Bird Seed 101: The 10 Best Types For Wild Birds
Not all types of bird seed and food are created equal.
When you go to the store and see all the different bags of food, it’s easy to become a bit overwhelmed and wonder whats the best seeds and mixes to offer your backyard birds.
Whether you just started feeding birds or you’re frustrated at the amount of food wasted at your feeders, I think this article will help. By reading today, you can expect to learn the following things:
- The 10 most common and popular types of bird food.
Nutritional content for each recommended food and what birds it will attract.
- The types of bird seed that birds rarely eat, but are used commonly in wild bird mixes.
I get asked periodically about which combinations of foods that I use at my bird feeding station.
Unfortunately, I can’t give a consistent answer! It depends on the season, which birds I have been observing lately, and my own experimentation. The best advice that I can give you is to keep rotating different foods and bird seed into your various feeders and then sit back and take notes of what is working best.
Check out my LIVE bird feeder cam below to see my current set up!
The 10 Best Types of Birdseed and Food
If you could only offer one type of food at your feeders, then you would want to pick sunflower seed! Not only do dozens of bird species love sunflower, but it’s also easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
Believe it or not, there are three varieties of sunflower available for feeding birds, and each type has different advantages and uses.
A. Black-oil Sunflower
Oil sunflower is the most popular type of seed in the shell and devoured by almost all birds. I find it interesting that this variety of sunflower is not the kind that humans consume. It was developed to harvest for its oil content, but then it was discovered how much birds love the stuff!
Black-oil sunflower has a higher oil content and is less expensive when compared to striped sunflower below (B). Black-oil shells are also thinner and smaller, so they are easier to crack open and make less of a mess than striped sunflower.
*Nutrition Information: 40% fat, 16% protein, 20% carbohydrates
Birds that are attracted to black-oil sunflower: Cardinals, jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, grosbeaks, finches, nutcrackers, juncos, House Sparrows, blackbirds, doves, & grackles. It would have been easier to make a list of birds that DON’T like black-oil sunflower seed.
B. Striped Sunflower
Striped sunflower is larger than black-oil and is the same type of sunflower seed that humans consume, which makes this seed more expensive than black-oil sunflower.
When it comes to your backyard birds, striped sunflower is not going to be as popular as black-oil sunflower. One reason for this is striped sunflower has a thicker and stronger shell than black-oil, which makes it tougher to crack open to get to the seed. Because of this fact, I like to use striped sunflower in my backyard when I am trying to discriminate against certain birds.
For example, House Sparrows and House Finches can be incredibly numerous at bird feeders, but they are unable to open striped sunflower! If you dedicate a feeder to striped sunflower, then the cardinals, titmice, nuthatches, and other birds that can open the hard shell have a more peaceful place to eat. It’s also great to add to a general bird seed mix.
*Nutritional Info: 26% fat, 15% protein, 18% carbohydrates
Birds that are attracted to striped sunflower: Cardinals, jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, grackles, nutcrackers.
C. Hulled Sunflower
Hulled sunflower refers to sunflower seed that has already had the shell removed. Other common names include sunflower chips or kernels.
Since they are easier to eat than seeds still in their shells, hulled sunflower is insanely popular at feeders! Seriously, almost every type of bird that isn’t a bird of prey will eat it. My feeders that contain hulled sunflower have to be refilled just about every single day.
Because the shell has already been removed, hulled sunflower is more expensive by weight than sunflower still in the husk. But you have to take into account that when you buy black-oil or striped sunflower, the shells won’t be eaten, so you are paying for this waste.
Hulled sunflower also is popular because it doesn’t make a mess. There are no shells left to clean up!
Birds that hulled sunflower attracts: Cardinals, jays, grosbreaks, some wrens, goldfinches, finches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncos, sparrows, towhees, blackbirds, doves, and grackles, among others.
Safflower is a bit smaller than black-oil sunflower and has a tough shell for such a little seed.
Many people call safflower a “miracle seed” because some of the most annoying pests at your feeders don’t particularly enjoy it.
For example, squirrels and blackbirds are probably the biggest problems that most people encounter feeding birds. Would you believe me if I told you that squirrels and blackbirds (including grackles and starlings) RARELY eat safflower seed?
