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What’s Best For Backyard Birds

Use this guide to select top-quality birdseed for wild birds. By filling feeders with quality seed, you meet their needs and minimize waste.

When you’re ready to get set up, see the Bird Feeder Buying Guide here.

Bluejay with peanut in mouth.

How to Choose the Right Birdseed

Bluejay bird with a peanut shell in its beak in a backyard garden.

Wild Bird Safety Note

During outbreaks of the highly pathogenic diseases including avian influenza, it is strongly recommended to remove bird feeders and cease any hand-feeding. This may help reduce transmission rates amongst our wild bird populations.

Ongoing, feeders should be cleaned frequently with a bleach solution and remove any debris from ground around feeders.

This guide shares the best options for selecting bird feed, including seeds, nuts, fruit, and suet, and explains why some common selections are not recommended.

If you already feed birds in your garden you know, when done safely, it’s not just beneficial for the birds but brightens our lives as well.

With the right seed choices, they enjoy healthy, nutrient-packed feed, and we get a glimpse into their intriguing, delightful, and drama-packed worlds.

The problems occur when birds are offered the wrong feed or feeders are not hygienically maintained.

Most often we will not even know a problem has occurred, but moldy birdseed or unclean feeders can be the main cause of numerous illnesses and diseases. The birds go off to struggle or worse and we remain unaware of our role in the problems.

It sounds like such a simple thing to offer birdseed and enjoy watching birds, but, like any animal care, it requires thoughtful choices and care.

Can birds become too dependent on bird feeders?

At this point there is not enough information to determine whether feeders may create unhealthy dependencies for some bird species . There aren’t a lot of studies but the ones we have indicate bird seed is more of a snack that supplements their natural diets. [popsci.com] Habitat loss, light pollution, predators including domesticated cats, and pesticides are known threats to bird survival.

What’s the best way to support wild birds?

The best way to support wild birds is to provide all the basics: healthy habitat with an abundance of native plants (flowering perennials, shrubs, vines, trees), fresh water, all free of toxins and pollutants including pesticides and herbicides. Also support initiatives that reduce light pollution on nighttime migratory paths and keep cats indoors.

Contents

How to Choose the Right Birdseed

Birdseed Shopping Tips

Common Bird Feed Ingredients | Pros and Cons

Other Foods For Birds

Foods to Avoid

Summary

Resources

How to Choose the Right Birdseed

Red male cardinal at bird feeder.Red male cardinal at bird feeder.

When I was researching this, I soon learned that choosing bird feed is much more complicated than it sounds. It can be as political and personal as your own food choices. There is a lot to consider depending on how conscientious you wish to be.

And, don’t ever assume that a bag of mixed birdseed at your grocery store is actually good for the birds! Many are not.

Most often, you get what you pay for and it is not regulated.

Read the label and see what’s in there.

Cheaper blends often contain fillers—seeds or grains that few if any birds eat—that help fill the bag but offer nothing of value. Ultimately you’re paying for low-quality seed with a lot of waste.

Where the seed is grown is also important. Or, more accurately, what their growing practices are. I like to find Canadian growers (I’m in Canada) and research them before buying.

Unless organically-grown (which is rare) or produced specifically for bird health, many crops can contain significant pesticide or herbicide residues—and much more than their tiny birdy bodies can withstand.

And then there is the matter of what feed is appropriate for which species. Just because a wild bird will eat something does not mean it is beneficial to its health. You’ll find a list of foods to avoid below.

I’ve listed the ingredients commonly found in wild bird feed mixes below and made notes so you can make the right choices for your wild birds.

  • Buy from independent shops specializing in wild bird care who have carefully sourced the seed and designed blends suited to your local birds.
  • Avoid generic bird seed mixes in big box stores.
  • Get familiar with good ingredients and money-wasting fillers I’ve listed below.
  • Visually inspect the seed. It should be fresh, dry, and have no signs of mold, fungus, insects, or condensation in the bag.
  • Find out who the seed grower is and learn how they grow their seeds.
    • While 100% organic sources may be impossible to find, find out if the grower is minimizing the effects of any sprays used.
    • It makes a huge difference if a sunflower seed crop is treated before or after the flower buds have formed. Early treatment may not have a residual effect on the seeds but direct spraying of flowers (which turn to seed) will.
  • Some birdfeed like sunflower seeds or peanuts may be sold as “non-human grade” or “animal-grade.” Unless you know the source, human-grade is recommended (plain, not roasted, smoked, or salted, in the shells).

    Find out what “animal grade” means before buying. In some cases, it means the pesticide residue levels are at amounts unacceptable for humans, yet somehow we say that’s okay for tiny animals. That’s just not right.

Common Bird Feed Ingredients | Pros and Cons

Squirrel looking surprised at bird feeder in winter garden.Squirrel looking surprised at bird feeder in winter garden.
Squirrel on bird feeder

Ever region has different wildlife that may be attracted to bird feeders. If there’s any chance of creating issues, stick with gardening for birds—it’s the most important part, after all.

Recommended Seed

1Black-oil Sunflower Seeds

Attracts a wide range of birds: probably the most universal seed of all.

