Last Updated on May 13, 2020 by NWBirdTop
While buying a bag of wild birdseed might seem easy, there are actually many choices involved in purchasing seed to put in your feeders.
What Kind of Birdseed to Buy?
This question is not always simple. Although some feeder birds are common throughout much of the country, birdwatchers in different regions can see a different mixes of wild birds at their feeders. And while some of us welcome any and all birds and critters, many of us are looking to attract particular birds and discourage others.
Learn What Local Birds Eat
When purchasing seed, research the birds in your region that are likely to come to feeders. Look up what types of seed these birds like to eat. Think about the birds you would like to feed in your yard and offer that type of seed. My post on How to Choose Birdseed should get you started. Also see Feederwatch’s “Common Feeder Birds” page.
If You Only Buy One Birdseed
If you don’t want to research it and are only going to offer one seed, choose sunflower. It appeals to the widest number of feeder birds. When purchasing sunflower, you may be presented with several types. Pick black oil sunflower seed or less messy sunflower hearts/whole chips. While some birds with stronger beaks can crack open white stripe sunflower seeds, the shell is too thick for many birds.
Other Good Birdseed to Try
But you might also consider safflower, white proso millet and nyjer seed. These seeds are each loved by some popular feeder birds and are well worth offering. Again, find out what the birds you want to attract like to eat and offer the type of seeds and other foods they like in appropriate feeders.
Buy A Single Birdseed or a Mix?
While many birdwatchers love birdseed mixes, I personally prefer purchasing different types of seed individually. This gives me flexibility to offer each seed in a separate appropriate feeder and/or create my own mix of seeds.
I find this creates less waste as birds aren’t picking out only the seed they like and tossing the rest on the ground where it can sprout, mold or rot if not quickly eaten by other birds. It also assures me that I’m not offering filler seed that isn’t going to be eaten at all.
That said, there some good-quality seed mixes available without fillers. If you just have one or two feeders and/or don’t want to mix your own, this can be an reasonable way to offer a variety of seed.
Choosing a Birdseed Mix
If you decide to try a birdseed mix, read the label before purchasing. Keep in mind that black oil sunflower or sunflower hearts/chips are usually the most popular seed at feeders so you will probably want to look for that in a mix. Safflower, nyjer and white promo millet are other common mix ingredients that are each appealing to some popular feeder birds.
Birdseed Filler Ingredients
If you see “grain products,” wheat, oats, milo, flax seed or canary seed listed, I would pass on the mix as most feeder birds that birdwatchers are trying to attract won’t eat these things. They are considered “filler” seeds/ingredients. While they can make the mix seem less expensive, if birds are only eating part of the mix, then the price is not such a bargain and you have a mess to clean up under the feeder.
While many mixes include corn, I do not offer cracked corn in my yard because it appeals to birds that I don’t like to encourage. I have also read that corn is more likely to have been sprayed with pesticides which also makes me a little leery of it. But many people find that mixes with cracked corn work fine for them.
If you see “millet” on the label, check whether it is “white proso millet” (a.k.a. “white millet”) or alternatively “red millet”. Most feeder birds won’t eat red millet, so that will often go to waste. There are feeder birds that like white millet/white proso millet however and it is pretty common in seed mixes.
Keep in mind that white proso millet often especially appeals to ground feeding birds that may not use tube type feeders. (Some may be willing to eat from hopper or tray feeders, while others typically only eat on the ground.) You may find that birds will pick out sunflower and nuts first and eat the millet only after the other is gone. Or they may drop it on the ground where ground feeding birds or squirrels and other creatures can eat it.
Birdseed Ingredient Ratios
Try to get a look at the mix before you purchase it. If you are paying extra for a mix with “premium” ingredients like peanuts or sunflower seeds, see how much of that ingredient you are actually getting in the mix. In some inexpensive seed mixes, you may find more filler than seed birds will actually eat!
Compare prices for single seed type bags to guesstimate whether it is a reasonable price for what you are getting. If you have a local bird store, check out their mixes to see if they offer one that could work for you, as they may have higher quality mixes than some other sources.
What it boils down to is that you shouldn’t purchase a mix that includes seed that isn’t on your list of seed that birds in your yard will want to eat.
Start With a Small Amount of Seed
Regardless of where you purchase it, try a small bag of birdseed. See how it goes before investing in large quantities. If you find that some types of seed don’t seem to get eaten, you’ll know to look for a seed mix that doesn’t include that seed.
Can’t find a wild birdseed mix you like? Consider purchasing the seeds you want separately and make your own custom mix. (Bird stores often sell individual seed types in various sized bags.)
Does Wild Birdseed Need Added Vitamins?
Keep in mind that I am not a biologist or vet. But my layman’s understanding is that the seed we put out for wild birds is a supplement to their diet and not their entire diet. If you have a pet bird and only feed them birdseed, they are likely to develop a vitamin deficiency and so their diets should probably be supplemented in some way. (Obviously check with your vet if you have a pet bird.)
But wild birds typically eat insects and other things as well as seeds. (It varies by bird species.) So the birdseed we offer in feeders probably doesn’t need to be augmented with extra vitamins. I suspect that such additives are really designed to appeal to the human purchasers rather than the birds themselves. While I don’t have any reason to believe that added vitamins will hurt wild birds, I also have not seen any evidence that they need them either.
How to Buy Fresh Birdseed
One of the things birds get from seed is fat for energy. If the seed gets too old, the fat can dry out and be less useful making the seed less appealing to birds. So you want to get fresh seed, but how?
The best way to ensure you are getting fresh, high-quality seed is to purchase it from a trusted source. It needs to be a place that sells a lot of seed regularly so it doesn’t sit and get stale on the shelf. You may need to try a few places in your area or online to learn the best sources.
In my own experience, I found that my local bird store here in central Maryland, Mother Natures, has very high-quality seed. A new shipment comes in each Wednesday and they seem to go through most of it during the week, so I always know it will be fresh. Their seed is never dusty or stale or full of bits of sticks and bark and other weird things that I’ve found in some bags of seed from some other local sources.
Feed Birds All Year Or Only in Winter?
I put out seed all year long. That is my personal choice. (Note: I live in a part of the country that experiences all four seasons.)
Feeder Seeds Supplement Bird Diets
It is important to understand that the seed we offer at feeders is a supplement to wild birds’ diet. They also eat things like insects, wild seeds and berries. These foods are still around in the winter but can be more work for birds to find, especially when the ground is covered in ice and snow.
Feeding Birds When Food is More Scarce
My suggestion is to fill feeders at least in the winter when birds have increased energy needs and food is more scarce. I would also offer it in the spring when most birds are starting new families and/or migrating and can use an extra food source. (And watching bird moms and dads bring their little ones to your feeders once they fledge is a wonderful experience that shouldn’t be missed.)
Feeding Birds in Warmer Months
Continue to feed through the summer if you enjoy watching birds at your feeders. Because food is often more abundant in the warmer parts of the year, summer months are typically quieter at the feeders and you won’t need to refill them as often. Offering food in autumn months can bring you interesting migrating visitors as well as the regulars.
Keep in mind that if you are a steady, year-round source of food, birds are more likely to know and come to your feeders. If you only feed birds seasonally, they can still find your feeders, but it may take a few weeks for birds to discover them again each year.
But feeding birds takes time and costs money. If you only choose to fill feeders during the winter, that’s totally cool. (And for that matter, if you instead decide to do other things like plant native food sources, that’s great too.)
How Much Birdseed to Buy?
Deciding how much seed to buy will depend on how much seed you go through in a month and how much space you have to store it.
Wild bird stores and/or local bird enthusiast groups may offer especially good sales on seed in the fall. But also watch for sales throughout the year. This can be a good time to stock up on seed if you have a good place to store it. (See my post on Storing Birdseed: Two Easy Ways for ideas.)
I go through a LOT of seed because I have a LOT of feeders, so I often purchase big bags of seed multiple times a month. Other less obsessive birdwatchers may find that they can purchase seed for a month or several months at a time. If you keep the seed dry and secure, it should last for several months if it is fresh to begin with.