The good news is that most other backyard birds have no issue eating safflower, including cardinals, chickadees, and finches.
I know it sounds too good to be true! Try it and let me know your results. Safflower can also be a great seed to use in your feeders that are not squirrel proof.
*Nutrition content: 38% fat, 16% protein, 34% carbohydrates
Birds that safflower attracts: Cardinals, grosbeaks, finches (House and Purple), titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and doves.
3. Nyjer (thistle)
Goldfinches are one of my favorite birds to observe and attract. I enjoy watching their roller coaster flights across the yard and the way they can cling to feeders in any orientation, even upside down! Because of their tiny beaks, goldfinches can only eat the smallest of seeds, which makes feeding nyjer to goldfinches a perfect fit!
Nyjer seed, also commonly called “thistle,” is a tiny, black seed that grows in Ethiopia or India. Nyjer seed is not actually related to thistle, so you don’t have to worry about it developing into an annoying weed. Before it’s sold, nyjer seed is sterilized by heat so it can’t ever grow.
Out of all the types of birdseed, nyjer is one of the most vulnerable to spoiling. If the seed is not fresh, it’s common for birds to ignore it entirely.
To feed nyjer, you are going to want to purchase a feeder that specializes in distributing this tiny seed. For more information on nyjer feeders, check out the article below.
*Nutrition Info: 36% fat, 21% protein, 13% carbohydrates
Birds that nyjer seed attracts: Goldfinches, Purple Finch, House Finch, Pine Siskin, chickadees, and doves.
Peanuts are a great food to provide at your feeding station. Not only do birds love eating them, but they are healthy and provide a significant amount of fat and protein, both of which are important to birds, especially during cold winter months.
*Nutrition Info: 49% fat, 26% protein, 19% carbohydrates
Make sure to buy roasted, unsalted peanuts, if possible!
You can offer peanuts two different ways, either in the shell or already out. The main difference is which birds you want to feed because most birds can’t crack open the hard peanut shell!
A. Peanuts in the shell:
Only a few types of birds can eat peanuts that are still in the shell. This list includes larger birds such as crows, jays, grackles, magpies, and certain woodpeckers. Titmice and chickadees also enjoy peanuts and will work very hard to get that shell cracked open!
When I use peanuts in the shell in my backyard, I typically use one of two feeders, either my tray feeder or peanut wreath.
Most of the time I throw a scoop of peanuts onto my tray feeder located on the ground. Usually within an hour after setting out peanuts, my local murder of crows arrives trying to fit as many peanuts as possible into their mouths to fly off somewhere else to feast.
If I don’t want to feed crows and want to focus on Blue Jays, then I use my peanut wreath feeder and hang it from my bird pole.
B. Shelled peanuts:
As you can see below, the list of birds that will eat shelled peanuts is much, much longer than those that can crack open and eat peanuts in the shell.
Birds that shelled peanuts attract: Cardinals, jays, nutcrackers, nuthatches, grosbreaks, chickadees, titmice, bushtits, starlings, cowbirds, crows, magpies, ravens, and grackles.
Shelled peanuts are used in lots of different types of feeders. They also are commonly diced up and added to general bird seed mixes or suet. I fill a metal mesh feeder with peanuts that only woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees, and other birds that can cling can access.
One word of warning; I have found that if shelled peanuts get wet or are not eaten within a few days, they are more susceptible to rotting and molding. At this point, the food needs to be thrown away and the feeder needs cleaned before using again.
5. White Proso Millet
Millet is a favorite food among ground-feeding birds. It is generally not sold individually but is included in many types of birdseed mixes.
There are a few different types of millet, but the best one is white proso millet, which is a small round seed.
Birds that white proso millet attracts: Juncos, sparrows, towhees, blackbirds, grackles, and doves.
It’s best to offer blends that include white millet in tray or hopper feeders because these feeders allow birds that don’t eat millet to kick it to the ground. If you put millet into a tube feeder, it’s a lot harder for birds that don’t like millet to kick it out, and you will probably end up with a bunch of millet at the bottom of the tube feeder.
*Nutrition Info: 4% fat, 11% protein, 73% carbohydrates
A word of warning: Many birdseed mixes also contain red proso millet, which is red and a bit smaller than white millet. Ground feeding birds will eat red millet, but it’s not their favorite. If possible, I would try to avoid buying a mix that includes red millet.
