Gourmet or Bargain Seed: Which Is Best for the Birds?

As we watched the sparrows at her feeder, Nancy boasted, “That seed cost only $3.99 a bag at the grocery store. The birds love it. The hardware store wanted $6.99 a bag!”

Sharon immediately countered, “I pay almost twice that at the wild bird specialty store. Of course, my bag is larger and it’s better quality seed. And I get so many great birds.”

“So do I,” Nancy answered, “but I don’t have to break the bank!”

“You get what you pay for. Why do you think your bag was so cheap? It’s junk food. I think they just sweep up spillage from the mill floor and pour it into a bag. It’s the difference between eating fast food and going out to a fine restaurant. A healthy meal may cost a little more, but it is better for you in the long run.”

“My birds do just fine on my budget food. Nothing goes to waste. They eat everything.”

I jump in: “Neither of you knows what you are talking about. There must be some actual scientific studies that prove which seed is best. Why don’t we do some research and find out?”

They both agreed but assigned me the project. Next time I won’t speak up. It turned out to be an interesting project, and like many projects, it was not as simple as it originally seemed.

Good scientific research studies began about 30 years ago, when Dr. Aelred Geis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted comprehensive, multi-year studies focused on the feeding preferences of backyard birds. More recent studies confirmed his findings and have added new information. In addition to the classic sunflower seed, researchers have studied more than a dozen different types of bird food including millet, milo, safflower seed, Nyjer (also known as thistle), cracked corn, peanuts, flax, canary seed, rapeseed, and others. Results from these studies have similar conclusions: Two types of seed are most preferred by birds: sunflower seed (black-oil or striped) and white proso millet.

Sunflower Is No. 1

Red-bellied woodpecker on sunflower seed feeder. Photo by PublicDomainPictures.net.

Red-bellied woodpecker on sunflower seed feeder.

It is unusual for so many studies performed by different scientists to generally agree on results, but they do: The one seed that attracts the widest variety of birds is sunflower seed. Other varieties of seed may help attract different types of birds to your yard, but sunflower should be the foundation of your feeding. Based on his studies, Geis suggests that to get the most birds for their money, backyard bird watchers should use sunflower seed in their feeder—100 percent sunflower, although he admits that scattering white proso millet on the ground or in a platform feeder will attract a variety of ground feeding birds.

He recommends that you avoid any seed blend or mix that contains a large variety of seeds. Stick with the two primary seeds. Check the list of ingredients for your bag of seed. If it contains more than three or four different types of seed in total, don’t buy it. More is not better. Ultimately, the retail price of a bag of bird seed is determined by the cost of the seeds in the bag. A bag with large amounts of costly seed (usually sunflower) tends to be priced higher. Take two bags that weigh the same, for example, both containing only sunflower and millet. The one with the most sunflower and the least millet will be priced higher.

In the same way, any seed mix that contains large amounts of low-cost seed will have a lower retail price. Sometimes this low-cost seed is referred to as “filler” because all it does is add heft and fills up the bag, but it does not add much in terms of taste or nutrition. Avoid any mix that includes red millet, oats, or other filler seeds.

We all know, of course, that certain species are attracted to specific seeds other than sunflower and millet. Finches love Nyjer, for example, and blue jays, peanuts, so I can’t advise offering only sunflower seed. Some specific seeds are effective in certain situations. In the following paragraphs, I’ll cover what I learned—the good and the bad—about various types of seed.

Sunflower Seed

Black oil sunflower seed.

Black oil sunflower seed.

If you want to offer only one kind of seed to your birds, it should be sunflower seed. That is the most popular among seed-eating birds. However, if you prefer a birdseed mix, the bag should contain a high percentage of sunflower seed.
There are two common types of sunflower seed: striped and black-oil. Almost every bird loves them both, although there seems to be a preference for black-oil, which is smaller in size but richer in oil and nutrients. In addition, the harder shell of the striped sunflower seed is more difficult to crack open to reach the meaty kernel inside. So, birds with weak beaks, such as mourning doves and sparrows, are not as attracted to striped sunflower seed. Mourning doves swallow seeds whole and let their gizzard do the work of hulling.

If you feed birds, you know that most of them crack open the outer shell of a sunflower seed and eagerly devour the sunflower kernel inside. In the process, they let the hull fall to the ground, creating an ugly mess of empty shells beneath the feeder. You can avoid this by buying sunflower seed with the hulls removed. The total content of the bag is edible, with no waste or mess.

These can be referred to as sunflower kernels, shell-less sunflower, sunflower chips, sunflower hearts, or hulled sunflower. At first glance, a bag of hulled sunflower may appear to be substantially more expensive than a bag of sunflower seed with the shells still on. But remember, in a ten-pound bag of sunflower, the shells may account for three pounds. That’s three pounds of waste for you to rake up someday.

Millet

Millet. Photo by G.D. Khadha / Wikimedia.

Millet. Photo by G.D. Khadha / Wikimedia.

Ground feeding birds (sparrows, doves, juncos, towhees, quail, etc.) like millet. It is a small, round seed with a papery-thin shell easily cracked by all birds. It is often used in birdseed mixes, for two primary reasons: Ground feeding birds like it, and it is inexpensive. The retail price of a bag of birdseed mix is inversely proportional to the amount of millet in the mix. The more millet in the bag, the lower the price. Sunflower seed is just the opposite. The more sunflower in a bag, the higher the retail price.

