Sunflower seed. The answer is sunflower seed.
But that doesn’t mean sunflower seed is the only thing you should offer your birds, nor is it appropriate for all situations.
Read on, and I’ll explain everything you need to know.
I’ll try to make the most important facts pop off the page for those of you skimming on your phones, while also sharing plenty of in-depth info to help ensure you not only pick the right mixture of seeds for your yard, but that you offer said seeds in a way that won’t harm your local flocks.
Which Birdseed Attracts the Most Birds: The Highlights
- Sunflower seed is undoubtedly the best single seed to feed to birds. It’s nutritious, it tends to attract some of the most desirable birds, and it’s readily available.
- To attract a diverse array of bird species, you’ll want to mix in some other seeds and foods, such as Nyjer seed, peanuts, and sugar water. You could even offer things like mealworms and fruit.
- Unfortunately, sunflower seed can attract some undesirable characters, so you may have to pick something else in some cases.
- In addition to picking a good bird seed, you’ll need to store and offer it in a safe, stress-free manner.
Quick-and-Dirty Birdseed Buyer’s Guide
- Shut up and give me some good birdseed: Wagner’s Black Oil Sunflower Seed from Amazon. It’s cheap, nutritious and effective.
- I want a vibrant and diverse collection of birds visiting, and I don’t mind spending an extra couple of bucks or putting in some effort: Blain’s Farm & Fleet Black Oil Sunflower Seed, Wagner’s Nyjer Seed, Shafer Seed’s White Proso Millet and some peanuts from Backyard Seeds.
Which Birdseed Is Best?
Generally speaking, sunflower seed is the best choice for folks who want the quickest, easiest, and most nutritious bird seed around.
But it doesn’t work well in every situation. And while it may be the main course, you’ll want to pair it with a few good side dishes. It’s the only way to draw a diverse crowd to dinner.
We’ll explain the basics of sunflower seed and a few great side dishes to accompany it below.
There are several reasons sunflower seed sits atop birdseed mountain.
- From the local birds’ perspective, the seeds are tasty, oily and easy to crack. Sunflower seeds also attract everything from cardinals to titmice to grosbeaks.
- From the feeder’s point of view, they’re easy to find, sunflower seeds hold up reasonably well when exposed to the elements and they aren’t as quick to spoil nor as susceptible to aflatoxins as some other common choices are.
The only problem is, they also attract squirrels, cowbirds, starlings and house sparrows (which you usually don’t want to feed). It’s not easy to prevent these critters from frequenting your feeder, but there are some products and hacks that’ll help make it hard for pests to access your sunflower seed.
Sunflower seeds come in three common styles: black, black-and-white, and shelled.
Black or black oil sunflower seed is the bread-and-butter of the bird-feeding game.
There are a ton of growers, brands and retailers that offer high-quality seeds that are grown and packaged in the USA. This means your primary purchasing questions will relate to price and convenience.
If you just want the cheapest black oil sunflower available from a reputable retailer, Blain’s Farm & Fleet Black Oil Sunflower Seed is your best bet. At about $0.50 a pound, it’s the perfect choice for bargain-hunting bird enthusiasts. Blain’s Farm & Fleet is a 65-plus-year-old, family-owned, US-based retailer based in the upper mid-west, so you get to help support a small business too.
If you’d rather just make a cheap seed from a site that probably already has your credit card info, you can pick up Wagner’s Black Oil Sunflower Seed at Amazon. It’ll cost you a bit more, but it’ll probably be a bit more convenient, shipping will likely be quicker, and it’s still really cheap.
Black-and-white sunflower seeds – the kind you may like chewing on – aren’t any cheaper than their black oil counterparts, they’re not any easier to find, and they don’t offer any nutritional benefits that black oil seeds don’t.
In fact, black-and-white sunflower seeds are inferior to black oil sunflower seeds in most ways.
But they may still prove helpful in some situations. For example, house sparrows don’t appear capable of cracking them open very easily. So, if house sparrows are overtaking your home feeder station, you may want to consider switching to these, rather than their thinner-shelled counterparts.
Amazon carries Schoen Farms’ Black-and-White Sunflower Seeds for a pretty reasonable price.
Shelled sunflower seeds (sometimes called sunflower meats) are more expensive than shelled varieties and, bereft of the protection the shell provides, spoil quickly. But they’re a great option for people who don’t want a bunch of sunflower shells littering the area beneath their feeders.
Just be sure that you store them correctly and don’t fill your feeders to capacity – just add a couple of days’ worth of seed. If left in a feeder for much longer, the seeds will spoil and potentially sicken the birds you’re trying to feed.
Some shelled sunflower seeds are sold in whole form, but others are sold as “chips.” Chips are fine to feed, but they’ll spoil even more quickly than whole shelled seeds will.
Remember when I said shelled bird seed is expensive? I wasn’t kidding. A 25-pound bag will generally run you at least 50 bucks, and often more. Given this and the fact that they don’t keep as well as some others, I always recommend buying shelled sunflowers in modest quantities.
Cole’s 10-Pound Bag of Sunflower Meats is probably the best option available online. It’s a high-quality brand, and the quantity offered is pretty reasonable. Plus, it isn’t that expensive.
Safflower seed is not as universally loved as sunflower seed is – but that’s kind of the point. Or, at least, that’s part of the reason it is so useful.
Cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows and doves all enjoy these small, hard, off-white seeds, but these species eagerly consume sunflower seeds. So, they don’t seem to offer much benefit, aside perhaps, from a bit of variety.
The true value of these seeds arises from the fact that several mischievous characters – including squirrels and starlings, among others – are usually not interested in eating it. This makes the seeds a great choice for places where these critters congregate in significant numbers.
