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 we’ll explain everything you need to know.
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 your seed in a safe, stress-free manner.
Bottom Line: 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, hold up reasonably well when exposed to the elements and aren’t as quick to spoil nor as susceptible to aflatoxins as some other common choices are.
The only problem is, sunflower seed also attracts 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. We’ll talk about each one in greater detail below.
Black Sunflower Seed
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.
Wagner’s Black Oil Sunflower Seed is likely the best one available for most people interested in feeding their local birds.
High-quality, thin-shelled black oil sunflower seed that's packaged in the USA and available in multiple bag sizes.
Black-and-White Sunflower Seed
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.
Shelled Sunflower Seed
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 with shelled sunflower seed – 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 5-pound bag of shelled sunflower seed will generally run you at least 20 to 25 bucks, and often more. Given this and the fact that they don’t keep as well as some others, we recommend buying shelled sunflowers in modest quantities.
Safflower seed is not as popular with wildlife 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.
Premium safflower seed containing no corn and packaged in the USA in resealable bags.
However, there are also great options available for nature lovers who need significant quantities of safflower seed. For example, Shafer offers a 50-pound bag at a “reasonable” price (for safflower seed).
High-quality, US-grown safflower seed containing no waste seed and sold in 50-pound bags.
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.
Extra-clean nyjer seed that's packaged in the USA in a Velcro-sealed bag for storing convenience.
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 25 to 50 pounds at a time.
Clean, all-natural white proso millet seed that's grown in the USA and packaged in bulk quantities.
However, if you’d like a more convenient 3-pound option, Desert Valley has you covered.
Premium white millet that's hand packed in small batches for quality and freshness.
Storing Your Seed
Despite what you may think, bird seed doesn’t last forever. In fact, it 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:
Stackable, US-made rectangular storage boxes that are available in 6- and 15-quart sizes.
But these are also pretty nifty and feature a pour spout:
Easy-to-carry 8-quart containers featuring a convenient handle and pour spout.
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 peanut 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. Make sure to pick up a suet feeder while you’re at it (they’re super cheap).
- 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. You can make your own sugar water mixture, but it is much easier to buy a pre-mixed liquid or mix-in powder.
- 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.
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 for one of the best birdfeeders.