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We’ve all been there. You went to your big box hardware store and purchased anywhere from ten to forty pounds of your run-of-the-mill(et) wild bird mix. Without sitting in the aisle and searching which bird seed is best for your hodgepodge of backyard visitors, it’s easy to grab a big bag and move on with your shopping trip. When you get home and fill your feeders, you immediately notice that the birds stick their beaks up to eighty percent of the contents.
While I certainly understand wanting to save money, you will be limited in which birds you attract. Sometimes that’s okay, but you will get your money’s worth if you select bird seed with a higher density of ingredients birds love.
Many store-brand bird seed blends use milo, millet, and wheat fillers. I wouldn’t call them fillers since they make up most of the mix. The biggest scam of them all is bird seed blends that contain milo or sorghum. Milo is a grass grain with a tiny round red or white seed resembling quinoa. This inexpensive solution will often comprise forty to fifty percent of the blend. It will attract pests like sparrows, starlings, grackles, and cowbirds. Most backyard birds do not care for milo. Those who enjoy the seed are birds such as turkeys, quail, pheasants, and doves.
Another filler, millet, is a source of essential nutrients for small beaked birds, like finches, wrens, buntings, finches, and sparrows. Most other backyard birds will riffle through it as they hunt for sunflower seeds, corn, or nuts. We’ll talk more about millet later in this guide because it’s a decent filler when you buy the right stuff!
When it comes to nectar, always make it yourself! My heart hurts for the birds and your wallet when I see that store-bought jug in your cart or hummingbird feeder. Skip on down to the nectar section of this article for the full scoop on this sticky stuff.
A good rule of thumb when buying bird food (and human food, for that matter) is to check the ingredients list before purchasing. Other fillers that should be entirely avoided are:
- Golden and Red Millet
Now that we know how we are taken advantage of as bird seed consumers let’s gain the knowledge necessary to ensure our goal of filling birds’ bellies is a successful one!
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
Black oil sunflower seed is an easy choice when opting for a “one seed fits all” approach. Black oil sunflower seed appeals to all types of birds, from woodpeckers, chickadees, sparrows, titmice, jays, and grosbeaks, and is a common addition in bird seed blends. When you purchase a milo-based combination, you’ll quickly notice the birds making a huge mess beneath the feeder as they dig out the sunflower seeds.
When it comes to nutrients, black oil sunflower seeds definitely stand their ground as a healthy option. They contain forty percent fat, sixteen percent protein, and twenty percent carbohydrates. Black oil sunflower seeds have a greater oil content than striped sunflower seeds. They are small with thin husks or shells, making them simple for birds to crack open.
A forty-pound bag of back oil sunflower seed costs around thirty dollars from Walmart. This may seem steep compared to the milo mix, but it’s not a fair comparison when you consider that it’s essentially worthless. You will likely want to invest in a squirrel-proof feeder if you opt to supply this seed because they love them too.
Striped Sunflower Seeds
Striped sunflower seeds are the snack we all know and love. I never cared for them as a kid, but as you age, you understand that nothing good ever came without putting in some effort! While birds flock to feeders filled with these tasty seeds, their shells are thicker and require more energy and a large beak to open. These are a good option if you are attempting to thin out small birds from your feeder. If that sounds plain mean to you, consider adding a striped sunflower seed-specific feeder to your yard for larger birds.
Cardinals, jays, chickadees, grackles, titmice, and nuthatches are attracted to striped sunflower seeds and can handle the task of cracking their thick shells. These seeds provide larger birds with a decent amount of nutrition, with twenty-six percent fat, fifteen percent protein, and eighteen percent carbohydrates.
During the winter, consider trading these thicker-shelled seeds for black oil sunflower seeds to help birds conserve energy while getting essential fats and proteins.
Hulled Sunflower Seed (Chips or Kernels)
So you’ve read about black oil sunflower seeds and striped sunflower seeds, but what’s inside of them is all that really matters. For birds, the real reward is the seed or sunflower meat. Is a seed meat? Let’s call it meat.
