You walk into your local farm and garden store to pick up a bag of bird food, and the options are endless. From seed mixes of sunflower, safflower, and millet to mealworms, the list goes on and on. Knowing what type of feed is best for the birds in your yard can be difficult.
For people accustomed to buying bird mix and wanting to start making their own, it’s hard to find a starting point. Wherever you are in your bird-feeding journey, here’s a quick guide.
Should You Buy a Mix or Make Your Own?
Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you want to buy bird seed or mix your own. Preparing mixed seeds can be time-consuming, but it could save you money in some cases and develop the perfect mix of seeds for the birds in your yard without wasting money on extra seeds that the bird species in your yard don’t like.
Many packaged bird seed bags contain a mix of ingredients to attract a variety of birds, but they often also have filler ingredients that don’t interest most birds.
Whether you’re buying seed or mixing it on your own, here’s what attracts common backyard birds.
Do Price and Quality Matter?
As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Cheap bird seed can effectively provide wild birds with quality nutrition all year, but check the list of ingredients before purchasing.
Many inexpensive bird seed mixtures (and some expensive ones) include filler ingredients that birds don’t care for. While they look good and won’t harm birds, they probably won’t cause birds to flock to your feeders, and likely won’t be eaten.
For example, many bird seeds contain foods like milo or oats, which aren’t very interesting to most birds in American bird watchers’ backyards. Many birds will likely pick through the seed for more desirable ingredients, meaning that while you are buying a lot of seed, you’ll be stuck filling up your feeders more often to restock the birds’ favorites.
A bird seed mix that skips the filler ingredients in favor of high-quality seeds will provide more bang for your buck. Here’s a quick breakdown of which popular seeds birds like and which ones they don’t.
If you just want to feed birds and don’t care which ones, sunflower seed is a pretty safe bet. From larger birds like cardinals, grosbeaks, and blue jays down to smaller finches, nuthatches, and chickadees, many birds eat sunflower seeds, even some woodpeckers.
There are two kinds of sunflower seeds that you can put out for birds: black oil sunflower and striped sunflower. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, black oil sunflower seeds are more common and have thin shells that most birds can crack open. In contrast, striped seeds have a thicker shell that’s difficult for certain birds, including blackbirds and sparrows, to break open.
Either type of sunflower seed is fine, but if you want to avoid feeding birds such as sparrows and blackbirds, try striped sunflower seeds. It might be a little more expensive, but if you can prevent large quantities of seed from going to birds you don’t want to see, it may be worth the cost.
Whatever you do, don’t place in-shell sunflower seeds meant for humans. The kind of sunflower seeds you chew at a baseball game is high in unnatural salt concentrations that can be unhealthy for birds.
Also, sunflower seeds can be messy. Birds crack the shells to get to the inner morsels, and you may end up with shells all over the ground. This can attract squirrels and other pests and leave you cleaning up after your feathered guests.
Hulled sunflower seeds are an option to solve the mess problem, but they are usually more expensive, and they can quickly go bad in the hot sun if not consumed, so be aware of that before making the switch.
Some sunflower seed mixes include thistle (or Nyjer seeds), a favorite of finches, including goldfinches. You can buy finch-specific food, which will be high in thistle, at your local bird seed supplier. A finch-specific feeder that allows the birds to pick out thistle will be a hot commodity and can keep finches coming back to your house throughout the year.
Even in northern climates, some finches may stay for the entire year. A feeder full of finches at a time when other birds have departed for southern climates can make your dull winter season a little bit more enjoyable.
Like sunflower seeds, safflower is a popular bird seed ingredient with a hard shell. Some people say that less desirable wildlife, such as European starlings and squirrels, often don’t care for safflower seed. Still, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they have started eating it in some locations.
If your backyard is full of starlings and squirrels that you’re not interested in feeding, safflower may be worth a try, but there’s no guarantee that it will work as intended. The good news is that even if the starlings and squirrels still like it, so do birds like grosbeaks, sparrows, and cardinals.
Birds that feed on the ground are typically the biggest fans of millet. If you have larger birds like grouse or quail near you, you may catch a glimpse of them under your feeder. Doves also like millet.
Birds prefer white proso millet, but you may find golden or red millet as filler seeds in your pre-packaged mixes. Feel free to skip these ingredients if you’re mixing your own seed, as they aren’t likely to be popular with your target audience.
You can find white millet for sale separately online, but it’s also included in ready-made mixes. Some birds won’t really care for it, but if you’re looking to feed a wide array of birds, the white proso millet that the average bird passes up may be a favorite for another.
Some birds like cracked and shelled corn, including sparrows, jays, and ground-feeding birds. If you plan to put out corn in your backyard, that comes with a few warnings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
- Kernel corn should be offered only in moderation on tray feeders. Tube feeders can lead to excess moisture and spoiled food. Moisture is no good, so don’t put out corn from plastic bags or any corn that gets moist quickly.
- Buttered or microwave popcorn should never be offered to birds, as it spoils quickly. Additionally, popcorn doesn’t offer much nutritional value to birds.
- Never put out red-dyed corn for birds, as it can resemble corn intended for planting that can be highly toxic to birds.
- Corn attracts unwanted guests, including raccoons, bears, geese, starlings, and cowbirds.
Flax, wheat, oats, rapeseed
These ingredients are often used as filler ingredients in packaged bird seeds. Save your money and don’t include them if you’re making your own blend, as there are far better seeds out there that birds will prefer.
