This complete guide shows the best birdseed to buy for your backyard birdfeeders and how to avoid the money-wasting fillers.
When you’re ready to get set up, see the Bird Feeder Buying Guide here.
How to Choose the Right Birdseed
If you already feed birds in your garden you know it’s not just beneficial for the birds but brightens our lives as well.
With the right seed choices they enjoy healthy, nutrient-packed feed, and we get a glimpse into their intriguing, delightful, and drama-packed worlds.
The problems occur when birds are offered the wrong feed or feeders are not hygienically maintained.
Most often we will not even know a problem has occurred, but moldy birdseed or unclean feeders can be the main cause of numerous illnesses and diseases. The birds go off to suffer and die elsewhere and we remain unaware of our role in the problems.
It sounds like such a simple thing to offer birdseed and enjoy watching birds, but, like any animal care, it requires thoughtful choices and care.
Food to Offer and Others to Avoid
This guide shares the best options for selecting bird feed, including seeds, nuts, fruit, and suet, and explains why some common selections are not recommended.
There are also tips for keeping unwanted visitors away, and best practices for keeping your feeders safe and inviting.
Related: How to Attract Birds to Your Feeders
I spent many hours reading papers, discussions, and studies to zero in on recommendations, mixed reviews, and concerns. There are always exceptions, but the top recommended feed and tips will certainly serve you well.
We’ve long been warned that providing seed on bird feeders can create an unnatural dependency in birds but there is not any evidence to support this.
Their prompts to migrate come from changing light levels throughout the year and are not halted by tempting foods on a feeder.
If anything, as they are readying for migration, it’s the perfect time to offer rich, fatty seeds so they can fuel up before their long journeys to far away lands.
Seasonal Food Habits
During warmer months, most birds live on insects and spiders, supplemented by seeds if available—both from plants and our feeders.
During colder months when insects and spiders are no longer available, they turn to seeds and fruits.
This is why it’s best to delay fall garden cleanup until late spring: seed heads on plants provide much-needed fats, and dried fruits and berries on shrubs and bushes provide additional nutrients.
Anything provided on our backyard feeders is a bonus, so long as it is safe and healthy. This is so important that they are better off with no food from us at all if the feed is not carefully selected and provided with care.
Ultimately, consider the advice here and adapt it for your situation. Each of us deals with different birds, wildlife, and circumstances, and what works best for one will not work for all.
Attracting Wild Birds to Your Garden
- Avoid the use of any products toxic to birds and their food sources including caterpillars.
- Grow plants, trees and shrubs for habitat and be messy: dead and decaying things nourish life.
- Keep pets out of your garden.
- Choose plants that provide food, nectar, or habitat for other living things.
- Birdhouses: Use as decoration only.
- Nesting Boxes: Choose species-specific designs.
- Bird Feed: Provide nutritious food.
- Bird Feeders: Clean frequently.
TIP: Use a motion-sensitive wildlife camera in your garden to see what goes on when you’re not there.
How to Choose the Right Birdseed
When I was researching this, I soon learned that choosing bird feed is much more complicated than it sounds. It can be as political and personal as your own food choices. There is a lot to consider depending on how conscientious you wish to be.
And, don’t ever assume that a bag of mixed birdseed at your grocery store is actually good for the birds! Many are not.
Most often, you get what you pay for and it is not regulated.
Read the label and see what’s in there.
Cheaper blends often contain fillers—seeds or grains that few if any birds eat—that make the bag look full but provide nothing of value. Ultimately you’re paying for low-quality seed with a lot of waste.
Where the seed is grown is also important. Or, more accurately, what their growing practices are. I like to find Canadian growers (I’m in Canada) and research them before buying.
Unless organically-grown (which is rare) or produced specifically for bird health, many crops can contain significant pesticide or herbicide residues—and much more than their tiny birdy bodies can withstand.
And then there is the matter of what feed is appropriate for which species. Just because a wild bird will eat something does not mean it is beneficial to its health. You’ll find a list of foods to avoid below.
I’ve listed the ingredients commonly found in wild bird feed mixes below and made notes so you can make the right choices for your wild birds.
Shopping for Birdseed
- Buy from independent shops specializing in wild bird care who have carefully sourced the seed and designed blends suited to your local birds.
- Avoid generic bird seed mixes in big box stores.
- Get familiar with good ingredients and money-wasting fillers I’ve listed below.