There are many positive outcomes to providing hulled sunflower seeds. When you remove the husk or shell from the equation, it is going to be a feeding frenzy at your birdfeeder. You will attract the largest variety of birds when you purchase sunflower chips or kernels, including cardinals, chickadees, titmice, juncos, towhees, blackbirds, doves, finches, and grosbeaks. Additionally, this option leaves no waste behind and no pesky shells to clean.
The price of hulled sunflower seeds might cause you to second guess your decision, but they are more expensive because you are getting more seeds by weight than if you were buying black oil or striped sunflower seeds. Even though you’re not paying for the husks, it’s still pretty expensive. Another con is that the seed may spoil more quickly since the husk is not there to protect it.
Have you got a lot of freeloading squirrels or pesky starlings and grackles hogging all the seed? Safflower may be just the thing you need! It isn’t favored by everyone because the shell is more challenging to crack than sunflower seeds for a tiny seed payout. This doesn’t matter to medium and large songbirds such as chickadees, nuthatches, doves, finches, and cardinals. The nutritional content of safflower is similar to black oil sunflower seeds.
Look for safflower seeds in premium seed blends. Incorporating it into tray and hopper feeders will be the best option when supplying this seed for cardinals and grosbeaks.
You can just call it thistle! Nyjer or thistle is the seed of a plant called Guizotia Abyssinia. This little black seed is sterilized and imported from Ethiopia or India to other countries. Sterilizing the seed prevents it from germinating, and an invasive situation is avoided. The size of the seed makes it a perfect match for attracting birds with small beaks. Nyjer is a favorite among lesser goldfinches, indigo buntings, pine siskins, chickadees, juncos, and common redpolls.
This seed is highly nutritious for busy birds, with thirty-six percent fat, twenty-one percent protein, and thirteen percent carbohydrates. While this is all wonderful, there are always a few caveats to note. Nyjer is very prone to spoiling when it is not consumed quickly. Leaving feeders in the rain or the bag of seed in warm and damp conditions is a perfect way to ruin your good seed “read: money.” Place the seed in a mesh or sock-style bird feeder with a tray at the bottom for catching any waste.
Speaking of waste, this seed is very popular with the above-mentioned birds, and if they do spill it, quails and doves are great ground feeders that will ensure a tidy area is left behind. Nyjer is more expensive than other types of bird seed, but when you consider none is being wasted, it eases the mind.
We all know this one! Millet or proso millet is a grass seed commonly included in various bird seed blends. White proso millet is popular with ground-feeding birds like juncos, grackles, doves, blackbirds, and sparrows. Since some invasive and obnoxious species, like house sparrows, cowbirds, and blackbirds, flock to millet, bird lovers are advised to avoid supplying millet in areas with a high density of these species and to offer black oil sunflower seeds instead.
It contains seventy-three percent carbohydrates, eleven percent protein, and four percent fat. Red proso millet is an available but less enjoyable variety to the birds for some reason.
It’s corn! But this time, it’s not a beautiful thing. I really do hate being the bearer of bad news, but your backyard birds’ favorite snack has a few problems. If you already offer corn often, I’m sure you’ve noticed how favored it is with house sparrows, starlings, and cowbirds. These birds are considered invasive species, and we should not provide them with an all-you-can-eat buffet across hundreds of thousands of backyards.
The next issue with corn is that it is highly prone to be tainted with funguses called aflatoxins. This family of toxins is cancer-causing and appears on crops like corn, peanuts, and cottonseed. Additionally, avoid corn that is marked with red dye. This dye is used to indicate that the corn is treated with fungicides for agricultural planting and is not safe for human or animal consumption.
If you choose to offer corn, ensure it is marked for animal consumption, use tray feeders, and only supply birds with a small amount that can be eaten in one day. Dry temperatures and low humidity are best to avoid spoiling.
While mealworms are not technically bird seed, these creepy crawlers are a delicious high-fat, and protein-rich treat for birds! In fact, mealworms are not worms at all. They are darling beetle larvae. Providing your backyard birds with mealworms during the winter is especially helpful to our feathered friends.
