The Best Bird Food for Wild Birds

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What to Feed Our Winged Friends

Bird on Bird Feeder
Image by Tohoku Photogaphy via Flickr.

Going to your local garden center and choosing food for wild birds can be surprisingly overwhelming. There are seemingly endless options, and they’re all marketed as the best. What is the best food for wild birds? This can depend on what birds you’d like to attract and on seasonal temperatures and conditions. 

Best Bird Food for Wild Birds

There are three top tier seed choices for wild birds: black-oil sunflower seeds, safflower, and nyger. But this is not where the feeding options end! Millet, suet cakes, cracked corn, and fruit are also great options. Let’s take a closer look at each. 

Black-Oil Sunflower Seeds

This is the most popular seed due to its health benefits. The subtype ‘black-oil’ is chosen due to its thin shell which is easy to crack open. The seed has a high meat—to-shell ratio, a high fat content, and is a good source of protein. This makes the seed a top-pick during winter. Black-oil sunflower seeds attract most birds, especially chickadees, finches, titmice, grosbeaks, nuthatches, cardinals, jays, mourning doves, and woodpeckers. 

Tip: You can offer shelled seeds if you don’t want a mess of cracked shells under your feeder. Beware, however, that this leaves your seeds more susceptible to spoiling. The feeder will need to be cleaned and seeds replaced daily. 

A Busy Bird Feeder
Image by Shea Weinzirl via Flickr.

Safflower Seeds

Safflower seeds rank at the top of the list as far as quality goes, but it ranks high in price too. Similar to the sunflower seed, it is high in protein and fat. The benefit? The pests of the birding world such as starling and house sparrows as well as squirrels are not attracted to this seed. It is therefore recommended for dissuading undesirable species from communing at your feeder. Birds that are highly attracted to safflower seeds include grosbeaks, sparrows, doves, and particularly the northern cardinal. 

Njyger (Thistle)

Nyjer is a type of thistle seed that is specifically used to attract goldfinches. It however is also good for chickadees, mourning doves, sparrows and other small finches such as siskins and redpolls. This is another option that squirrels don’t prefer and can be placed out safely without worrying about them bothering your bird population or taking over the feeder. The seeds are rich in oil and protein which makes them a great source of energy. The feeding of most seeds can be cut back in the summertime, but continuing to provide nyjer for goldfinches is not only acceptable, but advised. 

Wild Bird Seed Filler: Milo and Oats

Have you ever noticed the birds at your feeder throwing seeds away? There are a few reasons they do this, but the most common reason is they are trying to get to the good stuff! Birds have their preferences and will push away the mediocre to get to the seeds or other foods they want. 

Picky Bird Eating Bird Seed
Image by Peter Steeper via Flickr.

There are some seeds and food products that are included in many wild bird seed mixes that next to no birds actually prefer. These are cheap, low-quality ingredients and are considered fillers. Common fillers include milo oats, and red millet. Birds will eat these fillers only when no better option is available. Milo in particular may attract aggressive birds such as cowbirds, starlings, and grackles. 

Wild Bird Food: Seedless

We often put bird foods in our feeders that are not technically seeds but are still loved by our winged friends. Here are a few high-quality examples. 

Suet Cakes

Suet cakes are best served in the winter. This is a high energy food that is greatly valuable in cold temps yet potentially harmful in the warmer months. They are often made from animal fat which provides a great source of energy when it is needed in the winter, but can pack on too many pounds when wild food is plentiful as well as spoil quickly in the summer heat. Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, creepers, kinglets, cardinals, and other insect-eating birds are all highly attracted to suet cakes. Note that starlings and other aggressive birds are highly attracted to this food too. 

Tip: Many commercial suet cakes are low-quality, made with mostly filler. The solution? Make your own! Not so crafty? You can buy straight suet at the butcher generally, but beware, it is pricy.

Bird Eating Bird Suet
Image by Richard Vaillancourt via Flickr.

Peanuts

Peanuts are a great warm-weather alternative to suet cakes. You can even grind the peanuts and mix with cornmeal to make a moldable cake. Titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, jays, and many sparrows are attracted to peanuts. You can offer them shelled or whole in a specially designed feeder. These are typically cylindrical and feature a wire mesh cage in which the birds must retrieve the treats from. 