What Kind of Non-Bird Seed Foods Do Birds Eat?
You’re not just limited to seed-based bird foods. Here’s a quick rundown of some non-seed foods that certain birds will love.
Suet, or beef fat, is often used to lure in woodpeckers. Though you’ll likely see woodpeckers most often at your suet feeder, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, and other birds may also visit. It’s a high-energy food to help birds through the winter.
Some people suggest saving suet for the winter and skipping it in the summer months, as it can go rancid quickly, leading to messy feeders and bird diseases. Suet cakes are often filled with seeds and can be purchased inexpensively at a store or made yourself, though that takes a bit more energy and time.
If you have access to beef fat, you can melt it down and mix it with a high concentration of seeds, then wait for it to solidify into a cake form. Here’s a quick guide to suet for birds.
Blue jays love peanuts. They’re not the only ones, but a feeder full of peanuts will keep blue jays coming back all day.
Some birdwatchers will put out a feeder specifically for peanuts as a treat for birds. These feeders come in the shape of a nylon sack with holes just large enough for blue jays to pull out the peanuts. It’s a spectacle to watch as they swoop down to the feeder, grab a peanut, and swoop back up into the trees, only to return minutes later.
Put out unsalted peanuts. Like human sunflower seeds, peanuts intended for humans include levels of salt that aren’t natural for birds.
You can buy dried or live mealworms, the larva of mealworm beetles. Bluebirds are a favorite of many birdwatchers and are known to enjoy mealworms. Once bug-eating birds find out that you have mealworms on offer, expect them to start visiting regularly.
Dried mealworms may not drum up the same enthusiasm from your backyard bluebirds, but they are inexpensive and less messy than live bugs.
Oranges and other fruit
As you may know, orioles love oranges, and woodpeckers may also like them. If you want to feed oranges to orioles, cut them in half to expose the juicy inner sections and put the open side face up. You can offer them on a feeder meant for oranges, or by placing oranges open side up on your regular bird feeder or a fence post.
Orioles are also known to eat grape jelly. Put jelly in a transparent dish that birds can easily access. Putting jelly near your other feeders is likely to draw birds’ attention, but spacing out feeders by at least a few feet is vital to reduce messes and the spread of disease. To provide the healthiest options for your backyard birds, buy jelly free of preservatives and artificial flavoring.
Some birds, including robins, orioles, and bluebirds, may like small dried fruits like raisins. You can also try fresh fruit like apples and berries, which will attract some birds, but feeding large amounts of fruit to a backyard full of birds with high metabolisms can get expensive quickly.
If you put oranges, jelly, or other fruit out for birds, wash your feeders more regularly, as oranges can be sticky, leading to disease and sticky wings for your feathered friends.
Nectar for hummingbirds
Depending on your location, you may have hummingbirds present in your area for part (or all) of the year. Hummingbirds get most of their nutrition from nectar-rich plants, but many bird enthusiasts supplement the food from their flower gardens with hummingbird feeders.
You can either buy a hummingbird nectar mix or make your own. To make nectar, mix one-part sugar with four parts water. If you are buying your own, some people suggest buying undyed hummingbird food. There isn’t indisputable scientific evidence that dye harms hummingbirds, but some people believe it can lead to health issues.
Regardless of what hummingbird food you choose, clean your bird feeders often. Like oranges, sugar water is sticky and can be messy. Additionally, sugar water can spoil quickly in the summer heat, so if hummingbirds don’t drink your nectar within a few days, switch it out for a fresh batch.
What About Processed Leftover Human Foods?
Birds generally shouldn’t eat most processed human foods. Bread and bakery items might pique the birds’ interest, but they’re not good for them. A diet high in carbohydrates and low in nutritional value (like bread) can lead to deformities like angel wings and starvation, even on a full stomach.
Some human foods like chocolate and honey should never be fed to birds, as they can be toxic and quickly lead to illness or death. Before feeding birds any human food, research whether it’s healthy for birds.
How Can You Save Money Feeding Birds?
Feeding birds can be expensive. Buying in bulk, while it leads to a greater upfront cost, can save you money in the long run, but that may not be realistic for everyone.
You can save on bird food by only putting out seeds intermittently. While it doesn’t provide around-the-clock food for backyard wildlife, birds aren’t likely to forget about your feeders if you provide consistent food when you can watch them.
Put out seed first thing in the morning or just before sunset to enjoy the birds with your morning cup of coffee or before bed. The birds will get into a routine and visit your feeders when they know their favorite food will be present.
You can also buy one specific seed to attract your favorite birds and skip other types of food. For example, if you only want to feed a pair of bluebirds you know live in your backyard, you can buy mealworms and stick to them. Many birds won’t care for them, but you can still enjoy those bluebirds at your feeder while saving a few bucks.
You can apply the same logic to any specific bird. Find out what that bird likes and target those species of birds with your seed offerings.
Is There Anything Else You Need to Know?
This is not an all-inclusive list of everything that birds can and will eat. If you have a question about any specific food, research whether it will attract any birds – and whether it’s healthy for them – before putting it out.
Feeding backyard birds can be a trial and error process. If you’re unsure which bird seed will work for you, or you’ve been putting out a particular type of bird seed that hasn’t worked, it might be time to switch things up. You could have types of birds in your area that you never knew about. Trying something new can be a fun way to see new birds and increase the number of birds at your feeders.