Because of their high fat and protein content, offering mealworms at your feeding station is a healthy treat for many backyard birds.
There are a few things you need to know about mealworms. First, they are purchased in two different ways:
Using living mealworms is not as gross as it may sound. They are not slimy or kept in the dirt. When you purchase mealworms that are alive, they typically come in a small, plastic container and are kept in your refrigerator, where they go dormant and can survive for a few months!
*Nutrition Info: 22% fat, 18% protein, 2.5% carbohydrates View $ on Amazon
Buying dried mealworms is less hassle than keeping live mealworms in your fridge! For example, you can buy 5 pounds of them on Amazon for a relatively low cost.
*Nutrition Info: 32% fat, 49% protein, 6.9% carbs View $ on Amazon
Birds prefer eating live mealworms and may even reject dried mealworms at first. If this happens, you may need to combine both types to train your birds. Personally, it’s much more convenient to keep a big pouch of dried mealworms in my shed than having living ones in my refrigerator!
Birds that are attracted to mealworms: Bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens, and starlings.
Using mealworms is a popular way to attract bluebirds to your yard since these thrushes primarily eat insects.
- RELATED: The 5 Best Bluebird Feeders To Try
Nurtrition Information: 5% fat, 9% protein, 74% carbohydrates
When you purchase corn at the store, you will see it offered in the following two different ways:
A. Whole Kernel Corn:
Whole kernel corn is inexpensive to purchase when compared to other types of birdseed and food. At my local home improvement store, I can buy 50 pounds for around $10!
But not that many birds can eat a whole kernel of corn. It’s going to be limited to larger birds, such as jays, crows, ravens, grackles, and ducks.
I also enjoy feeding the mammals that visit my feeding station, such as squirrels, raccoons, opossums, skunks, and rabbits. Whole corn is the food that I commonly use on my ground tray to attract these interesting animals.
Here is a recent video of a skunk and raccoon eating together under my feeders!
B. Cracked Corn:
Cracked corn merely is whole kernel corn that has been chopped up. It is used commonly in birdseed mixes because of its inexpensive price. Many birds are unable to eat whole kernel corn because it’s too big, but lots of birds like eating cracked corn.
I don’t regularly use cracked corn at my main bird feeding station because I have found that cracked corn is extremely popular among House Sparrows! They absolutely can’t get enough of the stuff, and in general, I try to deter these invasive birds as much as possible from visiting. When I do purchase cracked corn, it’s usually to fill a separate bird feeder away from my primary feeders to draw House Sparrows away.
Birds that are attracted to cracked corn: Jays, juncos, sparrows, towhees, starlings, cowbirds, magpies, ravens, crows, doves, grackles, blackbirds, and quail.
Pure suet is the hard fat around the kidneys and loins of beef and sheep. It provides an outstanding energy source for wild birds and provides necessary fats, which are especially important in winter.
It’s possible to go to your butcher and ask for pure, raw suet. But as you can imagine, most of us don’t want to do that. Luckily, manufacturers of bird food have made it extremely convenient to feed suet in our backyards. Prepackaged suet blends are extremely popular and are found at a variety of stores and online.
Most suet blends available don’t include just suet, but some variety of nuts, seeds, corn, grains, or fruit. The type of suet blend you select may depend on what birds you are trying to attract.
A wide variety of birds feed on suet, but the most common birds attracted are woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees. Unfortunately, European Starlings also love suet and will gorge themselves until it’s all gone!
You can buy bird suet in 4 common styles:
- Cakes: The most popular variety. The size of 4.5″ x 4.5″ x 1.5″ fits standard suet feeders. I mostly use the above product since it has a high protein content, which attracts more woodpeckers.
- Balls: Roughly the size of golf balls that fit in many types of mesh feeders.
- Nuggets: Typically slightly smaller than marbles. Nuggets also can be put in mesh feeders or on tray feeders.
- Plugs: Resemble a small log. These fit into suet feeders that are specially made to fit suet plugs. Suet plug feeders are typically vertical and resemble the side of a tree.
