Backyard Birding

A Quick Guide to Bird Seed Types

Bird in winter

If you don’t have hollly berries to feed the birds, you can turn to seeds. Here’s a quick guide to seed types.

Sunflower
There are two kinds of sunflower—black oil and striped. Black oil seeds have very thin shells, easy for virtually all seed-eating birds to crack open, and the kernels have a high fat content, extremely valuable for most winter birds. Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell, much harder for House Sparrows and blackbirds to crack open. So if you’re inundated with species you’d rather not subsidize, try switching to striped sunflower.

Safflower
Safflower has a thick shell, hard for some birds to crack open, but is a favorite among cardinals. Some grosbeaks, chickadees, doves, and native sparrows also eat it. According to some sources, House Sparrows, European Starlings, and squirrels don’t like safflower.

Nyjer
This is commonly known as thistle seed, although it’s unrelated to native thistles. Its tiny seeds attract small finches such as goldfinches, siskins, and redpolls. Nyjer is expensive, so it’s best offered in specially-designed thistle seed feeders, which have tiny feeding ports that prevent spilling.

Shelled and cracked corn
Dried whole kernel corn is a favorite food of jays, pigeons, doves, turkeys, pheasants, and quail. Cracked corn is easier for smaller birds to eat, and will attract blackbirds, finches, and sparrows, as well as the larger birds. Unfortunately, corn has two serious problems. First, it’s a favorite of House Sparrows, cowbirds, starlings, geese, bears, raccoons, and deer—none of which should be subsidized. Second, corn is the bird food most likely to be contaminated with aflatoxins, which are extremely toxic even at low levels. Never buy corn in plastic bags, never allow it to get wet, and never offer it in amounts that can’t be consumed in a day. Never offer corn covered in a red dye. Corn marked with red dye is intended for planting is often treated with fungicides that are highly toxic to humans, livestock, and all birds. Never offer buttered popcorn or any kind of microwave popcorn.

Peanuts
Peanuts are very popular with jays, crows, chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, and many other species, but are also favored by squirrels, bears, raccoons, and other animals. Like corn, peanuts have a high likelihood of harboring aflatoxins, so must be kept dry and used up fairly quickly.

Milo or sorghum
The large, reddish, round seeds of milo (or sorghum) are often used as “filler” in birdseed mixes. Most birds will only eat it if there’s nothing better. Be aware that it also may attract undesirable aggressive birds such as cowbirds, starlings, and grackles.

Golden millet, red millet
There are two types of millet: red and white. Most birds find white proso millet more attractive than the red variety. White millet is a favorite with ground-feeding birds including quails, native American sparrows, doves, towhees, juncos, and cardinals. Unfortunately it’s also a favorite with cowbirds and other blackbirds and House Sparrows, which are already subsidized at unnaturally high population levels.

Rapeseed and canary seed
These two seed types don’t offer much over the more widespread seeds. A few birds do eat rapeseed, including quails, doves, finches, and juncos. If you’re not getting these, the rapeseed will be left to spoil. Canary seed is very popular with House Sparrows and cowbirds—birds that many people would prefer not to attract. Other species that eat canary seed are equally happy with sunflower, so this is a better all-around choice.

Mixed Seed
Mixed seed typically contains high quantities of millet, preferred by ground-feeding birds. Many feeder birds will not eat millet. Likewise, ground-feeding birds that favor millet will not have access to it if it’s in a feeder. Try filling hanging feeders with sunflower seeds and spreading mixed seed for ground-feeding birds.

Source: Information courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Learn more at allaboutbirds.org.