- Visually inspect the seed. It should be fresh, dry, and have no signs of mold, fungus, insects, or condensation in the bag.
- Find out who the seed grower is.
- While 100% organic sources may be impossible to find, find out if the grower is minimizing the effects of any sprays used.
- It makes a huge difference if a sunflower seed crop is treated before or after the flower buds have formed. Early treatment may not have a residual effect on the seeds but direct spraying of flowers (which turn to seed) will.
- Some birdfeed like sunflower seeds or peanuts may be sold as ‘non-human grade’ or ‘animal-grade’.
Find out what that means before buying. In some cases, it means the pesticide residue levels are at amounts unacceptable for humans, yet somehow we say that’s okay for tiny animals. That’s just not right.
Common Bird Feed Ingredients | Pros and Cons
1Black-oil Sunflower Seeds
There is not a lot of consensus when it comes to the best choices for birdseed, but this is one.
Black-oil sunflowers seeds—not striped sunflower seeds—are the number one pick for feeding birds in much of Canada and the United States for several reasons.
- The thin shells make it easy for a variety of birds to both carry and open the seeds, so minimal energy is expended to obtain this excellent source of fat.
- While you can purchase shelled seeds, seeds in the shells are good choice because the shell preserves the seed and lasts longer.
Yes, they will also eat the striped ones, but the the black-oil seeds provide the best value for your money (most fat for least effort).
Attracts a wide range of birds: probably the most universal seed of all.
CLICK PLAY TO SEE MY BACKYARD BIRD CAM
2Nijer or Niger Seed, also called Thistle Seed
Nijer seed or Guizotia abyssinica is cultivated in India and Africa (Ethiopia). It is heat-treated to prevent the seeds from sprouting in storage and during transport.
- The price of nijer seed has jumped way up in recent years but it’s tempting to buy this rich, oily seed because it is clearly loved by favourite, small birds.
- Because of the tiny seed size, it’s best to use a tube feeder with small ports to minimize waste.
Attracts: Goldfinches (American and Lesser), indigo buntings, redpolls, siskins…
Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a thistle-like plant used to produce safflower oil and seeds.
- These are the seeds you hear recommended when squirrels are a problem with regular birdseed because some reject it. But, there are plenty reports of squirrels developing a taste for them over time so don’t get your hopes too high.
Attracts: cardinals, chickadees, doves, grosbeaks, house finches, native sparrows….
Limited appeal: grackles, non-native sparrows, starlings, and squirrels.
4Squash, Pumpkin, and Melon Seeds
This tip is not mentioned enough: many birds enjoy seeds from squash, pumpkins, and melons.
- First, air-dry the seeds, and then run them through a food processor to make the meat (inner parts) easier to access.
- Place them on your feeder or the ground.
Attracts: a wide variety of birds enjoy these seeds.
There is no consensus about corn! Some experts think it’s fine, others say no way. Some worry about GMO crops, others do not share that concern.
Here’s the different ways corn is available as wild bird feed:
- Whole corn kernels | Attracts larger birds including pheasants, pigeons, Canada geese, and turkeys.
- Steel cut corn | Attracts a wider range of birds because of the smaller pieces.
- Cracked corn | Tends to be powdery and more of a filler.
Arguments For Corn
- Locally grown
- Can provide good carbohydrates (when not crushed into powder)
Arguments Against Corn
- Hard to digest
- Can be contaminated with aflatoxins (very dangerous)
- Heavily-sprayed crops
- Attracts other species including ducks, raccoons, bears, deer…
- Commonly treated with fungicides not suitable for ingestion by birds
If you choose to offer corn or mixed blends with corn:
- Store it in a cool, dry container
- Do not let it get wet (in storage or on the feeder)
- Do not serve it in humid or wet weather
- Remove any leftovers from the ground.
- Never use microwave popcorn or other flavored corn
Attracts: A wide-range of birds including invasive species plus potentially problematic visitors such as bears, deer, raccoons, rats.
This is another one with mixed opinions.
Overall, white millet is recommended but red and golden millet are not.
- The birds that enjoy white millet are often ground-feeding species, so it’s best offered on the ground or a low platform feeder and cleaned up daily.
Attracts: blackbirds, cardinals, cowbirds, house sparrows, juncos, mourning doves, quails, towhees, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows.