Black oil sunflower seedsBlack oil sunflower seeds

There is not a lot of consensus when it comes to the best choices for birdseed, but this is one.

Black-oil sunflowers seeds—not striped sunflower seeds—are the number one pick for feeding birds in much of Canada and the United States for several reasons.

  • The thin shells make it easy for a variety of birds to both carry and open the seeds, so minimal energy is expended to obtain this excellent source of fat.
  • While you can purchase shelled seeds, seeds in the shells are good choice because the shell preserves the seed and lasts longer.

Yes, they will also eat the striped ones, but black-oil seeds provide the best value for your money (most fat for least effort).

Hulled sunflower chips are another good option if they are available.

2Nijer or Nyger Seed, also called Thistle Seed

Attracts: Goldfinches (American and Lesser), indigo buntings, redpolls, siskins.

Nijer seed or Guizotia abyssinica is cultivated in India and Africa (Ethiopia). It is heat-treated to prevent the seeds from sprouting in storage and during transport.

  • The price of nijer seed has jumped way up in recent years but it’s tempting to buy this rich, oily seed because it is clearly loved by favourite, small birds.
  • Because of the tiny seed size, it’s best to use a tube feeder with small ports to minimize waste.

3Safflower seeds

Attracts: cardinals, chickadees, doves, grosbeaks, house finches, native sparrows.

Limited appeal: grackles, non-native sparrows, starlings, and squirrels.

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a thistle-like plant used to produce safflower oil and seeds.

  • These are the seeds you hear recommended when squirrels are a problem with regular birdseed because some reject it. But, there are plenty reports of squirrels developing a taste for them over time so don’t get your hopes too high.

4Squash, Pumpkin, and Melon Seeds

Attracts: a wide variety of birds enjoy these seeds.

This tip is not mentioned enough: many birds enjoy seeds from squash, pumpkins, and melons.

  • First, air-dry the seeds, and then run them through a food processor to make the meat (inner parts) easier to access.
  • Place them on your feeder or the ground.
  • Do not use roasted, seasoned, flavored, or salted seeds.

MIXED REVIEWS

5Corn

Attracts: A wide-range of birds including invasive species plus potentially problematic visitors such as bears, deer, raccoons, rats.

There is no consensus about corn! Some experts think it’s fine, others say no way. Some worry about GMO crops, others do not share that concern.

Here’s the different ways corn is available as wild bird feed:

  • Whole corn kernels | Attracts larger birds including pheasants, pigeons, Canada geese, and turkeys.
  • Steel cut corn | Attracts a wider range of birds because of the smaller pieces.
  • Cracked corn | Tends to be powdery and more of a filler.

Arguments For Corn

  • Affordable
  • Locally grown
  • Can provide good carbohydrates (when not crushed into powder)

Arguments Against Corn

  • Hard to digest
  • Can be contaminated with aflatoxins (very dangerous)
  • Heavily-sprayed crops
  • Attracts other species including ducks, raccoons, bears, deer…
  • Commonly treated with fungicides not suitable for ingestion by birds

Precautions

If you choose to offer corn or mixed blends with corn:

  • Store it in a cool, dry container
  • Do not let it get wet (in storage or on the feeder)
  • Do not serve it in humid or wet weather
  • Remove any leftovers from the ground
  • Never use microwave popcorn or other flavored, roasted, or salted corn

6Millet

Attracts: blackbirds, cardinals, cowbirds, house sparrows, juncos, mourning doves, quails, towhees, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows.

This is another one with mixed opinions.

Overall, white millet is recommended but red and golden millet are not.

  • The birds that enjoy white millet are often ground-feeding species, so it’s best offered on the ground or a low platform feeder and cleaned up daily.
  • Red millet and golden millet tend to be ignored by birds and go to waste. There are always exceptions, but, in general, both are considered low-value filler.

FILLERS

7Milo or Sorghum

Attracts: cowbirds, curve-billed thrashers, Gambel’s quail, Steller’s Jays.

You see this stuff in a lot of generic birdseed mixes. It often goes to waste because birds will eat any other high-value seeds first and leave the milo alone.

  • If you do use it, offer it on the ground or a low, platform feeder and see if the birds actually consume it.

These next 3 are all considered low-value fillers:

8Flax

9Rapeseed

10Canary Seed

Other Foods For Birds

Nuthatch on suet feeder in winter garden. Nuthatch on suet feeder in winter garden.
Nuthatch enjoying a suet feeder

11Suet

Attracts: chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers…

Depending on your own food preferences (carnivore, vegan), you may choose beef-fat suet or peanut butter suet.

  • Both are high energy foods that are most beneficial to birds in the winter months.
  • During warmer months, beef-fat suet can become rancid and the oils from peanut butter can separate. You do not ever want birds getting oil on their feathers.
  • You can purchase ready-made suet cakes or make your own.
  • Some have added cornmeal or oats which are regarded as low-value fillers.
  • This shows how I make peanut butter suet by combining all-natural peanut butter with a good quality birdseed mix. I only use single-ingredient peanut butter to avoid unhealthy oils and sugars that are not beneficial to the birds.
  • Place your homemade suet in mesh bags or a suet feeder. Look for one with a long board which supports the bird’s tail making it easier to balance while feeding.
Nuthatch at bird feeder.Nuthatch at bird feeder.