The best type of millet for bird feeding is white proso millet. It is pale tan or whitish in color. Sometimes you will find red millet. It is slightly larger in size than white millet, and, as the name implies, is red in color. Most birds greatly prefer white millet. There are some reports that eastern birds won’t eat red millet at all, and western birds will only if nothing else is available.

Milo

Milo.

Milo.

Milo is another round, reddish seed. It much larger than millet, about the size of BB gun ammunition or a ball bearing. Avoid any mix that contains milo (check the label). Quail, turkeys, doves, starlings, and blackbirds like it, but few songbirds.

Nyjer, aka Thistle

Nyjer, a popular seed about the size of a caraway seed, is used for only one special purpose: Finches love it, and most bird watchers love finches. There is something exciting about seeing flocks of those little balls of sunshine in your yard. Happily, as it happens, few birds other than finches like nyjer. Even pesky house sparrows and starlings shun it. So, by putting out one feeder filled only with nyjer seed, you have created a backyard restaurant that only finches will use, and they will visit frequently.

American goldfinch at nyjer seed feeder. Photo by T. Smith.

American goldfinch at nyjer seed feeder. Photo by T. Smith.

Nyjer is an expensive seed, partially because it is imported, so you don’t want to waste it. Don’t buy a seed mix that includes small amounts of nyjer. Other birds will dump out the njyer they don’t want and there won’t be any for the finches. Always use 100 percent nyjer in a feeder designed for it.

Nyjer has a high oil content. That is one reason why finches love it. But being high in oil also means it dries out more quickly than other seeds that are less oily, becoming somewhat stale and undesirable. So don’t buy nyjer in large quantities and don’t stock up on it when it goes on sale. It doesn’t keep well. If your finches seem to have lost interest in your nyjer, maybe it has become stale. An easy remedy is to buy some fresh nyjer and mix it with the older nyjer (as long as it’s not damp or moldy). The finches will eat them all.

Peanuts

A blue jay indulges at a peanut feeder. Photo by L.D. Kirby.

A blue jay indulges at a peanut feeder. Photo by L.D. Kirby.

An amazing number of birds like peanuts. For example, if faced with a buffet of the finest varieties of bird seed, a blue jay will immediately go for the peanuts, as will a woodpecker or titmouse. If unsalted peanuts in the shell are available, a jay will stuff its craw with as many as possible then fly away to eat them or hide them for later. I’ve always wondered how birds developed such a taste for peanuts. It is not a food most birds would normally find in nature, since it is a southern crop and it grows underground. So how did birds discover its good taste? I don’t know. But I do know that they make a welcome but costly treat for some of your favorite backyard birds. A tube feeder made of hardware cloth mesh is ideal for offering peanuts.

Safflower Seed

Safflower seed. Photo by Shutterstock.

Safflower seed. Photo by Shutterstock.

Safflower is a seed that is growing in popularity. For years it was known as the “cardinal seed” because cardinals like it. Although, in fact, if a cardinal has a choice between sunflower and safflower seed, it will usually choose the sunflower.

The current popularity of safflower is not based solely on its ability to attract cardinals. Rather, it is popular because of what doesn’t eat it. Some studies show that squirrels don’t like it, and house sparrows seem to dislike it, too. Personal anecdotes, however, question the veracity of these claims. Squirrels and sparrows don’t each as much safflower as they do other seeds. They do eat it; it is just not their favorite food. If your objective is to deter squirrels and sparrows, fill your feeder with 100 percent safflower seed. It does not make sense to add safflower seed to a feeder filled with sunflower seeds. Squirrels and even cardinals will ignore the safflower and eat the sunflower seeds.

Cracked Corn

Cracked corn.

Cracked corn.

Less expensive seed mixes often contain ample amounts of corn, either whole kernels or cracked pieces. It is a low-cost seed that adds bulk to the bag. Which birds eat cracked corn? Cardinals, towhees, jays, blackbirds, woodpeckers, thrashers, ducks, geese, turkeys, pheasants, and quail. Crows, sparrows, and pigeons also enjoy corn, as do squirrels and mice. If squirrels, house sparrows, or starlings become a nuisance, remove corn from the buffet.

Other Seed

Sometimes when you check the list of ingredients in a bag of birdseed mix you will find other, lesser-known seeds listed such as rapeseed, flax, canary seed, sorghum, and golden millet. These seeds do not offer any advantages over better known seed.

Conclusions

Searching through decades of scientific tests was more fun than I anticipated, and the results were fairly consistent. Sunflower seed and white proso millet appeal to the largest variety of birds. Other food such as nyjer, safflower, or peanuts can be attractive to certain species, or to minimize less welcome visitors. Blends or seed mixes are okay, but a larger variety of seed types is not necessarily better. The most important element of a good mix is that it contains a substantial percentage of sunflower and millet. Avoid milo, rapeseed, and other fillers. And while birds may devour your stale bread and cookies, they are empty calories, and not nutritious.

Myths and old spouses’ tales abound in the world of bird feeding. Trying to separate myth from the scientific fact was challenging but enlightening. In the meantime, Nancy and Sharon have moved on. Today they are having a heated dispute about the weather. Nancy believes that it has been warmer this year than last year. Naturally, Sharon disagrees.

Weather statistics are readily available and it would not take much effort for me to do some research and uncover the facts. But I don’t say a word. I half-listen to their debate and watch a chickadee grab a sunflower seed from the feeder.

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