What to Feed Wild Birds

Reader Contribution by The National Audubon Society
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I want to feed the birds that visit my backyard, but I’m not sure what types of seed to set out. What do birds like best?

Different birds are attracted by different kinds of seed, so offering a variety will beckon a diverse mix of feathered friends. Just make sure the birdseed or food you choose is compatible with both the bird feeder and the birds you hope to attract.

Sunflower seeds. Many small birds prefer black oilseed, especially in northern latitudes. Large-beaked birds will eat striped sunflower seeds. Hulled sunflower seeds will appeal to the greatest variety: They will attract jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, finches, goldfinches, Northern cardinals, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and grackles.

Millet. Most small-beaked ground-feeding birds love white and red millet. Both will attract quail, doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds.

Cracked corn. Medium cracked corn is about as popular with ground-feeding birds as millet, but it’s vulnerable to rot because each kernel’s interior easily soaks up moisture. Leave small amounts mixed with millet on feeding tables or in watertight hopper feeders. Avoid fine cracked corn because it quickly turns to mush, and coarse cracked corn because it’s too large for small-beaked birds. Medium cracked corn will attract pheasants, quail, doves, crows, jays, sparrows, juncos and towhees.

Milo, wheat and oats. Low-priced birdseed blends typically include a mixture of these agricultural grains. Most birds discard them in favor of other food, however, which then leaves the grains to accumulate under feeders and attract rodents. Ground-feeding birds in the Southwest will eat milo, as will pheasants, quail and doves.

Thistle (nyjer). A preferred food of American goldfinches, lesser goldfinches, house finches and common redpolls, nyjer is sometimes called “black gold” because, at about $1.50 per pound, it’s more expensive than other birdseeds.

Suet. Otherwise known as beef fat, suet will attract insect-eating birds, such as woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice. Place the suet in special feeders or net onion bags at least 5 feet above the ground to keep it out of the reach of dogs. Suet is particularly helpful during cold weather and migration, when birds need extra fat reserves, but you can also purchase “no-melt” suet cakes for use in warmer weather. To learn how to make your own, read How to Make Cakes for a Suet Bird Feeder.

Peanuts. Placed in tube-shaped, metal-mesh feeders, peanuts will entice woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, titmice, bushtits, nuthatches, brown creepers, wrens, kinglets, Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, starlings, and yellow-rumped and pine warblers.

Homemade Alternatives

Peanut butter pudding. Peanut butter is a good substitute for suet. Mix 1 part peanut butter with 5 parts cornmeal, and stuff the mixture into holes drilled into a hanging log or into the crevices of a pine cone. It will attract woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice and occasionally warblers.

Fruit for berry-eating birds. Fruit specialists, such as robins, waxwings, bluebirds and mockingbirds, rarely eat birdseed. To attract them, soak raisins and currants in water overnight, drain, and then place on a table feeder. You can also purchase birdseed blends with a dried fruit mixture. To attract orioles and tanagers, skewer halved oranges onto a spike near other bird feeders, or provide nectar feeders.

Nectar for hummingbirds. Make an artificial nectar of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Boil briefly to sterilize and dissolve sugar crystals. You must keep the feeders scrupulously clean to prevent mold growth.

To learn more about bird habitats, bird conservation and what to feed wild birds, check out the National Audubon Society online.

Photo by Bruce McGlenn: Bring a bevy of birds to your backyard by knowing which seeds will satisfy.