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Types of Bird Seeds - Attracting Wild Birds

A wild bird perched on a handOnce you've made the decision on what type of feeder to use, it's time to decide what bird seed to buy. All seeds aren't the same, however; take some time to choose the type of feed that's right for the birds you want to attract.

Following are short descriptions of commonly available bird seed components. You can buy commercially mixed seed designed to attract certain types of birds, or you can mix your own. You may find that birds in your backyard favor one type of food over another; it may be beneficial to study their feeding habits and create your own customized mix.

Sunflower Seeds

Perhaps the most versatile of all the feed types, sunflower seeds will attract a wide diversity of birds to your feeders.

Black-oil sunflower seeds, one of the most popular type of seed for bird feeders, have small, thin shells that make them easier for small birds, such as chickadees, to crack open and eat. Black-oil sunflower seeds are also high in fat, which especially benefits birds in the winter.

Striped sunflower seeds have thicker shells and are better for heavy-billed birds such as cardinals. Compared with black-oil sunflower seeds, they are harder to crack open and may be a good choice if you don't wish to feed blackbirds or house sparrows.

Discarded hulls underneath the feeder may contain leftover seed pieces and attract rodents, so keep them cleaned up. Purchasing seed that's already hulled will help avoid a mess, but hulled seed tends to be more expensive and will spoil more easily than seeds with shells, so you may have to refill the feeder more frequently.

Birds that feed on black-oil sunflower seeds include:

  • Buntings
  • Cardinals
  • Chickadees
  • House finches
  • Purple finches
  • Grosbeaks
  • Nuthatches
  • Pine siskins
  • Tufted titmice
  • Woodpeckers

Birds that will eat striped sunflower seeds include:

  • Cardinals
  • Grosbeaks
  • Jays
  • Nuthatches
  • Titmice
  • Woodpeckers

Safflower seeds

Safflower is a hard-shelled seed. Cardinals especially like safflower seeds, and they may be advantageous as a seed choice in that house sparrows, starlings and squirrels don't usually eat them.

Birds that enjoy safflower include:

  • Cardinals 
  • Grosbeaks
  • Doves 
  • Native sparrows
  • Titmice
  • Purple finches

White proso millet

Millet has a hard seed coat, which makes it less susceptible to rot. White millet is popular with small-beaked, ground-feeding birds and often scattered on the ground or provided in low platform feeders. (If scattered on the ground, put no more out than birds can eat in a day.) Cornell bird specialists caution that birds that some people consider a pest, such as cowbirds, blackbirds and house sparrows, also favor millet.

Birds that enjoy white millet include:

  • Quail
  • Native sparrows
  • Doves
  • Towhees
  • Juncos
  • Cardinals

Shelled and cracked corn

Cracked corn attracts a number of bird species. It's often a good choice for ground-feeding birds and ducks. Audubon specialists say to look for medium cracked corn; finely ground corn can turn to mush if it gets damp, and coarsely ground corn may be too large for small-beaked birds.

Note that cracked corn rots easily if it becomes wet; it's best to put it in a weatherproof feeder or only put out small amounts at a time. Caution: Cracked corn may attract starlings, cowbirds and house sparrows, and it may also attract deer or squirrels.

University of Florida wildlife specialists warn that seed coated with a red or pink dye may indicate that it has been treated with a fungicide. Treated seed can be harmful to birds, so don't use it for feeding.

Cracked corn attracts:

  • Pigeons
  • Ducks
  • Grouse
  • Pheasants
  • Quail
  • Grosbeaks
  • Jays

Peanuts

Shelled peanuts are favored by a number of species, especially jays. Note that peanuts are also a favorite of starlings, and may attract raccoons and squirrels. Shelled peanuts must be kept dry and feeders must be refilled frequently to avoid molding. Try not to put out more than birds can eat in a day or two.

Birds that enjoy peanuts include:

  • Woodpeckers
  • Chickadees
  • Nuthatches
  • Titmice
  • Jays
  • Carolina wrens

Nyjer

These tiny black oilseeds are high in protein. Birds break the tiny shell to get to the meat inside. Nyjer seeds are often referred to as "thistle seeds," although they aren't related to the thistle family—they're actually seeds from a plant grown in Africa and Asia. 

Nyjer seeds are ideal for small-beaked birds, such as finches, and you can find feeders specially designed to feed nyjer seed to smaller birds. Nyjer seed tends to be more expensive than many other types of seed, but many birds prefer it over other seed types.

Birds attracted to nyjer feeders include:

  • Buntings
  • Goldfinches
  • House finches
  • Redpolls
  • Pine siskins

Suet cakes

Suet is a type of high fat and protein feed that generally contains peanut butter or rendered fat mixed with grains and seeds. You can purchase feeders specially designed to hold pre-packaged suet cakes. Note that suet may spoil in hot weather.

Suet attracts:

  • Woodpeckers
  • Chickadees
  • Wrens
  • Nuthatches
  • Cardinals
  • Doves
  • Goldfinches
  • Titmice

Peanut butter suet attracts:

  • Woodpeckers
  • Juncos
  • Goldfinches
  • Jays
  • Cardinals
  • Bluebirds

Milo or sorghum

Sorghum, also known as milo, is popular with many ground-feeding birds, especially in western states. It's often scattered on the ground or in low feeders. Be careful: Sorghum may attract starlings and cowbirds.

Birds that will eat sorghum include:

  • Steller's jays
  • Curve-billed thrashers
  • Quails
  • Pheasants
  • Doves

Golden millet, red millet and flax

According to Cornell specialists, manufacturers of less-expensive pre-packaged birdseed mixes may use large amounts of golden millet, red millet and flax as fillers. Some birds will eat red millet, but often these seed types tend to go uneaten. The uneaten seed may pile up around bird feeders and attract rodents. Look for mixes with a low percentage of these seeds.

Fruits and nectars

Not all birds are seed-eaters; some prefer fruits or nectar. Some people choose to put out fruit on a tray for birds; dried fruit or oranges may attract woodpeckers, starlings, bluebirds, orioles, thrashers, cardinals and jays.

Commercial nectar substitutes are available for hummingbird feeders. If you make your own hummingbird nectar, be sure not to use honey, which can harbor bacteria that harm hummingbirds.

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