjer, so it won’t fall out of the feeder ports. Feeding Nyjer, sunflower seeds and suet can have you attracting just about every backyard bird.

To give your birds variety, there are other foods you can offer as well. Safflower seed is a high oil seed and is enjoyed by cardinals, grosbeaks, finches, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches. One reason people feed safflower seed is that squirrels usually avoid it!

Peanuts are a special treat for large birds. Jays and woodpeckers love them shelled and split or even with the shell on. Unfortunately, so do squirrels. If that’s going to be a problem but you’d still like to offer peanuts, you can use peanut bits instead mixed in with sunflower chips or other seed blends and put them in a caged, squirrel-resistant feeder.

White proso millet has a hard shell that makes it less prone to spoiling or rotting, so you can use this seed for ground or platform feeding as well as tube feeding. It’s wonderful if you have a lot of buntings at your feeders. It also appeals to  sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches, doves and pigeons. It’s a key ingredient in many seed mixes, but as stated before, you may not want a mix consisting primarily of millet, especially if you don’t have buntings in your area, or would rather not attract some of these birds.

Corn attracts many of the same birds that millet attracts, with the exception of buntings. It’s a good food, and those cute  juncos and sparrows love it, but you may want to limit it if you’re not particularly fond of blackbirds, pigeons and doves — not to mention squirrels! However, if you love all the birds, as many do, by all means, choose blends with corn in them.

And finally, there are fruit and insect foods. Almost all birds eat insects. And nestlings have to be fed insects or suet because they can’t digest seeds until they have fledged. Insect foods attract bluebirds, catbirds, veerys, wrens, robins…and so many more! You can offer live or roasted mealworms, dried or canned waxworms and even fly larvae. Fruit appeals to cardinals, orioles, mockingbirds, robins, waxwings and others. Try putting out orange halves, apple halves, raisins, and grapes. Very Berry mix contains bits of dried cherries and blueberries which these birds also enjoy.

There’s an endless variety of seeds you can feed your wild birds. Buy single varieties in bulk and mix them yourself or buy blends already made for you. The important thing is to read the ingredients. The best blends consist mostly of sunflower seeds or hearts, peanuts or tree nuts, Nyjer and lesser amounts of  the “filler” seeds mentioned earlier. It may seem more expensive initially, but in the long run you can attract a larger variety of birds and have less wasted seed.

— R. Brune

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  • B. S. Mueller January 12, 2010 at 2:12 am

    Enjoy all articles from Duncraft. They are so informative and interesting. They give you all sorts of information especially for beginners. I have spent alot of time on your website and they given many good ideas of bringing in the birds. I love to look at the catalog! Keep up the good work.

  • B. Hudkins January 16, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    We just put out our bird feeders last week–on Monday, January ll, 2010 (couldn’t earlier because of illness) and our heated birdbath yesterday, Jan. 15. Last summer, the birds came to our feeders until they were chased away by squirrels. We boosted our squirrel baffle last week. The foods I put out are: 2 suet cakes (Songbird Mix and Very Berry); raisins and orange halves; Peterson’s Very Berry seed mix, Finch Mix, and Seed saver.
    We saw Cardinals and some little birds go to the feeders about 5 minutes after we put them out, and a male Cardinal on the ground under them.
    Ever since, we have not seen a single bird at the feeders. Only today I saw 2 birds in our yard but haven’t seen any others all week and haven’t heard any, either.
    It has been unusually cold here. Is that the reason our birds have disappeared? We usually have birds everywhere in the summer, even in very hot weather.
    What have we done wrong? Where are our birds? What can we do to get them back?

  • B. Hudkins January 16, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    If anyone has any ideas, we live in the southern Piedmont part of North Carolina. We’re feeling desperate as we love our birds and want to help them, especially in this cold snap. Thank you.

  • L. Cavanaugh January 17, 2010 at 9:13 am

    I have starling that eat all of my suet I make for the bluebirds. Does anyone have any suggestions as to how to deter them?

  • Duncraft January 18, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Hi L. Cavanaugh,
    You might try the Bluebird Family Diner. Bluebirds will go inside the feeder to eat, but starlings might not.

  • Georgia March 13, 2010 at 1:43 am

    This is the reason I like Nice posts.

  • Sandy September 6, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    I have a friend that had to take her hummer feeders down because of bees. I can’t remember what to use to keep the bee away. HELP

  • Duncraft September 7, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Hi Sandy,

    This article on bees and hummingbird feeders might give you some ideas on how to keep bees, ants and wasps away from your feeder: