Seed Choice: What Do Backyard Birds Eat?

Last Updated on May 28, 2023 by Nancie

White Breasted Nuthatch Eating Sunflower Chips
White-Breasted Nuthatch

To choose birdseed for your bird feeders, first decide which birds you want to attract. Then offer seed they like to get more birds to your feeders! In this post I share the seed and other food I put in my feeders, followed by a list of which birds eats which seed and other food.

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Why Choosing The Right Birdseed Is Important

When you first start feeding birds, you might think you can just buy any birdseed mix, plop it in whatever feeder you like and a wide variety of birds will quickly come flocking. The seed bag probably has a list of all the birds that will eat the food, so all of them should show up at your feeder, right?

Well, they might if you are lucky. But it is also very possible you will wind up with a mob of birds you don’t like dominating the feeder picking through the mix. The seed they don’t like dropped on the ground goes to waste. Putting the right feeder in the right location is important, but the seed you choose to put into that feeder is important too.

Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Black Oil Sunflower Seed

Seed I Avoid in My Feeders

Seed Mixes: I offer several types of seed in separate feeders rather than purchased seed mixes. This lets me put the right types of seed in the right types of feeders for the birds I want to attract. Spreading out seed choices also reduces some (but not all) conflict and competition at feeders. And I feel there is less waste. (Note: My post on How to Buy Birdseed: FAQs includes what to look for if you do want to purchase a mix.)

Sunflower in Shell:  Lots of birds like black oil sunflower seed in the shell. But I don’t use it (or thicker-shell striped sunflower) in my feeders because the shells make a mess and it kills the grass. For me, shelled sunflower hearts/chips are a better option. 

Corn: I also don’t put out corn because it tends to especially appeal to nuisance birds that bug me like Common Grackles, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and European Starlings.

Seed I Sometimes Choose For My Feeders

Nutra-Saff: Nutra-Saff (aka “Golden Safflower”) is a higher nutrition thinner-shell version of safflower developed by scientists. I’ve tried it twice. The first time, the local birds didn’t seem particularly interested in it and took forever to eat it. I tried it again last spring as an experiment to see if it would solve a couple of bird feeding problems. It went over a little better with some birds but still was not a rousing success and so is not something I regularly offer. (I usually get a small bag when I’m trying to get grackles to move on from a particular feeder.) You can read about it here: Trying Nutra-Saff (Golden Safflower) Again.

Safflower Seed
Safflower Seed

Best Foods For Backyard Birds: Seed I Choose For My Feeders

(A detailed list of which birds eats which seed/food follows.)

  • Sunflower Hearts (aka “chips“)
  • Safflower
  • White Proso Millet (winter only)
  • Nyjer
  • Peanuts (whole raw peanuts in shell and peanut splits)
  • Suet (commercial cakes)
  • Dried Mealworms
  • Sugar Water (warm months)
  • Water (in birdbaths year round)
  • Natives Plants: Our yard also includes native plants that support native caterpillars and other insects that our native birds eat. Pines and oaks seem to be particular favorites as well as grape vine and berries. We are working on expanding our native bushes, planting viburnum, inkberry, chokeberry and holly varieties native to our area. We also don’t use pesticides. Our yard also has a good deal of dead wood that supports insects and makes woodpeckers in particular happy.

Which Birds Eat Which Seed / Food?

Notes: Feeder type can impact what birds eat. If a bird can’t or won’t use a particular feeder that I use for a seed, I won’t see it eating that seed. This doesn’t mean that they won’t otherwise eat it. Less dominant birds may also choose less popular seed to avoid competition with more dominant species. This list doesn’t include birds that don’t eat from feeders (including American Robins and various other thrushes, warblers and flycatchers.)

What Squirrels Will Eat: In my yard, squirrels will eat any of the foods I offer, if they can get to them, except nyjer seed and sugar water. (Although one squirrel likes to drink water from the hummingbird sugar water feeder’s ant moat.) Yes, squirrels eat safflower readily and will even eat dried mealworms! I keep my feeders well-baffled and mostly on poles to keep squirrels out of them, but they eat fallen seed under the feeders. (You might also like my post on A Seed Squirrels Won’t Eat?)

Codes on the List Below (F) indicates one of that bird’s favorite foods. (G) indicates a food they seem to eat grudgingly when they are hungry and can’t get more preferred food.

Sunflower Hearts are a Favorite Birdseed Choice
Sunflower Hearts are Eaten By Many Birds

Many Birds Eat Sunflower Seed Hearts / Chips

Which birds eat sunflower? In my yard, sunflower chips are probably the seed most widely loved and eaten. Most birds that come to my backyard feeders will gladly eat it and many will choose this seed over other seeds. Note: The hulled sunflower seed I use is whole “hearts” or “coarse chips.” You may also find “medium chips” or “fine chips” which are cut into smaller pieces.

Offered in: Two Squirrel Buster Plus Feeders (most of the time), a Squirrel Buster Classic Feeder (most of the time) and four Woodlink cage-type feeders. These feeders’ designs limit which birds can eat from them.

Note: When the big mixed late winter flocks are a problem, I sometimes swap out the sunflower hearts in the open tube type feeders for safflower but it is always available in the cage feeders.

(F): Most species on this list would probably consider sunflower chips to be one of their favorite feeder foods.

  • House Finch
  • Purple Finch
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Sparrow
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • Red-Breasted Nuthatch
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Carolina Wren 
  • Downy Woodpecker 
  • Red-Bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-Winged Blackbird 
  • Pine Warbler
  • Common Grackle
  • European Starling 
  • Brown-Headed Cowbird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Eastern Bluebird 
  • Dark-Eyed Junco
  • Pine Siskin
  • Rose-Breasted Grosbeak
  • Baltimore Oriole (winter feeder only)
  • Brown Creeper (seen once eating sunflower chips on snowy ground)
Safflower Seed
Safflower Seed: A Favorite Seed Choice of Cardinals

Quite a Few Birds Eat Safflower Seed Too

Ask Northern Cardinals in my yard to pick their favorite seed and they would say safflower. They usually choose this seed over sunflower. Please note that for many birds, including cardinals who have never encountered it, safflower is an acquired taste. But once they get used to it, they will often eat it faithfully.

Offered in: Two hanging platform feeders, two pole-mounted platform feeders, sometimes one to two Squirrel Buster feeders (when spring flocks get too crazy with the sunflower hearts), one very large metal-mesh tube feeder and sometimes one small hopper feeder (when starlings aren’t around making a mess.)

  • Northern Cardinal (F)
  • Mourning Dove (F)
  • House Finch
  • Purple Finch
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Carolina Wren 
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • Red-Winged Blackbird
  • Blue Jay
  • Rose-Breasted Grosbeak
  • European Starling (G)
  • Brown-Headed Cowbird (G)
  • Common Grackle (G)
  • Pine Warbler
  • House Sparrow (G)
  • Baltimore Oriole (winter feeder only)

Note: Over the years, I’ve never seen an American Goldfinch eat safflower . . . until this fall. Twice recently I’ve seen a goldfinch eating safflower. The second time, a Pine Siskin was eating safflower next to her! Safflower can be a little harder to break open so it is possible they were eating broken seed.

Handful of White Proso Millet
White Proso Millet: A Favorite Seed Choice of Sparrows

Many Birds Will Eat White Proso Millet

Millet is especially loved by sparrows . . . as well as the large mixed flocks of blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds unfortunately.

Offered: Sprinkled on the ground in the winter.

  • White-Throated Sparrow (F)
  • Dark-Eyed Junco (F)
  • House Sparrow (F)
  • Fox Sparrow (F)
  • Song Sparrow (F)
  • Chipping Sparrow (F)
  • White-Crowned Sparrow (F)
  • Red-Winged Blackbird 
  • Common Grackle
  • European Starling 
  • Brown-Headed Cowbird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Mourning Dove
  • Eastern Towhee
Nyjer Seed
Nyjer: A Favorite Seed Choice of Goldfinches

A Smaller Group of Birds Eat Nyjer Seed

American Goldfinches love nyjer. This seed is often their first choice, but a few other birds happily eat it as well, particularly finches and also some sparrows (if seed is on the ground.)

Offered in: Four plastic tube nyjer feeders + sprinkled on ground in winter.

  • American Goldfinch (F)
  • House Finch
  • Purple Finch
  • Pine Siskin (F)
  • Dark-Eyed Junco (ground)
  • White-Throated Sparrow (ground)
  • Fox Sparrow (ground)
  • Song Sparrow (ground)
  • House Sparrow (G)
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch (I’ve seen this once.)
Suet Cake
Suet: A Favorite Food of Woodpeckers

A Variety of Birds Will Eat Suet

Which birds choose suet? Woodpeckers are the biggest fans of the commercial suet blocks I offer in upside-down suet feeders and a Starling-Proof Suet Feeder but there are other takers as well. Suet is a food many birds will choose in the spring particularly. Some birds that are not usually upside-down eaters, have learned to dangle momentarily to get a few bites. Others who can’t use these feeders pick up bits of suet dropped by the birds that can. (Note: I also occasionally offer a Nutsie nut block in a suet feeder which tends to appeal to many of these same birds.)

Offered in: Four to five upside-down suet feeders and one Starling-Proof cage feeder.

Note: This list includes birds that will eat some type of suet, meaning either pure suet or suet with seeds/nuts/etc. So far, I’ve found that only the woodpeckers in my yard seem interested in pure suet.

  • Downy Woodpecker (F, including pure suet)
  • Red-Bellied Woodpecker (F, including pure suet)
  • Carolina Wren
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • European Starling (F)
  • Common Grackle (F in spring)
  • Blue Jay (F in spring and early summer)
  • Pine Warbler (F)
  • Pine Siskin
  • Fish Crow
  • Chipping Sparrow

Note: Pileated Woodpeckers eat suet too but I don’t usually get them in my yard.

Peanuts are a favorite choice of Blue Birds
Peanuts: A Favorite Food of Blue Jays

Some Birds Enthusiastically Eat Peanuts

Blue Jays get VERY excited about peanuts in the shell. They line up like airplanes on a runway waiting their turn when I put them out, coming back again and again until they clean them out. Sometimes another bird will be able to nab one though. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker almost always grabs at least one; her long sharp beak gives even the Blue Jays pause. Tufted Titmouses will also grab a peanut in a shell if they can sneak one in between the jays.

I also offer peanut splits (un-hulled half pieces) in a protected cage feeder. This gives smaller birds like Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Wren a better chance at a peanut.

Offered in: I put a couple big handfuls of whole peanuts in a hanging platform feeder once a day. Sometimes I also offer them to Blue Jays and Fish Crows by laying them on a surface near me. I also add a small handful of peanut splits inside a cage mealworm feeder each day.

  • Blue Jays (F)
  • Red-Bellied Woodpecker (F)
  • Tufted Titmouse (F)
  • Common Grackle
  • Fish Crow
  • American Crow
  • Carolina Wren (splits)
  • House Finch (splits)
  • Red-Breasted Nuthatch
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch (rarely)
  • Northern Cardinal (I’ve seen this just a few times)
Dried Mealworms
Dried Mealworms: A Favorite Food of Bluebirds

Some Birds Love to Eat Dried Mealworms

Which birds eat dried mealworms? These are gobbled up by Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Mockingbirds and Carolina Wrens, especially in the spring. I haven’t seen bluebirds eating them in the summer months. European Starlings can be a problem, eating them all unless you use a feeder that can block them. (Note: I’ve never personally tried offering live mealworms.)

Offered in: Originally tossed in various platform feeders and handful tossed into brush pile once a day. But to keep starlings from eating it all, I switched it to an Erva mealworm feeder.

  • Eastern Bluebird (F)
  • Northern Mockingbird (F)
  • Carolina Wren (F)
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • Pine Warbler
  • Blue Jays
  • European Starling (F)
Water and Cane Sugar
Making Sugar Water For Hummingbirds

A Few Birds Eat Sugar Water & Flower Nectar

Sugar water (a homemade mix) is a favorite of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. They also love flowers once the garden starts to bloom. You can very easily make your own sugar-water hummingbird nectar.

Offered in: One to three hummingbird feeders during warm months (typically April into October here in my part of Maryland.)

  • Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds (F)

Note: Baltimore Orioles are supposed to like sugar water as well, but I rarely see them in my yard so I haven’t seen them on my hummingbird feeders.

Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggest a Hawk Visit
Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggest a Hawk Visit

Some Birds Eat Other Birds

The birds that are drawn to our feeders in turn draws hawks; usually in our yard that means a Cooper’s Hawk. These birds eat other adult birds.

  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Sharp Shined Hawk
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk (less often)

Note: There are also birds that eat the nestlings and/or eggs of other birds. See: my “Backyard Birds That Eat Other Birds” post.

Wild Berries
Wild Berries: A Food Choice For Some Backyard Birds

A Few Birds Eat Wild Berries

Which birds eat wild berries? I’ve never had much luck with putting fruit out for birds. Usually the squirrels wind up eating it and/or the birds ignore it. But we’ve been planting native berry bushes in recent years. They get a little bit of interest and should increase in popularity once they’ve gotten bigger.

  • Northern Mockingbird
  • American Robin
  • Blue Jay
  • Gray Catbird
  • Cedar Waxwing
Bug on Plant
Bug on Plant: A Food Choice of Many Backyard Birds

Most Backyard Birds Eat Insects & Some Eat Other Creatures

We bird watchers tend to think we provide everything a bird would want to eat at our feeders. But for many birds, insects and other creatures are their main source of food, especially during warmer months. What we offer at feeders supplements that. And most song birds feeding babies need THOUSANDS of soft squishy caterpillars for each clutch. (In my yard, Mourning Doves and American Goldfinches are the main exceptions that don’t eat insects.) For that reason, planting native plants that support the native bugs they eat is a great way to support birds and attract them to your yard! (Also see my post on Cicadas and Empty Bird Feeders.)

  • Most Backyard Birds!

Birds Eating Something Unexpected

I’ve learned over the years that while birds very often have favorite feeder foods, there are not always simple hard and fast rules on what a particular species of bird will or will not choose to eat.

Sometimes it depends on the strength of their bill and how the food is offered. For example, a European Starling’s bill might not be able to crack a stripped hard-shelled sunflower seed, but can easily eat a un-shelled sunflower heart. Similarly, a Pine Siskin or an American Goldfinch might not be able to handle the shell of a black-oil sunflower seed but might eat bits of that type of sunflower dropped by other birds. 

And if a bird is hungry enough, they will eat food they supposedly don’t like. For example, I’ve seen many recommendations to offer safflower seed because European Starlings supposedly won’t eat it, but they are camped out at my feeders right now eating it. Even Common Grackles will eat safflower in my yard if they are really, really hungry. And just the other day I saw a White-Breasted Nuthatch eating nyjer seed for the first time.

What Do Birds Choose to Eat in Your Yard?

This is what I’ve seen birds eat in my yard here in Maryland. What do you see birds eating in your yard? Comments or questions are always welcome below! I’m always happy to share what I’ve learned and love to hear about what is going on in your yard!


Where To Buy Bird Seed

How To Buy Birdseed: FAQs

More Expensive Birdseed

Storing Birdseed: Three Easy Ways

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10 thoughts on “Seed Choice: What Do Backyard Birds Eat?

  1. I was bombarded by European starlings the past few days at my feeders…they spilled more black sunflower on the ground than they ate and made a big mess…the squirrels liked it though because they couldn’t reach the feeders where they were…I researched using safflower and now nobody eats it…I am disappointed…before the starlings came, I had cardinals and blue jays and juncos and purple finches and now I have sparrows and squirrels……I need a way to keep the pesky starlings away but still feed the colorful birds…I use the hopper type feeders for the sunflower/safflower and the tube type for the smaller seed..the starlings can’t feed on the tube types but neither do the cardinals or blue jays…I have a platform type feeder that I put whole peanuts on and the blue jays love those but the starlings try that too…..any help would be appreciated

    1. Hi Brian, I feel your pain. This is the time of year when the most pesky birds show up at the feeders in big numbers, including European Starlings, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and Brown-Headed Cowbirds. Starlings are the hardest to deal with in my experience. With the big mixed flocks of birds, I can usually go outside and stand in the feeder area for a few minutes (repeatedly) which moves off the big flocks while my usual birds come right back, seemingly glad that the invasion has moved off for a little while. (I don’t scream and shout. I am just THERE for a few minutes and that intimidates the flock birds that don’t know me.) They usually come back after a while, but if I make enough of a nuisance of myself this way, they will sometimes not come back the next day. (It really depends a lot on how cold it is and if there is snow on the ground and whether they can find food elsewhere though.) The starlings however are VERY persistent and will only move off briefly, coming right back. I have found in my yard that this invasion happens every year at this time and once we get past this early spring period, they do eventually move on and the feeders get back to normal.

      Like you, I had problems with starlings dumping tons of safflower on the ground this spring, mostly from the hopper feeders. They would just sweep it all out of the feeder trays onto the ground and then wouldn’t even go down to the ground to eat it. I dealt with that by swapping out one hanging hopper feeder for a platform feeder and not putting seed in the pole-mounted hopper for now. (I wrote a blog post about this not long ago.) The cardinals, finches, jays, etc can all use platform feeders so I didn’t lose any customers by making the change. The starlings are still around but the sides of the platform feeders keep them from dumping all the seed on the ground so the feeders are no longer going empty and the squirrels can’t eat the food.

