Bird Watcher's General Store

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Little Birds Prefer Big Seeds

Dear Bird Folks,

You often tell us that sunflower seed is the best food for all birds. That seems fine for the larger birds, but what about the little birds. Don’t they need smaller seeds?

– Paula, Plymouth, MA


No, they don’t, Paula,

The “small seed = small bird” theory has been around forever, and no matter how many times I dispute it, it never seems to go away. But I understand your confusion; certain things are just hard to wrap your head around. For example, I can’t figure out why hanging electric wires on ugly wooden poles is still acceptable. Then, when they fall down, the solution always is the same – tack them back up…until the next storm brings them down once again. And they call birds, “bird brains.”

Here’s an experiment to try. Get a bowl of peas and a pizza, and offer both of them to a five-year-old child. (Where you get the kid is up to you.) Which food item do you think the five-year-old will go for? The peas? Not a chance. Even though the peas are small and easier to eat, especially for a youngster, the kid will go for the pizza every time. But isn’t it too big? No. Five year olds have the ability to break large food items into smaller pieces…and so do birds.

Every feeder bird has its own way of dealing with seeds. Chickadees, for example, have fairly small pointy beaks, which are great for collecting insects, but not for cracking open seeds. That doesn’t bother the chickadees, however. They simply hold the seed with their feet and proceed to hack it open. Once the seed is open, the birds can nibble it into little bits, just like we do with a pizza.

Some birds will dominate a feeder, but not chickadees. They typically grab a single seed and go, only to return in a few minutes for another bite. Isn’t flying back and forth a waste of energy? Yes, getting food to go is a bit less efficient, but chickadees, as sweet as they are, don’t always get along. There is a hierarchy within the flock, meaning some chickadees are more dominant than others. If an underling gets in the way of a higher up, it’s likely to get smacked upside the head. When a lowly chickadee wants to eat in peace, it flies off to a quiet location and avoids the hassles at the feeder. There’s also a safety component built into this feeding method. All of this seed cracking takes time, which makes the birds vulnerable to predators. By eating in the bushes, chickadees are hidden from predators, as well as their pushy flock mates.

The chickadees’ cousin, the White-breasted Nuthatch, is another small bird that loves to eat sunflower seeds. But unlike chickadees, nuthatches can’t hold seeds with their feet. Their feet are designed to clinging to tree trunks, not for grasping food. But not to worry; they have it worked out. After grabbing a seed, the nuthatch will fly to a nearby tree and jam it under a piece of bark or into a crevice. Next, the bird hammers or “hatches” the seed open. This hatching behavior is how the nuthatch earned its name. Although, I think calling it a “nuthammer” would have been a better choice…or maybe not.

When it comes to eating seeds, chickadees and nuthatches need to be both clever and creative. This is not the case with House and Purple Finches. They are seed eating specialists. Nature has equipped them with beaks that are stout, strong and designed for opening shells fast and efficiently. And with such proficiency, there isn’t any reason for finches to fly back and forth, chickadee-style. Once a finch lands on a feeder it can simply sit and eat until it’s full, or until the feeder becomes empty, which is sad for the finch, but good news for anyone who sells birdseed. 🙂

Many people are surprised when they learn that even goldfinches don’t have a problem opening sunflowers. This begs the question: Why do we offer them expensive thistle (niger) seed? Goldfinches are sissy birds (maybe that’s why they’re “yellow”) and are easily intimidated by more aggressive birds. Subsequently, thistle feeders with tiny holes were designed to accommodate goldfinches exclusively. It gives them a place to eat without being pushed around. Even sissy birds should have a place of their own.

While we are on the topic of finches, here’s my annual FYI on thistle. Because thistle seed is imported, it has to be sterilized before it can hit the market. But the sterilization process shortens its shelf life. Seed kept longer than a few months will likely dry out and be ignored by the birds. Thus, it’s wiser to buy thistle in smaller quantities. Also, it’s important to never top-off your feeder. Rotate the old seed from the bottom. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a moldy mess. Really. Finally, keep in mind that finches only eat the inside of the seeds. They don’t eat the shells, which is why there is black under your feeder. They aren’t spitting out the seeds, only the empty shells…so there.

Most of our small feeder birds can handle sunflower seeds, Paula. However, some smaller ground-feeding birds, such as juncos and sparrows, actually do prefer small seeds (millet), so your theory of small birds favoring smaller seeds isn’t totally misguided. It certainly isn’t as misguided as hanging electric wires on ugly wooden poles. That’s just wacked.