- Red millet and golden millet tend to be ignored by birds and go to waste. There are always exceptions, but, in general, both are considered low-value filler.
7Milo or Sorghum
You see this stuff in a lot of generic birdseed mixes. It often goes to waste because birds will eat any other high-value seeds first and leave the milo alone.
- If you do use it, offer it on the ground or a low, platform feeder and see if the birds actually consume it.
Attracts: cowbirds, curve-billed thrashers, Gambel’s quail, Steller’s Jays.
These next 3 are all considered low-value fillers:
Other Beneficial Foods
Depending on your own food preferences (carnivore, vegan), you may choose beef-fat suet or peanut butter suet.
- Both are high energy foods that are most beneficial to birds in the winter months.
- During warmer months, beef-fat suet can become rancid and the oils from peanut butter can separate (and no bird needs that on their feathers).
- You can purchase ready-made suet cakes or make your own.
- Some have added cornmeal or oats, which I regard as low-value fillers.
- This shows how I make peanut butter suet by combining all-natural peanut butter with a good quality birdseed mix. I only use single-ingredient peanut butter to avoid unhealthy oils and sugars that are not beneficial to the birds.
- Place your homemade suet in mesh bags or a suet feeder. Look for one with a long board which supports the bird’s tail making it easier to balance while feeding.
Attracts: chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers…
Peanuts are legumes, not nuts, and many birds (and other animals) enjoy them.
- Choose human-grade peanuts in the shells (not animal-grade which are more likely to have mycotoxins and higher herbicide residues).
- Peanuts without the shells should be used with caution because they are more likely to get moldy or rot.
- Store peanuts in a cool, dry place.
Attracts: blue jays, chickadees, Carolina wrens, crows, nuthatches, titmice, and squirrels, bears, raccoons, and other mammals.
- Mealworms are the larvae of the mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor) and very high in protein.
- Some very timid birds will come to your garden when mealworms are available. I have a friend who used them to introduce bluebirds to a nesting box on her property. You can also use them to train some birds to feed from your hand.
- You can buy quantities of them, live or dried. Here’s dried mealworms on Amazon.com.
- Some birders report that mealworms should be hydrated in water first, otherwise they expand too much in the bird’s stomach.
Attracts: bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens.
- Fruit is another important dietary component for many types of birds.
- If you are offering dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, or currents, be sure they are preservative-free (no sulfites) and presoak them in water before putting them on your feeder.
- You can also offer grapes, sliced oranges or tangerines, apple, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries.
- All of these are prone to rot (of course) and may attract other critters, so just put out what can be consumed by the birds within one day and disinfect your feeders regularly.
Attracts: bluebirds, catbirds, mockingbirds, orioles, waxwings, and robins.
Foods to Avoid
When feeding wild birds, it’s best to choose whole foods that align with their natural diets.
This means never offer any baked goods like:
- or any other human-made foods.
These are of low nutritional value, become moldy, and attract wildlife you may not want in your garden like rats.
Also avoid anything with:
Just stick to the items recommended above.
Watch Bird Cams
- Read birdseed packages and find out where the seed comes from, who the grower is, and what their growing practices are. Organic or minimal, carefully-timed use of herbicides (etc.) and other sprays is best.
- Check what ingredients are in the mix. There are many fillers that birds will not eat and go to waste.
- The best overall seed is black-oil sunflower seeds in the shell, not striped sunflower seeds.
- Other popular choices are safflower seeds (not well-liked by squirrels), nijer seeds (for smaller birds), and white millet (not red or golden).
- Corn is recommended by some and ill-advised by other experts. Personally, I avoid it because it attracts rats here.
- Peanuts, fruit, squash seeds, mealworms, grubs, and suet (for winter) are also good, nutritious options.
- You’ll do nicely if you can provide several styles of feeders, suited to local species and various sizes of birds. Placing feeders some distance apart can reduce conflicts and frights.
- Good feeder hygiene is critical to avoid spreading disease amongst birds. If you can’t keep your feeders safe and clean, it’s better not to have them at all.
- Seed spilled on the ground is ripe for disease, so clean it up daily.
- Take time to watch the birds every day. Their behaviors will help you make the right choices for your feeders.
- And enjoy it. We are very fortunate to have these beautiful creatures in our lives.
I hope this has helped you navigate your birdseed options and make good choices for healthy, happy birds.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