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The Beginners Guide to Backyard Birding: Facts You Need to Know About Birdseed

A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) grabs a nut from a platform feeder.
Nutty Blue Jay

**Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission. Read my full Affiliate Disclaimer here.

A purple fench and gold fenches eat black oil sunflower seeds from a tube feeder.
Black oil Sunflower Feeder

There is one thing that you must have to be successful in your backyard birding adventure. It’s the one element that you cannot do without. Without it, your backyard is just another backyard. It’s the cornerstone of backyard birding. What is it you ask? It’s simple. It’s birdseed

Do you know what kind of seed is the best for your backyard? Do you know which seed will attract the most birds? Well, let me tell you a secret. Me either! To be fair, no one does. The only way to know which seed is best for your backyard is to watch and listen to your birds and do the research.

Keep in mind, I am not an expert, and what works for me, might not work for you. However, with a few helpful tips and a little bit of research, you too can turn your backyard into a popular birdy buffet.

First things first. A tidbit of advice that will make this adventure a little less frustrating. It’s a mistake that a lot of backyard birders make when they first start. I was no exception. Here it is. Choose the proper bird seed for the birds you already have in your backyard, not for the birds you want to attract. Read that again. Now, let me tell you why.

Birds are social. They love the company of other birds, and they will quickly investigate any feeding activity in the area. If you only have a few birds in your yard, it is best to choose seeds for those birds first. As those birds get more active at feeding time, other birds will join in to see what’s going on. It’s like your very own 5-star Yelp review. As different species arrive, start adding different types of bird seed and feeders for those birds. Before you know it, you’ll have an “all-you-can-eat” Birding Buffet. That’s your goal!

Let’s look at the most popular types of bird seed.

Sunflower Seeds: Sunflower seeds should be your first choice when choosing seeds for your backyard menu. Dried sunflower seeds contain water, protein, carbs, and fat in the form of oil. They are rich in fiber, vitamins B and E, and other minerals, such as magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron. They also have certain fats, which are considered healthy for birds. This fat is extremely helpful during the winter months because birds need more energy to maintain their body temperature. The fatty oil in sunflower seeds makes their feathers shiny and smooth. It also aids in insulating and waterproofing. The two types of sunflower seeds that I suggest are:

Black oil sunflower seeds: These are the most common and are great for most songbirds. The hull of the black oil sunflower seed is usually very thin, so most seed-eating birds can easily crack it to get to the meat inside.

Striped sunflower seeds: These are great for larger birds with stronger bills. The shell of a striped sunflower seed is much thicker, and birds with smaller, softer beaks will have a hard time breaking the shell.

· Preferred by: Chickadees, house finches, titmice, jays, grosbeaks, cardinals, sparrows, nuthatches, woodpeckers, doves, and goldfinches

Nyjer or Thistle Seed: Small, thin Nyjer or thistle seeds are one of the most popular types of birdseed for small clinging birds like finches. These seeds are exceptionally high in oil, making them great for winter bird feeding. Nyjer seed is the only major birdseed imported to the U.S. So,

make sure when buying Nyjer seed that it is fresh. Because of their small size, Nyjer seeds can easily be spilled or blown away. Mesh-style or sock feeders are best for this popular seed.

· Preferred by: Goldfinches, purple finches, redpolls, pine siskins, and Indigo buntings

A male Painted Bunting grabs some bird seed from a tube filter.
Painted Bunting on Feeder

Millet: Millet is the seed of a variety of grass. It’s grown around the world as a cereal crop but also as a grain feed for animals. It’s a very old grain too. It has been grown and harvested for food for around 7,000 years. The millet seed is high in carbohydrates, protein, antioxidants, and fiber and is a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. These minerals are essential for strong bones and beaks. They also assist in heart health and are beneficial for muscle function. Millet bird seed is a favorite seed of many ground-feeding birds. These small white seeds are a common part of birdseed mixes. Millet can be offered in hopper and tube feeders, as well as for sprinkling on the ground or in tray or platform feeders.

· Preferred by: Doves, Sparrows, Juncos, Buntings, Cardinals, Tanagers, Pine Siskins, Thrashers, and Thrushes.

Safflower Seed: Safflower seeds are white seeds and slightly smaller than black oil sunflower seeds but similar in their shape. They are high in protein, fat, and fiber that can provide superior nutrition to many different backyard birds. Safflower seeds have a thick shell. The birds that eat them need sturdy bills to crack them. Do you have squirrels that raid your feeders? Then this is the seed for you. Squirrels won't eat safflower seeds because of their bitter taste. Any feeder type that is used for sunflower seeds, such as hopper, tube, or platform feeders can be used for safflower seeds.

