Friday, November 24, 2023

Know Your Birdseed!

When I was a kid and we wanted to fill our bird feeder we reached for one thing: birdseed. It came in a big bag from the store and we used a scoop to dump it onto our feeder. What kind of seeds were in birdseed? We had no idea. Did some birds like some seeds more than others? The thought never crossed our minds. It was birdseed, and it was what the birds ate.

But it turns out that it pays to understand your birdseed. Different birds prefer different seeds, and so knowing exactly what you’re putting into your feeders can help you attract the birds you want. And maybe just as importantly, some companies fill out bird seed mixes with certain seeds birds don’t like, and count on consumers not knowing the difference.

A little knowledge can help both you and the birds in your backyard. Let’s get educated about the different seeds out there.

Black Oil Sunflower 

Black Oil Sunflower seeds have the broadest appeal for backyard birds. The combination of a large, nutritious seed with a thin, easy-to-crack shell means that they’re popular with everything from larger birds like Blue Jays and Mourning Doves to smaller species like Pine Siskins and nuthatches.

Tips: Birds prefer the all black Black Oil seeds to the similar-looking Striped Sunflower seeds, whose thicker shells make them better for people to snack on but are too tough for some birds. Also, sunflower seeds are sold both as regular seeds and with the outer shells already removed, known as “shelled” or “Sunflower Hearts.” Birds love both, but losing the shells means there’s less mess under your feeders.

Safflower Seeds

These white seeds are enjoyed by many of the same birds as those that eat Black Oil Sunflower, but Safflower seeds are perhaps more interesting for what doesn’t eat them. Their bitter taste makes them unappealing to squirrels, grackles, starlings, and other species that can sometimes take over feeders. 

Tips: Safflower seeds are not as common on grocery store shelves as Black Oil and some other seeds, and so shoppers may need to find a dedicated wild bird store or similar outlet. These seeds may need to be introduced gradually if using for the first time to help birds get accustomed.


Also known as White Proso Millet, this grass seed is a common component of many seed mixes. These small, round seeds may be white or red, and appeal to a number of smaller birds, like sparrows and finches.

Tips: All birdseed can get moldy when wet, and millet is particularly quick to ruin in the rain. It can be tempting to load backyard bird feeders up with seed, but it’s better to fill only a little bit at a time to avoid exposure to moisture.


This thin, black seed is the food of choice for small-billed finches like goldfinches, redpolls, and Pine Siskin. Though often referred to as “thistle,” and appearing similar to the seeds of those spiky plants, nyjer seeds actually come from African yellow daisies.

Tips: Nyjer seed is so lightweight that it will simply blow away if placed in a feeder with bigger, heavier seeds. This seed is best delivered in special feeders with smaller openings, or dumped into nylon “socks” with holes just the right size for prying finch beaks.


Milo, also known as Red Milo or sorghum, is a seed to be careful of. It looks for all the world like something that birds would love, but most of them don’t. Unless you’re especially trying to attract turkeys, quail, Mourning Doves, ducks, geese, and other large birds, you won’t want to put Milo in your backyard feeders.

Tips: Though few birds eat it, inexpensive Milo seed is often used as filler in bargain birdseed mixes. This Washington Post expose found that Milo made up to 75% of some mixes. Read the ingredients on the back of the package and buy something else if Milo is listed. Your money will be wasted on food that birds don’t eat, and the seed may rot when it's left in the feeder by uninterested birds.

There are lots of other great things to feed your backyard birds – suet, cracked corn, peanuts, fruit, native berries – but birdseed is still the most popular item on the menu. I hope now you have little more info to help you give your birds the feast they deserve.


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