A Guide to Bird Seed and Other Foods—Plus, Which Species Each Will Attract
Who doesn't love to be greeted with the beautiful sight of birds flitting in front of their garden-facing window? More than 100 North American species across the continent supplement their natural diets with birdseed, suet, fruit, and nectar obtained from feeders.
Different birds are attracted by different kinds of seed, and a variety of seeds will attract the greatest variety of birds. Black-oil sunflower seed appeals to the greatest number of birds. Others like sunflower seeds, cracked corn, or peanuts should be stocked in separate feeders. In blends, choose mixtures containing sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn—these are the three most popular types of bird seed. Mixtures of peanuts, nuts, and dried fruit are appealing to woodpeckers, nuthatches, and titmice. Relatively few species prefer milo, wheat, and oats, which are featured in less expensive blends. In any case, the type of bird feeder used should be compatible with both the seed and the birds you hope to attract.
Treat your backyard as a feeding source for both common birds and rare birds alike. When you make your yard more habitable for wild birds in your local area, you help to conserve the environment. Birds also contribute to natural pest control for your garden and to the pollination of flowers. That being said, squirrels and other animals are also prone to visiting, but they can be deterred with the right choice of food or a deterrent feeder.
Consult our guide to choosing seed—it can provide a nutritional boost for them and a rewarding hobby for you.
Black-Oil Sunflower Seeds
Black-oil sunflower seed is the single most popular kind to birds—attracting woodpeckers, finches, cardinals, chickadees, and blue jays, among others. Black oil seeds ("oilers") have very thin shells, which is easy for mostly all birds to crack open; the kernels inside contain a high fat content, which is extremely valuable in the winter. Keep in mind that squirrels also enjoy sunflower, so it's best to take precautions and shop for a squirrel-proof bird feeder.
Wagner's Black Oil Sunflower Seed, $18, homedepot.com.
Safflower seed has a thicker shell, and it's a favorite among mourning doves, cardinals, and grosbeaks. It's not a type that many birds are familiar with at first (like house sparrows and European starlings), but they tend to really like it once they taste it. The benefit of safflower seeds is that squirrels dislike it.
Pennington Select Safflower Seed, $8.46, walmart.com.
Nyjer seed—also known as thistle—is a favorite for finches of all kinds: American goldfinches, pine siskins, lesser goldfinches, and common redpolls. Often referred to as "black gold," its kernels are small, and high in fat and protein to provide good nutrition to the birds that feast on it—still, it can be expensive compared to other seed. Because the kernels are small, you will want to choose a tube bird feeder with a caged construction so that seeds don't easily fall out.
Kaytee Nyjer Seed, $4.88, farmandfleet.com.
White Proso Millet
White millet is the favorite food of most ground-feeding birds including quail, doves, juncos, and towhees. The seeds themselves are small and round, and can be scattered on the ground in your yard to appeal to these birds. Low-set tray feeders with good drainage can be a very good choice for white millet, too.
Harvest Seed & Supply No Waste Wild Bird Food, $10.64, walmart.com.
Striped Sunflower Seeds
Striped sunflower seed has white shells striated with black lines. And like the black oil sunflower seeds, it's a good source of fat and protein for the birds. Larger species like grackles, jays, and cardinals will be drawn to them—while the thicker shell makes it much harder for house sparrows and blackbirds to crack open. So, if you're inundated with species you'd rather not subsidize at your black oil sunflower, try switching to this type.
Wild Delight Striped Sunflower Wild Bird Food, $15, chewy.com.
Medium cracked corn is another favorite of ground-feeding birds: quail, doves, jays, juncos, and towhees. It is prone to rot, since the interior of the kernel readily soaks up moisture—therefore, feed in small amounts as a blend from a watertight hopper feeder. Avoid fine cracked corn, since it quickly turns to mush; and avoid coarse cracked corn as it is too large for small-beaked birds.
Cole's Assorted Species Wild Bird Food Cracked Corn, $24, acehardware.com.
Peanuts—shelled or whole—are a high-energy food enjoyed by birds like woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, and jays. Peanuts in the shell can be offered on a platform feeder or a window feeder (that is, if the birds reach them before the squirrels do). In a seed mix, they offer a good source of fat and protein to keep your birds full and happy.
Lyric Peanut Pieces, $9.49, lyricbirdfood.com.
Milo is a type of grass grain that is often considered a filler and frequently mixed into economical seed blends. Most birds will discard it in favor of other seed and attract other small animals. In the Southwest, however, milo attracts wild turkeys, pheasants, gambel's quail, and curved-bill thrashers.
Morning Song Dove and Ground Feeding Wild Bird Food, $11.77, amazon.com.
Hulled Sunflower Seeds
Hulled sunflower seed, called chips or hearts, is popular with many songbirds: black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and finches. Because the birds don't need to crack them open, there is no waste left around the feeder. Unlike black-oil or striped, hulled seed is more expensive, but it may be more economical when purchased by weight.
Drs. Foster and Smith Waste-Free Fine Sunflower Chips for Wild Birds, $13.29, petco.com.
Pumpkin seed is an autumnal treat for the birds, too. It's high in healthy fats and protein, and provides other nutrients like calcium, iron, and magnesium. Birds that will sample your pumpkin seeds include rainbow lorikeets, gray catbirds, mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos and red-breasted nuthatches. Serve them fresh from the pumpkin—unsalted and unseasoned—with a little pulp, or dry them before grinding small enough to fit into your bird feeder.
Brown's Critter Cuisine with Squash & Pumpkin Seeds, $18, duncraft.com.
Suet is made with rendered animal fat and packed with grains, corn, wheat, and peanuts—birds love pecking away at these cakes for a boost of protein. Since it doesn't melt, it makes a perfect option for year-round feeding. They help attract woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. Place it in a suet cage feeder and hang at least five feet above the ground.
Pine Tree Farms Peanut Butter Suet Cake, $18.71 for 6, jcswildlife.com.
Mealworms—dried or fresh—are high in protein and fat, offering birds necessary nutrition and energy. When added to your everyday seed mix in a tray or hopper feeder, they make an enticing treat for bluebirds, cardinals, and other insect-eating birds that migrate into your yard.
Valley Splendor Dried Mealworms, $7, orschelnfarmhome.com.
Fruit and Jelly
Fruit and jelly are sweet-tasting treats among robins, waxwings, bluebirds, and mockingbirds. They rarely eat bird seed. To attract orioles, skewer halved oranges or a glass jar of jelly into a specialty feeder. Smooth grape jelly is best, but the birds will also sample orange marmalade, strawberry, or raspberry.
Perky Pet Oriole Grape Jelly, $3.49, fleetfarm.com.
Nectar is a sweet, nutritious, an energy-rich liquid produced by certain flowers—and the hummingbird thrives on it. You'll catch a fleeting glimpse of its hyper-fast wings as it takes a drink. Other birds that will visit your nectar feeder include orioles, house finches, and warblers, as well as other airborne creatures like bats and butterflies. The feeder must be washed every few days with very hot water and kept clean to prevent the growth of mold.
Ready-to-Use Hummingbird Nectar, $10, shopterrain.com.