Choosing Seed For Backyard Birds

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White-Breasted Nuthatch Eating Sunflower Hearts
White-Breasted Nuthatch Eating Sunflower Hearts

What kind of seed do birds eat? How do you choose seed for backyard birds? If you offer the kind of seed birds you want to attract eat, you’ll get more birds at your feeders!

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 and drop on the ground goes to waste. Putting the right feeder in the right location is important, but what you put into it is important too. Here are the seeds and other foods I offer birds (and foods that I don’t) in my own Maryland back yard, followed by a list of who eats what.

Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Black Oil Sunflower Seed

Seed I Don’t Use in My Yard:

Seed Mixes: I offer several types of seed in separate feeders rather than purchasing seed mixes. This lets me put the right type of seed in the right types of feeders for the birds I want to attract. Spreading out the choices also reduces some (but not all) conflict and competition at feeders. And I feel there is less waste.

Sunflower in Shell:  I don’t put out black oil sunflower seed in the shell even though lots of birds like it because the shells make a mess and it kills the little grass we’ve got. 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 some of the nuisance birds that bug me like Common Grackles, Brown-Headed Cowbirds and European Starlings.

Nutra-Saff: Nutra-Saff (aka “Golden Safflower”) is a higher nutrition thin-shelled version of safflower developed by scientists. I tried it once but the local birds didn’t seem particularly interested in it and took forever to eat it. It is completely possible that they could get used to it eventually but I haven’t tried it again. Update: I am trying this one again as an experiment to see if it solves a couple of bird feeding problems. You can read about it here: Trying Nutra-Saff (Golden Safflower) Again.

Safflower Seed
Safflower Seed

Seed I Use in My Yard:

(A detailed list of who eats what is below.)

  • Sunflower Hearts (aka “Chips“)
  • Safflower
  • White Proso Millet (winter only)
  • Nyjer
  • Peanuts (in shell)
  • 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 insects that our native birds like to eat. Pine trees seem to be particular favorites as well as grape vine and blueberry. We are working on expanding our native bushes, planting viburnum, inkberry, chokeberry and holly varieties that are 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 which seed or other food birds will eat. If a bird can’t or won’t use a particular feeder that I use to offer that type of seed, they may not be seen eating it in my yard. This doesn’t mean that they won’t otherwise eat it. Less dominant birds might also choose less popular seed to avoid competition with more dominant species. This list also doesn’t include birds present in our yard for at least part of the year 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 and sugar water. Yes, they eat safflower readily and will even eat the 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
Sunflower Hearts

Sunflower Hearts/Chips

In my yard, sunflower is probably the seed most widely loved and eaten. Most of the birds that come to my backyard feeders will gladly eat it.

Offered in: Two Squirrel Buster Plus Feeders (most of the time), a Squirrel Buster Classic Feeder (most of the time) and three 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 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
Safflower Seed
Safflower Seed

Safflower Seed

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

Offered in: One to two hanging platform feeders, one pole-mounted platform feeder, 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 to two hopper feeders (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)
  • Brown-Headed Cowbird (G)
Handful of White Proso Millet
White Proso Millet

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
Nyjer Seed
Nyjer Seed

Nyjer Seed

American Goldfinches love nyjer, but a few other birds happily eat it as well, particularly finches and 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)
Suet Cake
Suet Cake

Suet

Woodpeckers are the biggest fans of the commercial suet blocks I offer in upside-down suet feeders, but there are other takers as well. Some other birds 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: Five upside-down suet feeders.

  • Downy Woodpecker (F)
  • Red-Bellied Woodpecker (F)
  • Carolina Wren
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch
  • European Starling (F)
  • Common Grackle (F in spring)
  • Blue Jay (F in spring)
  • Pine Warbler (F)
  • Pine Siskin
  • Fish Crow
Peanuts
Peanuts

Peanuts in the Shell

Blue Jays get VERY excited about peanuts. 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.

Offered in: Put in hanging platform feeder once a day. Sometimes I also offer them to Blue Jays and Fish Crows by putting them on a surface near me.

  • Blue Jays (F)
  • Red-Bellied Woodpecker (F)
  • Tufted Titmouse (F)
  • Common Grackle
  • Fish Crow
  • White-Breasted Nuthatch (rarely)
  • Northern Cardinal (I’ve seen this twice)
Dried Mealworms
Dried Mealworms

Dried Mealworms

I underestimated dried mealworms until just recently. I’ve always tossed a few into the brush pile for the Carolina Wrens. Now I offer it in a mealworm feeder for bluebirds and wrens. (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 dried 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

Sugar Water & Flowers

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

Offered in: Two to three hummingbird feeders during warm months.

  • Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds (F)
Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggest a Hawk Visit
Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggest a Hawk Visit

Other Birds

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

  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Sharp Shined Hawk
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk
Wild Berries
Wild Berries

Wild Berries

I’ve never had much luck with putting fruit out for birds. Usually the squirrels wind up eating it and 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
  • Blue Jay
  • Gray Catbird
  • Cedar Waxwing
Bug on Plant
Bug on Plant

Insects & Other Creatures

We 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 the warmer months. What we offer at feeders supplements that.

  • Most of the Birds!

Birds Eating Something Unexpected

I’ve learned that while birds very often have favorite foods at the feeder, there are not simple hard and fast rules on what a particular species of bird will or will not 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 a goldfinch might not be able to handle the shell of a black-oil sunflower seed but can eat bits of sunflower dropped by other birds. 

And if a bird is hungry enough, they will eat food they supposedly don’t like. I’ve seen many recommendations to offer safflower seed because European Starlings 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.

What Do Birds 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?

Nancie


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6 thoughts on “Choosing Seed For Backyard Birds

  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!
      Nancie

  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.
      Nancie

  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.
      Nancie

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