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Magic Seed?

Photo Group
Purple Finch Eating Safflower
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek

Is there really a difference in bird seed? What is the “magic” seed?

First and foremost, there is a difference in bird seed. Differences are found both in the “taste” preferences of birds as well as the quality and nutritional value for wildlife. Many of the commercial bird seed mixes found in grocery and large retail shops are filled with “filler” grains such as milo (the small red seed about the size of a BB), oats, wheat and cracked corn. These grains are all very inexpensive to grow and are dense which make it very easy to get a bag’s weight up to 5 or 10 lbs and keep the price low.

The problem that anyone who has gone down the “cheap seed” road finds out is that most birds (especially the pretty ones) don’t particularly like the grains. The companies are smart enough to throw in a few sunflower seeds and millet to make the bag look better. The “cheap” bird seed is generally quite dirty. Not only are folks buying seed that birds will not eat, they are paying for dirt, stems and even rocks.

Enough ranting about the bad stuff, let’s talk about what birds really like. The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania did a great study a few years ago on seed preferences. Their goal was to formulate their custom bird seed and only use the seeds that birds of that area liked. Yes, they put out “junk” seeds as well as the “good stuff”. And, yes it followed pretty closely with what all reputable surveys show. Here is what birds want:

  1. Black Oil Sunflower – It should be present in all feeder stations that don’t mind the hulls that gather under the feeders. For those who do mind, use hulled sunflower kernels (hearts) or chips. Most birds love it.
  2. Safflower- There are those who will argue with me here, but it is the number one seed of choice for the cardinals, house finches and morning doves in my yard. Squirrels, starlings, grackles and even house sparrows really don’t like it. It is in most good mixes and I have one big tube feeder with a tray dedicated to it.
  3. Peanuts– No one should be surprised that birds or almost any animal would love peanuts. They are high in oil and fat and convert easily to body heat. Even though it can drive up the cost, most good mixes have some nuts. It is far more economical to feed raw shelled peanuts via wire mesh peanut feeders. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and many others love them.
  4. Millet– This seed often gets a bad rap. Many confuse it with milo (remember, #1 on the junk list) and it quite often gets tossed on the ground. Millet is a true favorite of many of the ground feeders like juncos, white-throated sparrows, indigo buntings and doves. It is also a favorite of the less desirable house sparrow. My problem is that I have them anyway so I use millet as a ground throw to both keep my house sparrows out of my good feeders and keep my “good” ground feeders happy.
  5. Nyjer– Also erroneously known as thistle. Nyjer is a specialty seed that is a favorite of the beloved goldfinch. A few other birds like it but for the most part, a feeder filled with nyjer is for the finches. It is grown in far away lands and sterilized before being imported.

Mix or don’t mix. I have read that if you do not mix your seeds, you will not have an issue with bird throwing seed to the ground. Wrong. This sounds nice but it doesn’t work that way.

OK. Let’s go over all of this. Black Oil Sunflower is the best overall seed but to attract a diverse mix of birds, a variety of clean, high quality seed is best. Less dirt and grains, more quality seeds equal a greater value to you and your birds.

By Mark McKellar

FALL 2005