      Other than hanging out a lot in your yard to discourage the starlings and waiting for warmer weather, there is one other thing you might experiment with. In my yard, the Northern Cardinals and House Finches and White-Throated Sparrows are the very last birds in the yard as the sun goes down and the very first as the sun rises. You might try watching to see what time the starlings head out to roost and put some seed out for the cardinals and other birds then (or put it out after dark or before dawn for the next day.) That might give those birds a chance at it. Don’t give up on the safflower yet either. The cardinals may just need to get used to it. Once one bird gives it a try, others will probably too.

      Good luck!

      1. I was reading your article about Woodpeckers&offering suet for them…my Mom has insect suet balls&has a traditional haging suet basket;she said that she has spotted 2 pairs of Red belly Woodpeckers yet they show no interest in the suet..were located in the Florida panhandle,any insight as to why the Woodpeckers wood be ignoring the suit would be appreciated!

        1. Hi James,
          There are several possibilities for why the Red-bellies are ignoring the suet that you might consider. First thought: In my yard, Downy Woodpeckers are on and off the suet all the time, but red-bellies do not necessarily come to the suet feeders as often or even every day. Feeder food is supplemental for birds. If they are finding other foods in the area, they might not need to come to the suet feeders as often.

          Other things to consider: Are the feeders new or in a new spot? Sometimes it can take birds some time to find a new or moved feeder, even when it seems perfectly obvious to us. Types of feeders that are new to a particular bird can take a little time for them to discover and figure out too. (Sometimes it takes them watching another bird on the feeder for them to get that a-ha moment.)

          Another thing to consider is whether the suet is fresh and good quality. Suet can get a very unappealing layer of mold on the surface, especially if the weather has been rainy or really humid. It’s worth taking a good look at it and make sure it is still fresh and appealing.

          Final thought: Where is the suet located in the yard? The red-bellies in my yard can be a bit shy about coming to feeders when people are close and may not come if feeders are in a very busy active area.

          Hope this is helpful!

  2. Oh my gosh, AMAZING post! So informative! I always learn so much from your blogposts, you’re awesome, thank you so very much! I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We are both on the East Coast Maryland/Pennsylvania so I was hoping your (Seed Mixtures-To Birds) would correlate well for me too? What do you think? I would love your input. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Tami,
      Thanks! I think the types of seed I use would probably be a good fit for birds in your area. Geographically, we probably see many of the same birds. Specific birds could vary some depending on how alike or different our yards are and the area where we live. For example, my yard is suburban but has lots of trees so I get woodpeckers that I doubt I’d see if it was all grass, but I usually don’t see birds like bluebirds or martins that like wide open grassy areas. (It is only recently after a big tree came down that bluebirds started visiting my yard.) I might see some different birds if I lived nearer to water or in the city. But a lot of the birds I get are pretty common in a variety of yard environments.

      If you do try a seed that you’ve never offered in your yard before, you might want to start with a small amount at first to see how your local birds like it. If you are trying to attract a particular type of bird, try to put the seed they like in a feeder that works well for them. I also think birds watch what other birds eat and can learn to eat new-to-them types of seed that way.

      I’d love to hear how it works out.

  3. If the weather isn’t too bad I’ll stand around the yard and enjoy the cardinals and other small birds while keeping those flocks away. It’s amazing how close the birds will come to me if I stand there for a couple of minutes. The red wings are pretty brazen though if they’re hungry.
    I have a treat feeder in a cage by my back window that my little birds just love. I get Finches, Titmouse, Nuthatch, and even Downy woodpeckers but the bigger birds can’t touch it.

    1. Hi Tim, I love days when I can hang out with the birds. They pay attention too. I think they know who feeds them. A lot of times it is those little birds who are the first to come back to the feeders after a scare. Bold little things. I guess they have to be. They are fun to watch.

      It’s cool that your Downy Woodpeckers can get into the cage feeder. I haven’t seen mine do that.

  4. Hi! Thank you for this article! I just bought a house and I can’t wait to start inviting birds to my yard!

    One type of food I didn’t notice on your list is raisins. My dad feeds those (among other things) to the birds in his neighborhood and they love it, especially the robins! When he gets home from work, the robins will yell at him until he gives them more raisins. He just tosses them out and they’ll go within a few feet of him without being scared. He’s the kind of person who builds squirrel houses for the backyard and gets chipmunks to sit in his hand while camping though!

    1. Hi Kat,
      Very cool. I haven’t tried raisins.
      Thanks for sharing. Good luck to you with your new home. Exciting!

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