Birdseed is the most popular type of food to offer backyard birds, but there are many types of birdseed and not all of them appeal to all birds. Understanding how to choose the best birdseed can help you offer the most desirable foods to your local birds, which can attract even more species to your feeders.
Choosing Seed With the Birds in Mind
One bird-feeding mistake a novice birder might make is choosing birdseed for birds they hope to attract, not the birds already in their yard. Birds are gregarious, social creatures, and they will readily investigate any area of feeding activity. If you only have a few birds already in your yard, it is best to choose seed for those species first. As those initial birds get more active feeding in your yard, other species will join in to see what offerings are at the buffet. Then you can add new types of birdseed and new feeders, gradually building up to a full-service birdseed restaurant.
Different birds have different birdseed preferences depending on their bill shape and nutritional needs. The most popular seeds and the birds that prefer them include:
- Sunflower Seeds: All types of sunflower seeds are excellent for backyard birds, and this seed is the best choice for beginning bird feeding in a variety of feeder styles. Black oil sunflower seeds are the most common and are great for most songbirds, while the larger striped sunflower seeds are suitable for larger birds with stronger bills. Hulled sunflower kernels and chips are also popular with smaller birds because they are easier to eat, though they can be more expensive. Preferred by: Chickadees, house finches, titmice, jays, grosbeaks, cardinals, sparrows, nuthatches, woodpeckers, doves, goldfinches
- Nyjer: Small, thin Nyjer seeds are one of the most popular types of birdseed for small clinging finches. These seeds are exceptionally high in oil, making them great for winter bird feeding. Because of their small size, however, Nyjer seeds can be light and easily spilled or blown away. Mesh-style or sock feeders are best for this expensive seed, and clinging birds will have no trouble feeding from these unique feeders. Preferred by: Goldfinches, purple finches, redpolls, pine siskins, quail
- Millet: These small white seeds are a common component of birdseed mixes and can be purchased separately for individual feeding if desired. This seed is useful in hopper and tube feeders, as well as for sprinkling on the ground or in tray or platform feeders. Preferred by: Doves, sparrows, juncos, quail, buntings, wild turkeys
- Safflower Seed: A large, oval seed with a white shell that looks like a plain white sunflower seed, safflower seed has a thick shell and the birds that prefer it need sturdy bills to crack the seeds. This is a popular seed choice in yards where squirrels often raid feeders, because squirrels do not favor this bitter-tasting seed as readily. It is easy to offer in any feeder type that can accommodate sunflower seeds, such as hopper, tube, or platform feeders. Preferred by: Cardinals, nuthatches, jays, grosbeaks, house finches
- Cracked Corn: Cracked corn is a less expensive seed often used as filler in birdseed mixes, but its high carbohydrate content makes it suitable for a number of birds, particularly for ground-feeding birds that may have larger appetites. Birds that often feed on grain or are common in agricultural areas may favor cracked corn. This seed can be offered in hopper or tray feeders, or sprinkled directly on the ground for easy access. Preferred by: Sparrows, jays, towhees, grouse, quail, doves, blackbirds, grackles, ducks, wild turkeys
- Milo: These BB-sized red seeds are not the best choice for most backyard birds, and they are often added to cheap birdseed mixes as a filler. While many birds will simply discard milo seed, it can still be useful for many ground-feeding species with hearty appetites. When these birds visit feeders, offering milo can be a fine way to help save money on birdseed. Because of the seed's medium size, it can be offered in trays, platforms, hoppers, or tube feeders, as well as sprinkled on the ground. Preferred by: Doves, ducks, quail, wild turkeys, grouse
How to Choose Quality Birdseed
While birds are not typically picky about the food they eat, higher-quality seed will attract more species and will provide better nutrition for healthy flocks. To ensure the seed you buy is a good value and superior quality, look for:
- Mix Proportions: If choosing a blend of different seeds, opt for one with a higher proportion of better seeds such as sunflower or millet. Lower quality, less popular mixes often have more fillers like milo and cracked corn, as well as wheat, oats, or other grains birds don't eat as readily.
- Freshness: Fresh seed will not have excessive dust, empty hulls, or inedible debris in the mix. Also investigate the seed for any sign of mold, mildew, or insect infestation, such as clumps, webbing, moths, worms, or feces.
- Quantity: Larger quantities of birdseed are often a better value at a bulk price. Only purchase seed you can feed to birds before it is stale or spoiled, however, to avoid wasting money on seed that won't be used.
- Packaging: Better quality birdseed is often packaged in sturdy plastic or coated paper bags, possibly with easy-to-open tabs or handles for carrying. Look especially for clear packaging that allows inspection of the product before purchase. In some places, you may be able to purchase seed from open bulk containers, allowing close inspection of the seed and letting you get just the quantity you need.
- Ingredients: Check the ingredient list on every package of birdseed to ensure it has not been treated with pesticides or insecticides that can be toxic to birds. The list may also name the proportions of seeds used in different blends.
- Price: Higher prices do not necessarily mean higher quality seed. Sales are a great way to stock up on a supply of birdseed, and bulk purchases almost always are a better value than smaller packages.
The most important thing to remember when choosing birdseed is that not all birds enjoy seed. Adding other types of bird foods such as suet, fruit, nectar, and nuts to your backyard buffet is the best way to attract birds. Many types of birds will sample seeds, and creating feeding stations that offer a range of the best birdseed and other foods is the most effective way to attract birds to your feeders.
Which Bird Seeds are Best? The National Wildlife Federation.
Tassin de Montaigu, C. and Goulson, D. Identifying agricultural pesticides that may pose a risk for birds. PeerJ, vol. 8, 2020. doi:10.7717/peerj.9526