Bird Watcher's General Store

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Millet Seed Not The Most Popular

Dear Bird Folks,

I have a question about food for ground feeding birds. I have read that a good all-around mixture should contain sunflower seeds, cracked corn and white millet. To avoid waste I’ve started making my own mixture using those ingredients, which I put on the ground for the ground feeding creatures. However, I’ve noticed that the millet isn’t being eaten. It is just piling up on the ground getting moldy. What mixture would you suggest for the enjoyable squirrels, doves, Blue Jays, and chipmunks?

– Donna, Sandwich, MA


Now, Donna,

Before I get all up in your face about this mixed seed thing, I want to congratulate you for being able to enjoy the “squirrels, doves, Blue Jays, and chipmunks.” Good for you. Too few people enjoy them and I think they are missing out on some funny characters. I love the way the doves stumble around the backyard, in a daze, like they just awoke from a nap. Or the way the jays look like they just returned from an all-night party and are still totally wired. Or the way the chipmunks chase each other away from the food, even though their faces are so stuffed with seed that they look a striped Dizzy Gillespie. And the squirrels…well, I’m glad you like them too. We are in agreement so far. It is this concept of mixing birdseed where things might start to fall apart for us.

I still remember the day in 1975 when I put out my first bird feeder. Who could forget a day like that? It was a Tuesday, I was wearing a gray hoodie and a slight breeze was blowing from the southeast. I bought a big bag of highly promoted “wild birdseed,” filled up my feeders, stood back and waited for the birds to come. The birds came right away and ate. Yea! The next day my feeders were empty, so I filled them again and the birds returned. On the third day my feeders were once again empty, but this time I noticed that there was plenty of uneaten seed on the ground. Boo! The birds had eaten all of the sunflower seed and ditched the rest. Even though I was just a dumb kid, fresh out of school, it only took one bag of wild birdseed for me to realize that buying mixed seed was a bad idea. Most of it was wasted. Was I ahead of my time, a child prodigy, a budding birdseed genius? Of course I was, at least in my mind.

Just as you found out, Donna, mixing birdseed, no matter how carefully thought out, leads to waste. You mixed sunflower seed with cracked corn and millet, and ended up with a pile of moldy millet. The obvious answer to your problem is to forget the millet and only put out cracked corn and sunflower seed. What’s wrong with millet? Nothing. Many sparrows, juncos and towhees love it. But, if those birds aren’t feeding in your yard or aren’t in a millet-eating mood, then it is pointless to keep putting it out. It’s like the aunt who shows up at Thanksgiving every year with an apple pie and a mincemeat pie, and leaves with an uneaten mincemeat pie. Don’t you wish that she would just bring two apple pies instead?

My advice is to always put out single ingredients. Single ingredients can be anything you want: sunflower, corn, millet, safflower, peanuts, dried fruit, or a nice lasagna, whatever. Just don’t mix them. Distribute them individually, either on the ground or in different feeders. If the birds come and, say, eat all of the corn, then put out more corn. Don’t add to any of the other foods until they are gone, too. Soon you’ll know which foods the birds like and not waste your money on the rest. Instead of a random assortment only give the birds the food they are actually eating.

Now the question is: If mixed seed is so bad, why do stores (including mine) sell it? The answer is: To make money, of course. Why else? At first I tried not selling mixed seed, but I got tired of explaining myself and finally bowed to the pressure from the maddening crowd. Today we literally sell tons of mixed birdseed and I shake my head at every bag that goes out the door. Many of my customers think that I’m nuts for dissing mixed seed. Well, they may be right about the “nuts” part, but I’m not sure if they have the correct reason why. And for the record, mixed seed is not bad, but it can be wasteful and people may be spending more for less. That’s all I’m saying.

You were very wise to notice that moldy millet was not a good thing, Donna. Moldy seed of any kind is bad for birds. And by the way, I was kidding about the lasagna. It’s probably not a good choice. However, if you do decide to put out a plate of lasagna for your birds, let me know. I’ll be over with a fork and some garlic bread