White Millet

While red millet is considered a filler, white millet has valuable nutritional properties and is well-liked by many birds, especially ground feeding birds. Doves, juncos, and sparrows are the top fans, alongside non-native invasive species such as European starlings and house sparrows. White millet is rich in carbs and provides birds with energy. A subtype, proso millet, is also a fan favorite as it is easy to digest. 

Cracked Corn

Blackbirds love cracked corn. It is popular with many large bird varieties such as jays, pigeons, doves, turkeys, pheasants, and quail. Some smaller birds will join in, so long as it is cracked and not whole kernels, such as finches and sparrows. Beware, cracked corn will also attract mammals such as raccoons, opossums, and rodents. 

Fruit

There are many birds which prefer fruit to seed. Fruit attracts birds such as robins, thrushes, waxwings, and bluebirds as seeds are not a major part of their diet. In addition to fresh fruit, you can serve organic raisins or currants softened by soaking in water. 

Supplementing Wild Birds: Nutrition and More

Bird Eating Fruit
Image by Wesley Barr via Flickr.

You can do more for birds than just provide seeds and food items. For instance, adding clean water to your backyard refuge can be helpful to wild birds, as can planting seed-heavy plants which additionally attract desirable insects. Examples are winterberry, coneflowers, goldenrod, sunflowers, black eyed susan, and zinnias. 

You can also provide mealworms (a great source of protein, especially during breeding seasons) and baked eggshells (eggshells return calcium to birds lost during egg production but must be baked or boiled to remove salmonella and other bacteria). 

Lastly, a non-nutrition related way to assist the wild bird population in your backyard is to offer nesting materials in the springtime such as twigs and organic cotton. 

What Not to Feed Wild Birds

Below is a list of items not to feed wild birds. This is not comprehensive. Please always double check safety before feeding wild birds a new food. 

Harmful foods for wild birds include:

  • Bread
  • Chocolate
  • Avocado
  • Alliums (onion, garlic, etc)
  • Dehydrated coconut
  • Cooking fats
  • Beans
  • Salt
  • Dairy
  • Mushrooms
  • Fruit seeds or pits
  • Table scraps
  • Moldy or spoiled food
  • Food coloring

What You Need to Know About Feeding Wild Birds

Here are some tips and considerations regarding feeding foods for wild birds.

Chickadee on a Bird Feeder
Image by Gshappell via Flickr.

What to Do:

  • Your food source must be consistent and reliable, especially during winter as the birds come to depend upon this feed and may have even adjusted their migration route and taught their young about your garden. 
  • Feeding is most helpful in extreme conditions when birds need the most energy, especially in late winter and early spring when natural resources are depleted. Seeds can be fed in summertime but should be limited and aren’t necessarily needed. The exception to this is the nyger seed for goldfinches and nectar for hummingbirds.
  • Keep seeds clean and dry. Humidity in the summer can be a great danger as moisture on seeds leads to mold and other harmful bacteria. Refresh seeds and clean the feeder often. Be sure to also sweep up feed from under the feeders. 
  • Many bird seed varieties come mixed. This excludes certain birds who aren’t attracted to fillers such as millet. To attract a wide variety of wild birds, try sprinkling the mix on the ground or a platform and hanging bird feeders with sunflower and/or safflower seeds in the trees. 
  • Making squash or pumpkin? Feed your seeds to the birds. Just make sure it’s organic. Let them fully dry first, then run them through a food processor if desired to make them more accessible to smaller birds.
  • When buying seeds, ensure they are high quality, free of debris and dust, fresh, clean, and dry. Ensure there are no seed coatings! These contain neurotoxic neonics. One seed can be enough to kill a songbird. 
  • Keep cats indoors.

What Not to Do:

  • Don’t feed when it can cause harm, for example during avian flu or conjunctivitis outbreaks. If the birds at your feeder look sick, temporarily remove your feeder and clean well before putting back out.
  • Don’t feed aggressive or endangered birds as it impacts their behavior. You can learn more about this from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. FWS also asks that you consider the three major hardships of feeding wild birds: disease, predation, and collision. Keep your feeder clean to prevent disease, ensure there are no recurring predators, and prevent collision with windows by placing your feeder within three feet of the window or fifteen to thirty feet away. You may also choose to put up window decals or screening to prevent fatal collisions. 
  • Don’t use any type of oil to deter insects around feeders as this can contaminate the bird feed, and in particular nectar, and ruin the birds’ insulative properties. Move the feeder if needed.

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