Blog stats

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What to feed the birds

Putting out food for the birds is a very popular hobby among Americans, especially during the winter. There is a recognition that harsh winter weather can make it difficult for birds to find enough to eat, resulting in death by starvation for some birds. The difficulty in finding food is exacerbated by human development and occupation of much of the land and many humans feel a natural sense of responsibility for trying to assist the birds. And besides, feeding the birds and watching their activities at the feeders is just great fun, a sufficient reward for our efforts and sufficient reason to do it.

But what should we be feeding the birds? There are certainly plenty of different types of seed mixes to choose from, but what is best and which should be avoided?

First of all, what should be avoided are those mixes that are heavily milo or millet seed. They may be cheaper than some of the others but, if you are interested in attracting the most beautiful and interesting of the backyard birds, they are not a good choice. If you are interested in attracting House Sparrows or members of the blackbird family, then milo and millet will do very well.

I make no claim of expertise on bird nutrition, but I can tell you what I feed in my yard and I can recommend all of these foods for I know they work well and attract a wide variety of birds.

Black-oil sunflower seeds:  If I could only present one food to the birds in my yard, this would be it. It is a food that is high in fat and the other nutrients that seed-eating birds need and it is the seed that is most acceptable to the greatest number of species from woodpeckers to warblers to wrens.

Fruit and nut mix:  I used the Royal Wing brand that I get at Tractor Supply but there are other equally good brands out there. They all typically contain several types of nuts and dried fruits, as well as the big striped sunflower seeds. The mix is favored by fruit eating birds like the Northern Mockingbird and is also especially liked by Northern Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but almost all the birds that visit my feeders will stop by the tray feeder where this mix is offered and will find something there to tempt their palate.

Mixed seed cakes: I use the Birdola brand, but again there are different brands that birds will like just as well. Woodpeckers particularly like these cakes, as do wrens. One of the big ones will last about a week to ten days in my yard at this time of year.

Nyger, or thistle seed:  This is, of course, a specialty seed utilized by finches, including American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and, sometimes, House Finches. At this time of the winter when the goldfinch numbers have reached their peak, these seeds disappear very fast.

Sunflower seed hearts; I've just recently started offering this food in one of my feeders and I find that the goldfinches like it very well indeed. In fact, I would say they like it about as well as the thistle seed. The Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice are very fond of it, too.

Suet cakes: I offer these in various flavors and mixes, some with seeds imbedded, some with fruits or with insects. The birds seem to like them all. Except the one featuring green apples. For some reason, they don't care for that combination. They will leave it until last before finally eating it.

These are the foods that I routinely offer in my yard, and, of course, this winter, I've added sugar water for my little Rufous Hummingbird visitor. There are other foods which will attract birds - peanut butter or pieces of fruit, for example. Some swear by safflower seeds, although the birds in my yard tend to treat them the same way they do the suet cakes with green apples. You would do well to experiment a bit and find out what the birds in your yard prefer. After all, each bird is entitled to his/her opinion!


  1. I always keep black oil sunflower seeds out. Sadly, the non-native house sparrows like them as well! I have also begun to have problems with raccoons getting into my feeders. I also have a couple of rufous hummmers staying over the winter. Of course I am keeping sugar water out for them.

  2. I'm using Nutraseed? It is a safflower seed that does not attract the sparrows or the squirrels...Thank goodness!!

  3. It's true that the House Sparrows will take black oil sunflower seeds as well, Lorilee, although they don't seem as partial to them as to the milo/millet mixes. But if there is anything that can totally discourage a House Sparrow, I haven't found it!

    I can help you with the raccoon problem though. We live in an area with a plentiful population of raccoons and they visit our backyard nightly and used to visit my bird feeders nightly until I found this:
    This "squirrel-proof" pole from Duncraft is also raccoon-proof. The long baffle moves up and down when a varmint tries to grab it and they can't get past it. I've had my system for several years now and it has never been breached by squirrels or raccoons. One caveat: You have to be sure to place it far enough away from any tree, shrub or structure so that a critter cannot jump from it to the pole.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Rambling Wren. There are several good brands and mixes of birdseed available and yours sounds like a winner.