Out My Backdoor: The Best Seeds for Backyard Bird Feeders

By Terry W. Johnson

Bird feeding is big -- really big. Roughly one-third of all North Americans older than 16 feed birds. Americans alone feed their feathered neighbors more than a billion pounds of wild bird seed annually.

With our economy going downhill faster than a goldfinch streaking for a holly bush with a sharp-shinned hawk in hot pursuit, we are all looking for ways to trim our family budgets. Instead of eliminating bird seed from your budget, knowing which seeds are preferred by birds and create the least amount of waste makes good economic sense. Armed with this knowledge you and your family can continue to enjoy watching the fascinating array of birds that visit your seed feeders.

When you are faced with a dizzying choice of at least 21 different seeds, it can be difficult to decide which is the best bargain. As a result, most folks end up buying seed mixtures. While this isn't necessarily a bad idea, like everything from hand tools to cars, not all mixtures are created equal. There are some excellent seed mixtures on the market. However, far too many contain high percentages of sorghum (milo), flaxseed, oats or wheat. Although these seeds are eaten by birds, they aren't preferred by many of the birds that frequent feeders in the Peach State.

As an old adage tells us, "You get what your pay for." After you have used a bargain mixture for few weeks, it will become obvious that such is the case with wild bird seed. Piles of seed will be growing like miniature volcanoes beneath your feeders.

The most common seeds making up these heaps of wasted seed are round and colored reddish brown. These are sorghum seeds. While feeder birds will eat sorghum, they will consume other seeds first. In the meantime, the sorghum often gets wet, becomes contaminated with bacteria or mold, and becomes a threat to the health of the birds dining in your backyard.

A few decades ago, a researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a research project designed to determine which seeds feeder birds prefer. With the aid of his retired parents, he tested a wide variety of seeds and discovered that two seeds -- white proso millet and black oil
sunflower -- will attract the greatest variety of birds.

Sunflower seeds are the seeds favored by most seed-eating birds, some 40 species including cardinals, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, house and purple finches, American goldfinches, brown-headed nuthatches, and red-bellied woodpeckers, to name a few. One of the neat things about sunflower seeds is that even the birds that can't break open the sunflower's tough seed coat eat sunflower seeds. Birds like dark-eyed juncos often feed on the bits and pieces of sunflower meats left by larger birds.

If your home is in an urban area, you will appreciate the fact that sunflower seeds aren't favored by European starlings and house sparrows. Since these exotic flying pests have a tough time cracking open sunflower seed hulls, they would rather spend their time looking for French fries or other foods that would not be consumed by cardinals or other birds most folks would prefer to visit their feeders.

A downside to feeding sunflower seeds is that many birds such as cardinals and finches crack open seeds at the feeder. As a result, in a short time, the hulls build up. These hulls should be regularly removed. In addition to being a health hazard to birds,  the hulls contain a chemical that will retard the growth of many plants. If you don't want to continually deal with messy seed hulls, you can buy hulled sunflower seeds. While they are more expensive, this will eliminate the mess.

One final note about sunflower seeds: There are three types on the market -- black oil, striped and gray. While birds will devour all three, black oil sunflower seeds are the best buy. They are smaller than gray and striped sunflower seeds, contain the highest percentage of oil (40 percent) and have the thinnest hulls. Ideally, 75 percent of the seeds offered to birds at your feeders should be black oil sunflower seeds.

White proso millet seeds are round, golden brown and shiny. They are favorites of white-throated, fox, chipping and other sparrows. Mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos, eastern towhees and quail also eat white proso millet. Together, white proso millet and black oil sunflower seeds attract more birds than any other seeds you can offer the 25-plus birds that regularly visit seed feeders in Georgia. These seeds can be mixed together and offered in a single feeder or fed in separate feeders.

The problem most Georgians face is that while black oil sunflower seeds are widely available, white proso millet seed is often hard to find. Typically, it can only be purchased in stores specializing in bird-watching supplies. As a result, most folks buy mixed seed. That's fine. Just make sure you are purchasing a mixture containing high percentages of black oil sunflower
and white millet seeds.

It may cost a little more, but the difference in price will be well worth it.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section.