By BWD editor Bill Thompson, III
Just like people, birds have certain food preferences. The good news for you is that people have been feeding birds for many decades, so you get the benefit of all that trial-and-error experimentation. These days, we, the bird-feeding public, already know what foods birds prefer. At the feeders this means seeds.
But which seeds are the best? In a nutshell, sunflower seed. So if you are just starting out in feeding, I suggest you buy some black-oil sunflower seed at a local hardware store, feed store, specialty bird store, or even at a major retail chain store.
There is a vast array of other foods you can offer birds besides birdseed. To view a few of the most commonly offered non-seed items that birds enjoy.
Following are the best kinds of seed, in descending order of popularity.
Gray- or white-striped sunflower seed used to be the king of the bird foods. Now it’s black-oil sunflower seed. Smaller than gray-striped sunflower seed, with a thin, all-black, papery shell, black-oil seed can be cracked by sparrows, juncos, and even small-billed goldfinches. It’s a better buy, too, because 70 percent of each seed is meat, compared with only 57 percent for striped sunflower. Its high oil and fat content helps birds get through cold winter nights. Black-oil sunflower seed is the heart of any feeding program because it’s accepted by the greatest variety of birds. You can feed it out of hanging feeders, in hoppers, on tables, or scattered on the ground-preferably all of the above.
If I were to pick only one food to offer at my feeding station, it would be sunflower hearts. Yes, they are expensive, but a bag of sunflower hearts (no shells, just the meat of the seed) lasts more than three times as long as a bag of seeds with shells. Not only that, every species that comes to my feeding station will eat them. Being hullless, hearts are accessible to weaker-billed birds like siskins, redpolls, and Carolina wrens. Goldfinches love them.
Compared with seeds with hulls, hearts are relatively free of waste and of the messy shells that pile up to smother grass and rot decks. The only drawback is that the hearts should not be exposed to wet weather; thus, they should be fed only from feeders. They rot quickly when damp. On dry days, it’s fine to spread a handful on the bird table, but otherwise, stick to weatherproof feeders. You’ll be surprised how little it takes to feed a lot of birds.
Mixed seed, often generically referred to as “wild birdseed,” is a vital addition to any feeding program. But not all mixes are created equal, and what is eagerly eaten in Arizona can go to waste in New York. A prime example is milo, a round, reddish seed that looks like a BB pellet. You’ll see it, along with wheat, oats, and even barley, in grocery-store mixes. In the East, milo and wheat are spurned by most birds except blackbirds and doves. In the West, however, quail, doves, towhees, and sparrows eagerly eat milo.
Millet is a main ingredient in most mixed bird seed. White proso millet is a little, round, shiny cream-colored seed. It’s a staple for most sparrows and juncos, as well as doves, Carolina wrens, thrashers, and cardinals.
Another common ingredient of good mixed seed is cracked corn, which is accepted by most birds after the sunflower and millet are gone. Cracked corn is the cheapest and best offering for quail, pheasants, and doves,but it is irresistible to blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, and house sparrows. If you’re inundated by these less desirable birds, you may want stop offering corn.
The third ingredient of a good mix is our old buddy, black-oil sunflower seed. Peanut hearts, which are small, rather bitter byproducts of peanut processing, make birdseed mixes smell good (which is nice for us), boost the price (which is nice for retailers), and may appeal to chickadees, titmice, jays, and wrens. Peanut hearts are not vital because, in my experience, the sunflower always goes first anyway. This is not to devalue whole peanuts as a food–they can be great if offered in the right feeder.
In Europe, peanuts have been a staple of bird feeding for years. But peanuts have become popular for bird feeding in North America just in the past decade. Peanuts are a vital part of my feeding program. Woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, titmice, and wrens are among the birds favoring peanuts. The peanuts we use for bird feeding are rejects from the cocktail peanut trade. They are out of the shell and usually roasted but not salted.
When offered in the shell, only crows, jays, and the occasional clever titmouse can really exploit them, because peanuts are just too big and cumbersome for most birds to crack open. Better feed and birdseed stores, though, sell raw shelled peanuts in bulk. If you can’t find these in your area, you can buy the cheapest unsalted roasted cocktail peanuts (sold in cans or jars) at your grocery store.
Offered in wire mesh tube feeders, in mesh bags, or in hopper and platform feeders, peanuts are an incredibly popular food, especially in harsh winter weather. They offer a great high-protein boost to winter-weary birds and help insect eaters like wrens, woodpeckers, and sometimes even sapsuckers make it through. Peanuts can be subject to mold in hot, wet weather. Check them often for signs of black mold or the darkening in color that can mean they’ve gone rancid. Offer only as many as the birds will eat in a few days in warmer weather.
Niger, or thistle seed (now sometimes referred to by the commercial name of Nyjer) is imported from Africa and Asia. The seed is sterilized, so it won’t germinate in North America. Thistle seed requires a special feeder style, one that has small openings sized to accommodate the tiny seeds but still permit birds to gain access to the seed. Thistle seed can be somewhat expensive and is subject to mold, especially in hot, damp weather. To avoid this, shake your feeders every time you fill them to be sure the seed is coming out of the ports properly. If the seed clumps, you may have to dump it out where the birds won’t find it and wash and dry your feeder before refilling it. Fine mesh nylon thistle “socks” are a cheap way to feed Niger, and they let air circulate around the seed. If you don’t mind paying a bit more per pound, thistle/Niger seed will really attract finches and siskins to your feeders.
Safflower is a white, shiny conical seed that’s gaining popularity among people who find that cardinals like it and some squirrels and grackles don’t. The operative word in that statement is some. Lots of squirrels love safflower seed. Safflower seed is usually found in bulk at better feed stores. You can offer it in any feeder that dispenses sunflower seed or scatter it on the ground to attract cardinals (who aren’t much for perching on tube feeders). Safflower seed is nice to offer, but not vital; any bird that will eat safflower will also take sunflower seed.