9. Sugar Water (Nectar)
Setting out a homemade solution of sugar water mimics nectar that birds find in flowers. Luckily, making a nectar solution is easy; just mix 4 parts water with 1 part table sugar.
And why should you dedicate a spot in your backyard for a nectar feeder? The answer is easy; to attract two of the brightest and most colorful birds around!
Hummingbirds and orioles!
Both of these birds commonly visit nectar feeders to feed upon sugar solutions. Nectar complements their natural diet nicely and provides them with energy for their active lifestyles.
And in my opinion, few birds are as exciting to see in your backyard as a tiny hummingbird zooming around or watching a bright orange oriole fly down from the trees.
*Nutrition Info: 0% fat, 0% protein, 20% carbohydrates
- Hummingbirds and orioles get additional nutrition from other food sources, such as flies, gnats, spiders, aphids, caterpillars, and fruit. Nectar is simply an energy source, so please don’t worry about the lack of nutrients in nectar.
Offering fruit at your feeders provides a healthy snack for many birds and is a great way to attract species that don’t regularly visit your backyard.
You can use fresh fruit, dried fruit, or jelly.
You can try anything laying around your house — bananas, grapes, apples, berries, etc. Oranges work great at attracting orioles! My recommendation is to slice the fruit up in small chunks and set out on a tray feeder in small quantities. During summer, fruit can spoil quickly and attracts yellowjackets and bees! It’s best to use when it’s cooler outside.
Using dried fruit is easier to offer because it’s more convenient to store. Raisins, cranberries, and currants are popular options. Robins, waxwings, bluebirds, and mockingbirds should find your dried fruit attractive!
If you want to attract orioles, then putting out jelly should help. I’d use a small snack feeder and only use a little bit at a time until you know the jelly is being eaten.
The jelly at your grocery store works fine. But did you know there is a jelly made specifically for birds? It’s called BirdBerry Jelly and contains real sugar and fruit juice instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
The types of birdseed you should avoid!
Unfortunately, at almost every large home improvement store, pet store, hardware store, or other places that sell birdseed, you are going to run into a common problem.
Cheap bird seed mixes contain fillers that wild birds won’t eat!
Yes, it’s a sad fact that so much food is wasted, but the way for manufacturers to get the price down of a wild bird seed mix is to include lots of cheap ingredients without regard to whether the seed actually attracts birds.
Here are the most common seeds added to mixes that you should avoid!
Maybe if everyone stopped buying bird food that contained these poor ingredients, then they would disappear from the shelves, and we would be left with only quality products.
Milo, also called sorghum, is probably the most common filler ingredient you will find in birdseed mixes. It’s cheap and does a great job of filling up the bag.
The problem is that most birds never or rarely eat milo! Wild birds will just kick it off the feeder to the ground, where it will sit until it rots and decomposes. Only a few ground-feeding birds, like turkeys, quail, pheasants, and doves eat milo along with pest birds like European Starlings and House Sparrows.
Don’t get white millet and milo confused, which I used to do commonly. They are entirely different seeds. White millet is good, milo is bad!
Only a few birds, like starlings and grackles, will eat the oats in a birdseed mix.
Doesn’t the name tell you everything you need to know? Canary seed is not a great food to use at your feeders; it’s best for pet birds! Only a few types of ground feeding birds will consume it, along with House Sparrows.
Wheat and other grains:
Any grain is typically not a good thing to offer to birds since it’s rare they would ever naturally eat the stuff. Wild birds prefer seeds, nuts, fruits, insects, etc.
Other fillers you may run across and should be avoided:
Rice, flax, golden millet, red millet, buckwheat, and rapeseed.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
Choosing the types of birdseed for your bird feeding station is an important decision.
You have to balance which types of birds you want to attract with how much money you want to spend. There are no perfect answers or one best combination of bird food to use. It comes down to your personal preferences.
I hope reading through the TEN different types of bird food helped to understand the benefits each one can provide in your backyard. Helping to meet the nutritional needs of birds is not only beneficial to birds but also very rewarding for us to watch them visit all year long!
What are the three types of birdseed that attract the most birds to your backyard?
*Nutrition information from each food source was obtained from the book “The Joy of Bird Feeding,” which is written by Jim Carpenter. I highly recommend the book as a resource for anyone who enjoys watching birds in their backyard.*