· Preferred by: Chickadees, grosbeaks, Blue jays, Woodpeckers, House finches, Indigo buntings, Doves, Cardinals, Purple finches, Titmice, and nuthatches

Cracked Corn: Cracked corn is exactly what it sounds like, corn kernels that have been dried and cracked into pieces that are easier for smaller birds to eat. While the dry corn can create dust, it will not grow or sprout and can be a good no-waste bird food for cleaner backyard bird feeding. Because it is so dry, it can also be stored for long periods without going bad. While cracked corn does not have a high oil percentage, it is rich in both protein and fiber and is an excellent supplemental food to offer backyard birds. It is often used as a filler in birdseed mixes.

· Preferred by: Sparrows, jays, towhees, doves, blackbirds, grackles, and ducks

Milo: Milo seed is a type of grass grain, also known as sorghum. It comes in two varieties, white and red, and the red variety is a more common part of cheap birdseed mixes. While many birds will simply ignore milo, it can still be useful for many ground-feeding species with hearty appetites. Because of the seed's size, it can be offered in trays, platforms, hoppers, or tube feeders, as well as sprinkled on the ground.

· Preferred by: Doves, Wild turkeys, quail, pheasants, Grackles, Brown-headed cowbirds, and European starlings

Peanuts: Peanuts are a favorite food for many birds, and they’re a great possibility for backyard birders. Because peanuts are high in fat, they are an excellent source of energy and calories, especially during cold winters. They're perfect for birds to hide away and store for another day. No matter what types of peanuts or peanut products you feed your backyard birds, you’re offering them a very nutritional treat. I use whole, unsalted RAW peanuts. But in emergencies, I have used unsalted, roasted peanuts.

Whichever way you decide to use them, please make sure they are unsalted. There are several ways peanuts can be offered to backyard birds. Whole peanuts, either in the shell or just the hearts of the nuts, are popular with larger birds. Birds of all sizes will appreciate easier-to-eat peanut chunks and chips. Another popular choice at backyard feeders is peanut butter. Yes, peanut butter! It can be added in suet, smeared on a tree trunk, or just add a glob to a platform or tray feeder. Trust me, your birds will love it.

· Preferred by: Chickadees, Crows, Dark-eyed juncos, Doves, Grackles, Jays, Cardinals, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, Titmice, Towhees, and Wrens

This beautifully colored Green Jay perches on a small limb and poses for his picture with an acorn.
Green Jay with Acorn

How to Choose your Birdseed.

Not all birdseed is created equal. While birds are not typically picky eaters, the higher quality seed will attract more species and will supply better nutrition for healthy flocks. Which is what we want as backyard birders. To ensure the seed you buy is of good value and quality, look for these things:

1. Mix Proportions: If you’re looking at mixes or blends, get one with a higher proportion of “good” seeds such as sunflower or millet. Lower-quality mixes often have more fillers like milo and cracked corn, as well as wheat, oats, or other grains.

2. Quantity: We all like to save money. Unfortunately, keeping all those feeders full can get expensive. Larger quantities of birdseed are usually a better value. But don’t buy such a large amount that it goes bad before you can use it.

3. Insecticides: Check the label on every package of birdseed to ensure it has not been treated with pesticides or insecticides, that can be toxic to birds.

4. Price: Higher prices do not necessarily mean better seed. Make sure you stay away from those ridiculously overpriced bird seeds. You’ll thank me later.

Well, there you have it. There are a lot of other types of bird seeds out there, but these are the most common ones. The most important thing is that you do your research on each bird that you see in your backyard and learn which seed they like the best. Then go from there. Now, remember, not all birds eat seeds. Adding other types of bird foods such as suet, fruit, and nectar to your buffet is a great way to attract even more species of birds to your backyard. We will be getting into some of these other options later.

If this is your first time visiting my website or reading one of my blog posts, welcome, and thank you for joining us. Please subscribe here so you can receive updates on the next blog posts on Backyard Birding. You will also receive occasional discounts and newsletters. Please share my blog and galleries with family and friends! Remember to follow the Nature First and Leave No Trace principles and always strive to leave places better than you found them.

Until next time, keep the sun behind you and the birds in view.


87 views4 comments


Great article David, I learned some things tonight.

David Cutts
David Cutts
Aug 15, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Mark, I appreciate that. The next blog post will be on feeders! Exciting stuff!


Cathy Peebles
Cathy Peebles
Mar 25, 2022

love this

David Cutts
David Cutts
Mar 25, 2022
Replying to

Thank you Cathy

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