Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birds Prefer Fresh, Quality Bird Seed
September 23, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     As we move into the fall and winter bird feeding season, folks are placing their bulk seed orders or they are at least planning their menu on what to serve the birds this year. Therefore, I should again review the various bird seeds and the birds that eat them:

     I start with the story of a young couple that came into the store with a twenty pound bag of bird seed that they were given as a house warming gift. It was a brand that wasn’t familiar to me. They said that they had put it in their feeders and the birds just don’t eat it. The birds come, pick at it, and most ends up on the ground. But it was not even being eaten on the ground, so they have had to sweep it up from under the feeders. They asked for my advice.

     When I opened the bag, I could see that the mixture was made up mostly of red millet and milo, a little cracked corn and a few (very few) sunflower seeds. I explained to the couple that there was very little sunflower in the mix and sunflower is what most birds prefer. Red millet and milo tend to be ignored by birds and the corn might be eaten by a few blackbirds or other ground feeders. It was a sorry indicator, though, if this seed wasn’t even being eaten on the ground. The bag had a slogan on it: “Birds Like It Better.” It just didn’t say better than what!

     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. T hey 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 less effort on their part. There is also a less expensive sunflower blend, commercial known as “Meaties”, which consists of about 80% sunflower hearts and 20% 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. Golden safflower or Nutrasaff is a shell-less safflower that is relatively new on the market but, reportly, more birds enjoy it while it still 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 chips which finches rally love. This mix will fit through the small holes of a thistle feeder. Squirrels don’t usually bother with Nyger seed but they may be more attracted to a wild finch mix as that also contains the sunflower.

     Shelled peanuts, popular in the United Kingdom for years, are becoming more popular here in the states. Placed in a separate mesh feeder, 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 may also attract pheasants and wild turkeys.

     Many people use a seed mix to attract a variety of birds to a feeder. The better 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 such as that couple experienced. First, you don’t know how long that seed has been sitting in a warehouse. Also, generic brands add a lot of filler seed to increase weight. Therefore 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. 

     Avoid any mixes with red seeds showing through their clear packaging. These are to attract you, the buyer – not the birds. A better, fresher quality seed mixture saves you in the long run, and the birds will benefit more as well.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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