So, if your feeders are overrun with squirrels or other pests, consider switching to safflower seed. It’s a bit more expensive than black oil sunflower seed, but it’s usually worth it in the long run.
Nyjer seed is a small, hard, black seed that often attracts goldfinches, indigo buntings and other small finches. Doves and juncos will also eat these seeds when available.
These seeds are typically produced in Africa and heat-treated to prevent them from germinating. This is done to help prevent these plants from becoming invasive problems, like some other asters have become in the U.S.
Nyjer seed isn’t hard to find, and there isn’t a great deal of difference between the products on the market. Accordingly, price and convenience will once again be your primary considerations.
And given that, Wagner’s Nyjer Seed – available on Amazon — is probably the best choice. Be sure to note the cost per unit volume when ordering, as some bag sizes provide more value than others.
White Proso Millet
White proso millet is a double-sided seed.
On the one hand, it often attracts cowbirds and house sparrows, which are invasive species who already enjoy a competitive advantage over many of our native species. Most people want to avoid supporting these birds.
But on the other hand, it attracts a number of very desirable species, that aren’t always easy to entice with other seeds. This includes handsome and melodic towhees, as well as quail and native sparrows.
So, you’ll want to use some discretion when using white proso millet.
Shafer Seed’s White Proso Millet is the most cost-effective choice for those who’re willing to buy 50 pounds at a time. It’s available on Amazon, grown and packaged in the USA, and it’s received glowing praise from most reviewers. If you just want to stick your toe in the white-proso-millet-waters, CountryMax offers an 8-pound bag for about half as much money.
Storing Your Seed
Despite what you may think, bird seeds don’t last forever. In fact, they can rot, spoil or become contaminated with a variety of toxic substances if not stored correctly. Alfatoxins are some of the most important ones that affect bird seed, but there are others.
But don’t worry – storing bird seed is pretty easy.
You can store it indoors or outdoors, but I heartily recommend storing it indoors. This not only protects the seed from warm and wet weather (both of which will cause them to spoil quickly), it also means you don’t have to worry about critters getting into your stash.
All you need to store your seed is some plastic storage containers. There are fifty gazillion options on the market, but I like these for small amounts of seed (they even come with a built-in pouring spout) and these for storing large quantities of seed.
Make sure to buy or improvise a scoop for your storage containers and consider picking up a small container to ferry seed from the storage container to your feeders.
Other Foods for Birds: Seeds Aren’t the Only Game in Town
Seeds may be the best all-around food for “birds” in the generic sense, but there are a lot of species who’re unlikely to show up at your feeder to enjoy the seeds you provide. They want other types of foods.
A few of the most notable non-seed bird foods include:
- Peanuts – Peanuts will draw plenty of attention from squirrels and other critters, but it is a great food for birds that you may want to use in your feeders. Shelled nuts or pieces are usually the best option, but jays will appreciate shell-on peanuts if offered.
- Suet – Essentially a fistful of seed mixed into a block of fat, suet is a high-calorie treat that’s especially valuable to birds in the winter, when food is at a premium. Suet will attract a variety of species, but woodpeckers are likely the most notable fans of it.
- Sugar Water – Hummingbirds and orioles are attractive birds who will readily visit sugar-water feeders. Additionally, sugar water feeders are easy to set up and cheap to keep filled.
- Fruit Slices – By providing some fruit slices, you’ll be able to attract a number of species that wouldn’t visit your feeders otherwise. You can use just about any fruit you find at the grocery store, but there’s no need to stray from apples, oranges, and berries.
- Mealworms – Like offering fruit, offering insects will give you the chance to attract some non-seedeaters to your yard. Bluebirds are particularly fond of mealworms, but you may also see robins and other insect-eaters checking out your offerings.
Seeds and Other Foods That Aren’t Worth the Trouble
In addition to sunflower, safflower, and other high-quality seeds and foodstuffs, you’ll see some other foods offered alongside them, which aren’t a great option for most people.
- Corn – Attracts all kinds of non-desirable visitors, is often contaminated with aflatoxin, and doesn’t attract many birds that won’t just eat sunflower seed.
- Canary Seed – Relatively few birds dig it, and those that do will accept other foods.
- Rapeseed – Doesn’t offer any particular value and will likely spoil if you don’t attract enough birds that do like to eat it.
- Red Millet – Typically used as a filler in low-cost wild bird seed mixes, most birds ignore it. Most of it will end up on the ground beneath your feeder, where it’ll attract rodents.
- Golden Millet – Pretty much everything said about red millet applies to golden millet too. Most birds will just ignore it.
- Flax – Birds don’t appear to share the human infatuation with this omega-3-rich seed. It’s typically included to help fill out seed mixes.
Shut Up and Tell Me What to Buy!
If you want to feed your local birds, start with some black oil sunflower seed – most common feeder birds love it. If you notice squirrels or other undesirable characters showing up at your feeder, swap the sunflower seed out for safflower.
If you want to spice things up and attract some more critters, add some Nyjar seed in a separate feeder to attract goldfinches and other pretty songbirds. Provide some sugar water for the local hummingbirds and some suet for the woodpeckers, and you’ll be well on your way to attracting huge flocks.
As always, feel free to experiment and consider non-traditional recommendations and tips you may see about feeding your backyard birds. But, the seeds recommended above provide a great place for beginners to start.
Be sure to share your thoughts about bird seed selection as well as your experiences with these and other seeds in the comments below. Your thoughts may prove more helpful to fellow readers than mine anyway.
And now that you know the basics of seeds, it’s time to start looking at feeders.