My favorite reason for supplying mealworms is that there I have great chances of attracting bluebirds. Other expected guests include chickadees, titmice, wrens, nuthatches, and starlings. If you only see starlings at the feeder, reconsider offering mealworms or any bird seed, for that matter.
When it comes to mealworms, there are a few different ways to purchase and keep mealworms. Dried mealworms are convenient, easy to store, and can be purchased at any pet store. However, this expense may add up. If you’d like to cut costs and call yourself a mealworm farmer, then you’ll want to purchase live worms.
Although keeping dried mealworms sounds like the perfect choice, birds can be picky and prefer their meals to squirm. Supplying dried mealworms may end up in excess waste and spoilage once the birds decide to pass them up, but you won’t know until you try!
Suppose you’re having trouble convincing birds to eat dried mealworms. Incorporate living ones into the feeder. We’d all prefer a fresh steak over beef jerky, right? As you gradually increase the number of dried mealworms, the birds will eventually snag a few dried ones and become accustomed to them.
Whether living or freeze-dried, buying mealworms in bulk will save you money.
Have you ever wanted to consider yourself a mealworm breeder? This task might not seem very daunting if you’re already a gardener, and live mealworms make a meaningful addition to compost bins. Adding mealworms to these can help decompose the material into frass which can be used as fertilizer for your plants.
Back to birds, breeding mealworms will save you time, gas, and money on pet store trips but requires a bit of labor. Instead of buying them from the store, they can be kept in a dormant state in your refrigerator. Nonetheless, the birds will thank you for your diligence because they love live mealworms. Offer them on a tray or mesh feeder that is designed explicitly for mealworms. Keep them dry to prevent spoilage.
Peanuts are a delicious snack for humans and birds alike. As you can imagine, peanuts are also very popular with squirrels, raccoons, bears, and deer. Peanuts contain a considerable amount of protein and fat. Like mealworms and safflower, offering peanuts during the winter gives birds the energy boost they need to make it through long cold days.
When you supply birds with shelled peanuts, they conserve energy because they do not have to worry about cracking open a tough shell and can focus on conserving that energy for essential activities. When purchasing any type of peanuts for bird purposes, it is essential to ensure they are unsalted.
Peanuts in the shell do not need to go into a feeder and can be placed on a small tray or on a garden table for jays, titmice, woodpeckers, and crows to swipe up. These birds are willing to do the work required to extract the nut from its shell but will typically carry them elsewhere to perform this task.
Shelled peanuts can be added to seed blends or sunflower seeds. Shelled peanuts will also attract a wider variety of birds that may be unable to break through the shelled barrier. Cardinals, jays, grosbeaks, chickadees, bushtits, titmice, and nuthatches are attracted to the effort-free food and will often return to capitalize on this tasty and nutritious energy source.
When shopping for bird seed, you have almost certainly suet cakes, balls, nuggets, and plugs. But what exactly is suet? Well, it’s beef and mutton fat! Specifically, suet is the hard fat surrounding the kidneys and loins in beef and mutton. This fat is formed into various cakes and blocks and may also be blended with corn meal, nuts, dried insects, and fruits. This food source provides birds will a lot of energy in one sitting and is a great food to offer in the winter.
Suet attracts woodpeckers, chickadees, jays, kinglets, cardinals, nuthatches, and starlings. If you wish to exclude starlings from this lineup, consider purchasing an upside-down suet bird feeder. They won’t be able to hang upside down to feed, and it will keep your suet from melting in the sun or spoiling as quickly.
Be vigilant about monitoring the condition of suet and keep suet cakes that contain corn and peanuts in a cool dark place or even the refrigerator until serving. The consistency of suet should be dry and solid, so shaded feeders work best. Only offer as much as your backyard visitors can eat in a two-day timeframe and amend this offering based on the weather. On very warm days, you may want to bring feeders before sweltering afternoon temperatures. This is fine with the birds because they usually feed in the morning. If the suet turns black or has mold, throw it away immediately. This is a clear indication that your suet has gone bad. Other indicators that it’s time to toss suet include a sour smell or a change in texture.
