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Feeding Wild Birds - Quick tips on seed types and suet

by Calvor Palmateer of For Wild Birds and Gardeners (Victoria, BC)

Photo by Marie O'Shaughnessy Starting with our best advise: "Do not feed seed mixes."

Many mixes contain large quantities of inexpensive seeds eaten by few birds. One of the most common mixes sold in grocery and hardware stores is 90% millet and 10% black-oil sunflower. One of the most common feeder species, the House Finch, does not eat millet. These birds will throw out millet looking for the black-oil sunflower. The large quantities of millet attract House Sparrows (a less desirable species). Ground-feeding birds do like millet but generally cannot consume the seed fast enough so much of it either rots on the ground or sprouts.

Seed is best offered in single types only.

Hulled Sunflower (Sunflower Chips)

This is the best seed to feed as it is eaten by all species. There is no shell to collect on the ground and spilt seed is cleaned up daily. Rats and squirrels find little seed to attract them. The cost is higher but you are not buying shell.

Peanuts

Peanuts (raw are best; roasted ones are okay; save the salted ones for yourself) with or without the shells are excellent but should only be used in peanut feeders, which prevent birds from getting whole nuts. Larger birds such as Jays will remove all the peanuts from a tray and store them. Peanuts in tray-type feeders also attract rats and squirrels. On the West Coast peanut feeders should be placed under cover so they don’t get wet. Spoiled peanuts can be fatal to the birds so must be kept dry. To prevent spoilage, store them in a cool dry place. Clean your feeders before refilling, and don’t mix new stock with old. If the weather is above freezing, fill your feeders only with what the birds will eat in a day.

Black-oil Sunflower and Striped Sunflower

If shells are not a problem, then this seed is excellent bird food. Some of the smaller-billed birds have trouble cracking the shell so throw out seeds, looking for ones they can open. Pine siskins are notorious for this. Some ground feeders such as Juncos have trouble cracking the shell. Striped sunflower is lower in oil than the Black-oil Sunflower.

White and Yellow Millet, Canary seed

These seeds are excellent for ground feeders such as Dark-eyed ("Oregon’) Juncos, Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, House Sparrows, and Rufous-sided Towhees. Place the seed in a covered feeder or under cover where ground-feeding species feel safer and will remain longer to feed. Generally, only the House Sparrows will use a tube feeder; the others will not. Since many ground feeders have a scratching action when feeding, it is best to place this seed in a feeder where they cannot get their feet into the seed. If this seed is spread on the soil, it will be buried by the scratching action and sprout.

Red millet

Red millet is lower nutritionally than white and is used in cheaper mixes to provide color appeal to the human buyer.

Niger (pronounced "Neye-jer") or Thistle

This seed attracts American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins and House Finches. It is grown in Africa or India (hence its higher cost) and has been heat-treated to prevent sprouting. Use only a specialized feeder with small ports which dispenses seed economically and allows the birds to pick each seed individually.

Rapeseed

Rapeseed is a small dark round seed found in some of the mixes. It appears to be eaten mainly by ground feeders.

Cracked Corn

Corn is lower nutritionally and in fat content than other seeds. It is used as filler in low cost mixes. If it is too fine, it will plug feeder ports.

Sorghum

Sorghum is a large round seed eaten by large ground feeding birds such as Pheasants, Quail, and Band-tailed pigeons. It is generally added to mixed seed.

Wheat

Wheat can be used to feed large ground feeding birds such as Pheasants, Quail and Band-tailed Pigeons. If Band-tailed pigeons are a nuisance at a feeder, they generally can be lured away to another spot by using wheat.

Oats and groats

Groats are oats with the husk removed. Oats are sometimes added to cheaper mixes. They are the same nutritionally as wheat. Oats (with husk) are generally not preferred by large ground feeding birds, as the husk is sharp ended and is only eaten when no other seed is available.

Safflower

When squirrels are eating the sunflower seed, Safflower is sometimes used as a replacement. It is very bitter so is not preferred by squirrels yet birds will eat it. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be a long-term solution to keep squirrels out of the seed as squirrels can develop a taste for it.

Hemp Seed

This seed is now becoming available for feeding birds. The seed is oily and good nutritionally but is large so smaller birds would have trouble shelling it.

Flax

Sometimes found in mixes, this seed forms a jelly-like coating when it is wet. If by chance it gets wet in a feeder, the seeds stick and "gum up" the feeding ports.

Suet

Suet can come with various seed, insect and fruit ingredients. Many of these ingredients are filler and would not be eaten by birds if offered by themselves. Millet, corn and oats are commonly used and are not eaten by suet-eating birds that generally prefer seeds high in oil such as Sunflower and peanuts. Suet with insects and fruit is excellent but costs more than those with oily seeds. Some suet even has flavoring which is totally unnecessary. If you have House Sparrows eating suet, then you have a problem because they do not eat suet but will eat the large amounts of millet some suet has as filler.

Suet should be placed away from the seed feeder so there are fewer disturbances for Woodpeckers and Bushtits. Some larger species (Jays) will eat smaller species if there is an opportunity so it makes sense to separate feeding stations. In coastal areas where the climate is mild, use wire holders for suet to prevent it coming in contact with wood surfaces as the suet will melt into the wood (unless sealed with a non-toxic sealer) and turn rancid.

If Starlings and Jays discover the suet, there are feeders that will exclude them. These feeders require birds to hang upside down which Jays and Starlings do poorly. Some newer ones have wire screen to keep out larger birds.

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