Suet feeder with tail support | Amazon

12Peanuts

Blue jay carrying peanut at bird feeder.Blue jay carrying peanut at bird feeder.

Attracts: blue jays, chickadees, Carolina wrens, crows, nuthatches, titmice, and squirrels, bears, raccoons, and other mammals.

Blue jay bird.Blue jay bird.

Peanuts are legumes, not nuts, and many birds (and other animals) enjoy them.

  • Choose human-grade peanuts in the shells (not animal-grade which are more likely to have mycotoxins and higher herbicide residues).
  • Plain peanuts, not roasted, smoked, or salted, are recommended. You do not want any oils, additives, or preservatives.
  • Peanuts without the shells should be used with caution because they are more likely to get moldy or rot.
  • Store peanuts in a cool, dry place.
Are roasted peanuts safe for wild birds?

Because it’s often impossible to know how peanuts have been treated, it is best to choose human-grade, plain peanuts in the shell for wild birds. These should not be salted, roasted, or smoked and should not have any additives or preservatives.

13Mealworms

Attracts: bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens.

  • Mealworms are the larvae of the mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) and very high in protein.
  • Some very timid birds will come to your garden when mealworms are available. I have a friend who used them to introduce bluebirds to a nesting box on her property. You can also use them to train some birds to feed from your hand.
  • You can buy quantities of them, live or dried. Here’s dried mealworms on Amazon.com.
  • Some birders report that mealworms should be hydrated in water first, otherwise they expand too much in the bird’s stomach. To be cautious, presoak the dehydrated worms in water before serving.

14Fruit

Attracts: bluebirds, catbirds, mockingbirds, orioles, waxwings, and robins.

  • Fruit is another important dietary component for many types of birds.
  • If you are offering dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, or currents, be sure they are preservative-free (no sulfites) and presoak them in water before putting them on your feeder.
  • You can also offer grapes, sliced oranges or tangerines, apple, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries.
  • All of these are prone to rot (of course) and may attract other critters, so just put out what can be consumed by the birds within one day and disinfect your feeders regularly.

Foods to Avoid

When feeding wild birds, it’s best to choose whole foods that align with their natural diets.

This means never offer any baked goods like:

  • Bread
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Muffins
  • Bagels
  • Donuts
  • Cereals
  • or any other human-made foods.

These are of low nutritional value, become moldy, and attract wildlife you may not want in your garden like rats.

Also avoid anything with:

  • Wheat
  • Cornmeal
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Pasta

Just stick to the items recommended above.

Summary

  • Read birdseed packages and find out where the seed comes from, who the grower is, and what their growing practices are. Organic or minimal, carefully timed use of herbicides (etc.) and other sprays is best.
  • Check what ingredients are in the mix. There are many fillers that birds will not eat and go to waste.
  • The best overall seed is black-oil sunflower seeds in the shell, not striped sunflower seeds.
  • Other popular choices are safflower seeds (not well-liked by squirrels), nijer seeds (for smaller birds), and white millet (not red or golden).
  • Corn is recommended by some and ill-advised by other experts. Personally, I avoid it because it attracts rats here.
  • Peanutsfruitsquash seedsmealwormsgrubs, and suet (for winter) are also good, nutritious options.
  • You’ll do nicely if you can provide several styles of feeders, suited to local species and various sizes of birds. Placing feeders some distance apart can reduce conflicts and frights.
  • Good feeder hygiene is critical to avoid spreading disease amongst birds. If you can’t keep your feeders safe and clean, it’s better not to have them at all.
  • Seed spilled on the ground is ripe for disease, so clean it up daily.
  • Take time to watch the birds every day. Their behaviors will help you make the right choices for your feeders.
  • And enjoy it. We are very fortunate to have these beautiful creatures in our lives.

Resources

Attracting Wild Birds to Your Garden

Just like us, birds need food and shelter.

Bird nest with blue eggs.Bird nest with blue eggs.
  • Grow a diverse selection of plants including flowers, trees and shrubs that support the web of life.
  • Grow bugs. Many bird species eat a lot of insects and other invertebrates.
  • An eco-beneficial garden is a “messy” garden: dead and decaying things nourish life.
  • Provide fresh water. Puddles and ponds both help.
  • Avoid the use of any products toxic to birds and their food sources including caterpillars.
  • Keep predatory pets out of your garden.
  • Decorative birdhouses are not safe for birds.
  • Use nesting boxes intended to safely house specific bird species.
  • If using feeders, provide clean fresh water and the right types of seed.
  • Clean bird feeders frequently. Remove feeders immediately if you notice any sign of disease or problems like salmonella, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, or avian pox are reported in your area.

TIP: Use a wildlife camera with a motion sensor in your garden to get a candid look at life in your garden.

Watch Bird Wildlife Cameras

YouTube videoYouTube video

I hope this has helped you navigate your birdseed options and make good choices for healthy, happy birds.

~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛

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