Nectar is a key energy source for hummingbirds and orioles. When you offer a simple sugar and water solution in a nectar feeder, it mimics nectar that would be naturally occurring in flowers, giving these busy birds a quick and easy way to drink their fill without expending additional energy as they hunt for flowers. While sugar water doesn’t offer these birds any nutrients, it is still essential to supply. They can use the sugar water as an energy source while foraging for fruit, flies, gnats, caterpillars, and other nutrient-rich food sources.
You know you’re an atrocious cook when sugar water is about the only thing you can whip up properly. This is truly the case for me, but I have no shame because the hummingbirds and orioles think I’m the best cook ever! In fact, when they’re not fighting over slurping down my homemade sugar water, they’re buzzing by my camper window demanding more.
Do not get scammed into buying those big red jugs of “hummingbird nectar” at the store. First off, they are literally just selling you sugar and water, two ingredients you’re highly likely to have at home. Secondly, red dye is a chemical additive and harms the birds consuming it. The red dye was added to hummingbird nectar to catch the bird’s eye. However, using a dedicated hummingbird feeder with red accents will do the job. Thirdly, I am firmly against buying single-use plastic for obvious reasons, which is how most of these liquids are sold.
Mix one part of granulated white sugar with four parts of boiling water to make your own sugar water. Do not use raw sugars, natural sugars, honey, or artificial sweeteners. As soon as the water comes to a boil, remove it from the stovetop and stir in the sugar until it is dissolved. Let the mixture reach room temperature, or place it in the fridge to cool before filling your hummingbird feeder. Homemade nectar can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Like all other types of bird seed and food, nectar can spoil. If you place your nectar feeder in direct sunshine, the mixture will ferment and become toxic to birds. Keep feeders in an area that gets partial or full shade.
Fruit & Jelly
During fall and winter, supplying birds with fruit and jelly dramatically reduces food waste. Think about how often you throw away that last banana or reject an orange with a mushy spot. Instead, you can slice it up and offer it on a tray or fruit feeder to attract birds you might not commonly see on your feeders, like woodpeckers, orioles, thrashers, grosbeaks, and tanagers.
You likely have dried fruit on hand for snacks and baking, but you can also offer this to birds. Cranberries, raisins, sultanas, and currants are popular among blackbirds, robins, and song thrushes. Ensure these fruits do not have added or artificial sweeteners.
There are a variety of fruit and jelly feeders on the market if this option excites you! Jelly can be offered in small quantities to attract orioles and woodpeckers. When jelly shopping for your birds, consider organic or additive-free options that use natural sugar, not corn syrup. Jellies specifically for birds are also available online and at bird supply shops.
That’s a Wrap on Seeds & Snacks
I hope that this article has helped you narrow down which bird seed and other bird food options best suit your needs. Being a diligent birder is always our top priority at Birding Insider, and we aim to equip you with the knowledge you need to keep your pockets heavy and your backyard birds safe, healthy, and full of food!
Frequently Asked Questions
Answer: The best bird seed to offer is black oil sunflower seed. This is the safest option for pleasing almost every type of bird that may visit your backyard. It is a healthy option that birds will not want to pass up. You can find black oil sunflower seeds at your local pet supply store, hardware store, or grocery store.
Answer: A blend that does not have milo is best. Birds don’t care for milo, which has little nutritional value, but most in-store bird seed blends will be composed almost entirely of it. It’s something I wish I had learned sooner. Opt for a blend of safflower, millet, and sunflower seeds.
Answer: There are many different blends of bird seed, but most of them have a variety of milo, millet, wheat, corn, and a *few* sunflower seeds. I recommend purchasing a bag of black oil sunflower seeds instead of a bag of filler (milo, millet, wheat) that birds will just spill all over the ground.
Answer: Do not feed wild birds bacon, bacon fat, salt, bread, fruit pits, avocado, onions, or human snacks like chips and cookies. All of these items are too salty, fatty, or just plain unsafe for birds to swallow.