Bird Watcher's General Store

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What Seed Birds Like

Dear Bird Folks,

I bought some seed last month at a local hardware store and most of it is still lying on the ground underneath my feeder, uneaten. The seed was on sale, but it looked fine. The bag contained several varieties of seeds and it even had pictures of cute birds on the label. This might sound like an obvious question to you, but are there good and not-so-good types of birdseed? Was buying the seed on sale at a hardware store a mistake?

-Peter, Silver Spring, MD


Hardware Store Peter?

You buy your bird food in a hardware store? Where do you buy your own food, Jiffy Lube? Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh, but you see my point, don’t you? The hardware guy knows everything about nails, cement and putty, so we can’t expect him to know about birdseed too. That needs to be left to the birdseed professionals, like us. I don’t mean to suggest that you need a degree from Johns Hopkins to understand birdseed. A degree from the University of Maryland would probably be good enough.

The only thing that you need to know about birdseed is never fill a feeder with mixed seed and you’ll be fine. There is no such thing as a good feeder mixture. All mixes are wasteful and some are plain awful. Low-end seed dealers water down their product with everything from wheat to sorghum to paper chads found in a warehouse in Florida.

So why is the traditional “birdseed” so bad? Not all mixes are evil, they just aren’t necessary. All birds have a particular seed that they prefer. Mixing in stuff that they don’t like isn’t going to fool them. Just because we can trick a dog into eating a heartworm pill, by dipping it in peanut butter, doesn’t mean birds are as easily fooled. At best, unwanted seeds are tossed onto the ground; at worst the seed clogs up the feeder. No matter how many wonderful ingredients are in a mixture or how terrific the manufacture claims it is, there is always going to be one favorite seed and all the others will be tossed.

Many years ago, my in-laws used to buy a half gallon box of ice cream, called “Neopolitan.” Inside the container there were three equal sections of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream. On any given day there would be four or five of these half-gallon containers of Neopolitan in their freezer, each one with the chocolate neatly scooped out. The strawberry and vanilla were always left untouched, but the chocolate was long gone. Mixing in bad food with good doesn’t fool anybody, not even in-laws. They left the boring ice cream for the lowly company, who was me.

The best way to feed birds is with single ingredients. A feeder filled with their one favorite food is the least wasteful way to go. I know it seems boring, forcing birds to eat the same thing day in and day out, but food boredom is not an issue for birds. They are just glad to get it. And remember, we are not their only food source. Birds supplement their feeder diets with other food they find in the wild.

Now you are thinking, “Fine, we got the point already. Just tell us what food to put in our feeders.” That all depends on what part of the country you live in. Here in the good part of the country, the east, sunflower is the seed of choice. The black-oil sunflower is the most popular. Hulled sunflower, aka sunflower hearts, is also popular and leaves absolutely no empty shells on the ground. It is the perfect seed for the neat freaks. The more traditional striped sunflower is okay, but the thick, heavy shells will leave a huge mess under your feeder.

Some areas of the country find that other seeds including millet are also popular. Whatever works is fine, but still, I would fill a feeder with only one ingredient to avoid the mess from less popular seeds being tossed out onto the ground. If you want to feed ground birds like quail, doves or sparrows, then scattering small amounts of a mixed seed is fine. Just try not to put out more than the birds can eat. If you have yellow piles of seed on the ground, I’d say you are overdoing it.

Fill your feeders with sunflower seed Peter or any other single seed that your birds are willing to eat. Once you find a good seed (probably sunflower), stick with it. There really isn’t any other ingredient that you can ad to improve it, except maybe chocolate ice cream. But then you run the risk of having my in-laws eating out of your feeder.