Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Choose Your Bird Seed Wisely
October 11, 2014
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. I, therefore, should review, again, the basics of bird seed and the birds that eat it.
I am reminded of the story I have shared with you before about 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 I had never seen before. 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. 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 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.
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, flax and canary seed. 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 sunflower.
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, nuthatches and other birds.
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 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 such as that couple experienced. 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. Choose your bird seed wisely-the birds do!
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