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If you live in a neighborhood full of people who like to feed birds, knowing a few birdseed secrets will make your bird feeders the busiest on the block. Sunflowers and small millet seed are the basic seeds for bird feeders, but it's the little treat seeds that can draw those extra-special birds. If cardinals have been spurning your place in favor of the feeder up the street, you can tempt them with safflower seed; if you love goldfinches, you can add a tube feeder brimming with Niger, their #1 favorite.

Best Seeds for Birds

For simplicity's sake - depend on two seeds to fill your feeders; black oil sunflower and white millet. Cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and some woodpeckers love the sunflower seeds, and just about everything else eats the millet. When feeding a crowd, you want seed that appeals to a lot of different birds. Sunflower and millet will do the trick for nearly all areas of the country. They're nutritious and evidently they taste good too.

Don't stop there! Supplement your basic menu with Niger seed (often called thistle seed), peanut pieces and other nuts, canary seed, flaxseed, safflower seed, and homemade molded treats. Bird appreciate a little variety in their diets as much as we do.

Common Seed Types

Sunflower Seed

Sunflower seeds come in two varieties, black oil and striped, plus a hulled, shell-less version that offers waste-free feeding. Striped sunflower seed is bigger and plumper, with larger meats inside the shells. Black oil sunflower is smaller and flatter, but just as nutritious.

I fill my bird feeders with black oil sunflower seeds for two reasons: They cost less than striped sunflower seeds, and most birds eat them. There's no difference in taste between the two seeds - the difference is in their size. Birds with large beaks, like cardinals and jays, can easily crack a striped sunflower seed. But birds with smaller beaks, like chickadees, have a harder time, so they'll head for the black oil seeds.

Hulled sunflower seed is great if you want to eliminate waste and keep the area beneath the feeders tidy.  With no shells to crack, every bit gets eaten. The downside to this seed is that mobs of starlings, house finches, and house sparrows may descend on your feeders and empty them.

Niger Seed

Niger is a tiny, skinny black seed of the Niger plant, a golden-flowered sunflower relative. Add it to your feeder menu and you're likely to attract every finch in your area, from goldfinches to purple finches to hordes of house finches. Offer your Niger in a tube feeder, and watch for ground-feeding birds to pick up any leftovers that fall to the ground. Your may see some sparrows, chipping sparrows, and other native sparrows, pine siskins, towhees, juncos, and mourning doves arriving to nibble the Niger.

Millet Seed

Millet is a small, shiny, roundish golden tan or reddish brown seed. Small seed eaters like buntings, juncos, sparrows, finches, goldfinches, plus larger towhees, doves, starlings and blackbirds all welcome a meal of millet.

Safflower Seed

Safflower seeds are white, pointed, plump seed of a farm plant raised for oil production. The flowers that produce the seeds are an eye-catching bright orange, and often turn up in dried arrangements. They're easy to grow as annuals in a sunny garden. If you love cardinals, you'll want to add safflower to your shopping list. Other birds with strong seed-cracking beaks, particularly grosbeaks, may occasionally nibble at the seeds.

Grass Seed

Small, narrow, bleached-tan grass seed is a favorite of small seed-eating birds. Native sparrows and juncos - the same birds that eat most grass seeds in the wild - are the main customers for grass seed at the feeder. You will find this seed in the lawn and garden department. Remember to stock up on grass seed at the end of summer, before lawn-care products yield to Halloween candy. Be sure to check the label of the seed and make sure it has not been chemically treated.


Birds know what's good for them, and oil-rich seeds are always tops on their list. Flax certainly fills the bill: The shiny brown, flat oval seeds are so high in oil, you can squeeze it out of them with a strong fingernail. This seed can be expensive, so dole it out during rainy weather, when birds need extra energy. Nesting season, hen birds are running themselves ragged bearing food to the young, is another good time to offer flaxseed.

Cracked Corn

In deep winter, when every cardinal for miles comes to dine. Simply spread the corn generously on the ground and see the cardinals appear. In spring rake the remains of the corn pile into the flowerbeds, where it acts as a slow release natural fertilizer. House sparrows, blackbirds, and starlings also favor the corn, which helps to keep them away from your other feeders.

Buying and Storing Birdseed

Wherever you buy your birdseed, make sure it's fresh. Birds won't touch bad seed that's moldy, rancid, or insect infested. Because of high oil content in the seed, it can spoil if not stored in a cool, dry place, or if it has sat on the shelf too long. Seed packaged in plastic or heavy paper stays fresh much longer than open bins of seed, which are especially vulnerable to insect infestation.

Birdseed Mixes

When you buy mixed birdseed, read the label carefully to make sure the mix contains a high percentage of desirable seeds like sunflower, safflower, millet, canary and flax, and a very low percentage of fillers, like cracked corn, wheat kernels, and Milo. If the birdseed you are buying is in a brown paper bag or some other wrapper you can't see through, make sure you read the list of ingredients. They're listed in order by quantity, so if fillers are near the beginning of the list, choose another brand if possible.

Buying By the Season

During the busy fall and winter feeding times, keeps lots of extra birdseed on hand. Fifty-pound sacks are the size for prime feeding season. In spring and summer, feeder traffic slacks of dramatically. It's wise to buy smaller quantities, because seed stored for longer than two to three months in warm, moist weather can turn rancid, or become infested with insects, including weevils, click beetle larvae, and Indian meal moth larvae. Check oil-rich seeds like sunflower, flax, Niger, and peanut hearts for freshness often.

Storing Birdseed

Mice and their kin are the biggest problem you'll face when it comes to storing seed. Mice can ruin a sack of birdseed in short order. To keep your stored seed out of the clutches of rodents, invest in metal storage cans. If you feed only a few birds, a pretzel can or similar container will work; if you buy seed in bigger sacks, invest in a couple of metal trashcans with tight-fitting lids. Keep a dustpan and broom handy for cleaning up spills in your storage area.

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