Can Birds Eat Popcorn? A Guide to Feeding Your Feathered Friends

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Sometimes it may seem like the birds in your backyard would eat anything you put out for them, but there are certain things that the birds shouldn’t eat. 

You may already know that birds can’t eat chocolate or candy or that too much bread can cause problems for birds. A popcorn snack might seem innocent enough, and in small amounts, it’s not likely to cause serious harm, but it’s generally best to avoid sharing your popcorn with the birds.

Popcorn isn’t the most unhealthy food for birds when properly prepared, but it’s not the best. Unsalted, unbuttered popcorn likely won’t cause many problems for birds, but it doesn’t provide them with the nutrition they need.

Can I Feed Popcorn to Birds?

It’s not the worst food you can give to birds. It’s not toxic like chocolate or honey; a small amount probably won’t cause significant problems. However, it’s best to avoid feeding popcorn to birds in large quantities.

Never give birds salted, cheese-covered, buttered, or caramel popcorn. Human-safe levels of salt are unhealthy for birds, and sticky buttered or caramel-covered popcorn is unnatural and full of additives that don’t belong in a bird’s diet.

Most microwave popcorn brands are not suitable for birds. It contains oils, salt, food flavoring, and coloring that isn’t natural for birds. 

Unflavored, air-popped plain popcorn without additional ingredients will likely interest the birds in your backyard. They’ll probably gobble it up, no questions asked.

However, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, human food items like unsalted popcorn and bread provide little nutritional value to birds and can make them sick.

A diet high in carbohydrates like bread and popcorn can lead to starvation and deformities. Birds may feel full on a stomach full of carbohydrates, but they’re likely not getting the essential nutrients they need to survive. Humans understand that we need certain nutrients to survive, but it’s not always apparent to birds. And they’re not the only wildlife that experiences this. 

Deer can starve to death with a stomach full of hay because they cannot digest it properly, according to wildlife specialists like retired Montana State Extension Specialist Jim Knight. Well-meaning wildlife watchers put out food like hay to help deer survive the winter, but it can do more harm than good.

Waterfowl such as geese, ducks, and swans that consume a diet high in carbohydrates can also develop a condition called angel wing. This occurs when young birds eat large amounts of food and grow faster than their wing bones can develop. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, it causes the bird’s wings to grow twisted and leaves the birds flightless, lowering their life expectancy dramatically.

Even if the birds at the park approach you begging for a handful of your food, try and resist the urge to feed them.

What Should I Feed Birds Instead?

Can Birds Eat Popcorn

Birds thrive on a diet of natural food. The variety of food you put out will depend on the birds you want to attract and feed.

A mixture of seeds like sunflower, safflower, millet, and thistle is a safe treat for many birds. You really can’t go wrong with a balanced seed mix, whether it’s one you purchase from a store or mix up yourself.

Sunflower seeds can be messy, as birds will crack them open and eat the seeds, leaving shells all over the place, but birds love them. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, safflower is a favorite of birds like cardinals, grosbeaks, chickadees, and sparrows.

Finches like thistle and sparrows, doves, and cardinals are fans of millet. If you don’t mind seed on the ground, the Cornell Lab recommends spreading some millet under your feeders if you have birds like quails in your area.

Some seed mixes may also attract squirrels and chipmunks, but there are ways of deterring squirrels while feeding backyard birds.

Some birds also like fruit. Orioles and some woodpeckers love oranges, while other birds may enjoy dried fruits like raisins, and unsalted peanuts attract birds like jays. Before you put out bird food, be sure to research what foods will attract your desired birds.

What About Popcorn Balls?

Some people like to make popcorn and seed balls as a snack for birds to pick through. If you plan to do this, you must use natural ingredients and a high concentration of fruits and seeds that birds can eat.

Keep your concentration of popcorn low and your seed concentration high. If possible, just cut out the popcorn. You’ll still find birds happy to make a pit stop at your feeder even without popcorn.

Do not use honey or chocolate in your treat. Chocolate and honey can be toxic for birds and should not be used in any circumstances. If you decide you want to make seed balls for your feathered friends and need to figure out how the balls will stick together, don’t use a sticky spray or butter.

Birds enjoy suet in small concentrations, and natural nut butter is acceptable for a bird’s proper diet and can give your delicious snack its shape without risking the birds’ health.

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Jacob Swanson

Jacob Swanson is a writer and wildlife photographer born and raised in Wisconsin and currently based in Salt Lake City. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his work has appeared in over a dozen different web and print outlets. In his free time, he’s on a personal quest to visit every U.S. national park and see as many wildlife species as possible. His favorite birds are whooping and sandhill cranes.