Buy Nyjer Seed Conservatively
The exception is nyjer seed. The American Goldfinches who love it will usually only eat it if it is very fresh. Once it dries out, they will shun it. So only purchase as much as you think you can use in a month. (If you do find yourself with less than ideal nyjer seed that the goldfinches won’t eat, try sprinkling some on the ground. You may find that some sparrows may still appreciate it.)
So how much seed should you buy at a time? If you are just starting out feeding birds, start with a five or ten pound bag and see how long it lasts. If you go through it very quickly and have a good place to store it, consider moving up to twenty or fifty pound bags (which are typically less expensive per pound.)
On the other hand, if the reason you go through seed quickly is that squirrels are eating it all, you need to look into a good baffle, maybe a pole and/or a more squirrel proof feeder. This blog has a bunch of posts on these topics. (Click the Search icon at the top of the page.)
Where to Buy Birdseed?
Over the years, I’ve purchased birdseed at the grocery, home improvement stores, farm supply stores and specialty bird stores. I’ve found I get the best quality seed at my local bird store. It’s not the cheapest seed but with birdseed you do often get what you pay for. Watching out for sales and store loyalty programs can help a lot there. See my post on Where to Buy Seed for more on this topic.
If your only choice is a non-bird store, look for a store that rotates through its stock frequently so you know the seed is fresh. Start with a small bag and see how the birds like it. Then move up to a larger bag if possible as they are often less expensive per pound.
A Seed Squirrels Won’t Eat?
Squirrels are the bane of many a backyard birdwatcher and often people dream of a seed that squirrels won’t eat. In my experience, there is only one and it appeals to a limited number of birds. See my post on A Seed Squirrels Won’t Eat.
Will Birdseed Kill Grass?
Feeding birds comes with some maintenance chores. As well as keeping your feeders clean, you also need to keep an eye on what is going on underneath them. Shells and uneaten filler seed can build up under feeders where it can rot and mold and harbor bacteria that can make birds sick. So you should rake or sweep under the feeders periodically to avoid this.
Sunflower seed shells can also create an additional problem. They contain a natural toxin that kills grass and can stunt or kill the growth of some other plants. While this helps sunflower plants in their competition with other plants for nutrients, it isn’t great for grass or some other plantings under your feeders.
Strategies For Sunflower Shell Problems
If you offer sunflower seed in shells, you will need to very diligently keep them cleaned up. If grass won’t grow under the feeder, you might consider using wood mulch under the feeder to cover the bare area. (You still need to clean up the shells periodically to avoid disease however.)
Alternatively, you might instead just plant sunflowers under the feeders. (Look for a shorter variety that isn’t so tall that it will obscure the feeders.) This of course can make it harder to rake up the shells . . .
My own strategy for this problem is to not offer sunflower in shells at all, but to instead offer sunflower hearts a.k.a. whole sunflower chips. While more expensive than the shell version, you aren’t paying for shells that the birds don’t eat and that you need to clean up. (If you put it in squirrel proof feeders and position and baffle your feeders correctly, that can help keep your costs down.)
In my experience, everything gets eaten as long as the shell-less sunflower seed stays dry. If it gets wet, it can kind of melt into mush. So if you go with sunflower hearts, put it in a feeder that does a good job protecting the seed from rain and snow. If it does get wet, clean out the feeder and refill with dry seed.
Birdseed on Decks, Patios, Sidewalks
If your feeder is located over a deck, patio or sidewalk surface, I suggest choosing sunflower hearts/chips or “no mess” mixes. This will reduce the amount of sweeping under the feeders you need to do.
Don’t want to do that? I’ve also found that safflower seed, while the shells do get discarded, don’t make anywhere near as big a mess under feeders as sunflower shells. So your clean up chores would be reduced. Not all birds like safflower but some do come to love it, including cardinals.
Buying Birdseed Takes Thought
Picking the right birdseed for your feeders takes a bit of thought and planning. But once you get the right balance, feeding birds is very rewarding.
Do you have more questions about birdseed for wild birds? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to help.
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