Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Fresh Quality Seed Attracts More Birds
October 06, 2023
By Steve Grinley
As we move into the fall and winter bird feeding season, people are placing their bulk seed orders or they are at least planning their menu on what to serve the birds this year. I, therefore, should review, again, the basics of bird seed and the birds that eat it:
Sunflower is the seed that is favored by most backyard birds. Cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, nuthatches, finches, blue jays, grosbeaks and even woodpeckers like sunflower. Black-oiled sunflower is the small, black seed with a thin shell that most birds can easily open and therefore attracts a large variety of birds. It has a higher fat content than the larger striped sunflower, which makes it a popular choice for winter bird feeding. Striped sunflower has a thicker shell and is easily eaten by birds with heavy bills such as cardinals, grosbeaks and blue jays. But even the small chickadees and titmice open the seed by holding it between their feet to chisel it open. Finches, however, have a harder time opening the striped sunflower.
One way to avoid the mess of shells under feeders is to offer sunflower hearts, which is just the meat of the seed. They are more expensive, but there is no waste. This makes sunflower hearts more convenient when feeding on patios or over sensitive grass areas. Birds certainly prefer hulled sunflower as it requires no effort on their part. There is also a less expensive sunflower blend, sometimes called “Meatties”, which consists of about 70% sunflower hearts and 30% black-oiled sunflower. It provides less mess at a more economical price.
Safflower is a specialty seed that, when served alone or mixed with sunflower, cardinals savor. Squirrels, pigeons and grackles reportedly don’t like safflower as well. In the absence of sunflower, other birds such as house finches, chickadees, titmice and mourning doves also eat safflower. In recent years, Nutrasaff, or Golden Safflower has emerged as a safflower that has no shell, a higher fat content and is enjoyed by more birds. It, too, discourages squirrels and grackles.
Thistle or Nyger seed is a favorite of goldfinches, house finches and, in winter, pine siskins and redpolls. Nyger is a small black seed that, unless mixed with other seed, is very light and will blow right out of a regular sunflower or mixed seed feeder. It needs its own feeder with tiny holes through which the finches pull the seed. There is also a wild finch mix available that contains Nyger seed as well as fine sunflower. This mix will fit through the small holes of a thistle feeder. Squirrels don’t usually bother with Nyger but they may be more attracted to a wild finch mix so a baffle would be recommended to deter them.
Shelled peanuts, popular in England for years, are becoming more popular here in the states. Placed in a separate mesh feeder, whole or split shelled peanuts attract woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees and nuthatches.
White millet and cracked corn attract ground feeding birds such as sparrows, juncos, mourning doves and blackbirds such as crows, redwings, grackles, and cowbirds. A coarse cracked corn or scratch mix may also attract pheasants and wild turkeys.
Many people use a seed mix to attract a variety of birds to a feeder. The better mixed seed blends are high in sunflower and may contain sunflower hearts, peanut hearts, safflower and lower amounts of millet and/or cracked corn. Beware of the low cost grocery or discount store blends. You don’t know how long that seed has been sitting in warehouses. Generic brands add a lot of filler seed that you pay for twice: once at the counter and again when you have to sweep it up from under your feeders after the birds have discarded it. Most birds don’t eat milo, red millet and other filler seeds added to these mixes to increase the weight, so do read the ingredients label. Also avoid any mixes with red seeds showing through their clear packaging. These are to attract you, the buyer – not the birds.
Paying a little more for a good seed mixture saves you, and the birds, in the long run.