Feeding Wild Birds in Your Backyard: A Guide To Seed Types

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Cardinal and wren at a bird feeder during winter

Is It OK to Feed Wild Birds?

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Find out what to feed birds in your backyard or garden. Our handy wild bird food chart lists the types of seeds, nuts, and other foods that are liked most by different types of wild birds so that you can enjoy visits from many feathered friends!

Is It Good or Bad to Feed the Birds?

When it comes to general backyard birds, it’s fine to offer these supplements. During times of extreme weather, studies show that extra bird food can provide a nutritional boost and provide a helping hand.

That said, the best way to feed the birds is to create a bird-friendly habitat with natural food; this means native trees and shrubs. 

Beyond the natural habitat, it’s important to:

  1. Feed safe, appropriate food for birds. See our chart below. NEVER feed bread which not only provides little nutrition but also may cause an unhealthy condition referred to as “angel wing.”
  2. Clean bird feeders. Owning a bird feeder is a responsibility. Properly clean to avoid the spread of viruses and parasites.
  3. Do not feed birds if it significantly changes their behavior (for example, aggressive birds such as seagulls, endangered birds such as snow owls, etc.).

Your reward is the opportunity to attract some feathered friends to your backyard and garden—and enjoy watching wild birds from your window! 

What little food that is available can get buried under deep snow. The bird feeder that you place in your backyard aides the survival of birds in harsh winters.

Wild Bird Food Preferences

For most wild birds, seeds are the best source of high energy food for wild birds. (Do not feed birds bread.)

The seed that attracts the widest variety of birds, and so the mainstay for most backyard bird feeders, is sunflower.

Other varieties of seed can help attract different types of birds to round out your backyard visitors. In general, mixtures that contain red millet, oats, and other “fillers” are not attractive to most birds and can lead to a lot of waste as the birds sort through the mix.

Click here for a larger PDF of the below Wild Bird Food Chart.

Sunflower Seeds

When it comes to sunflower seeds, note that there are two kinds of sunflower—black oil and striped. The black oil seeds (“oilers”) have very thin shells, easy for virtually all seed-eating birds to crack open, and the kernels within have a high fat content, extremely valuable for most winter birds. Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell, much harder for House Sparrows and blackbirds to crack open. So if you’re inundated with species you’d rather not subsidize at your black oil sunflower, before you do anything else, try switching to striped sunflower.

People living in apartments or who have trouble raking up seed shells under their feeders often offer shelled sunflower. Many birds love this, as of course do squirrels, and it’s expensive. Without the protection of the shell, sunflower hearts and chips quickly spoil, and can harbor dangerous bacteria, so it’s important to offer no more than can be eaten in a day or two.

Sunflower is very attractive to squirrels, a problem for people who don’t wish to subsidize them. Some kinds of squirrel baffles, and some specialized feeders, are fairly good at excluding them. Sunflower in the shell can be offered in a wide variety of feeders, including trays, tube feeders, hoppers, and acrylic window feeders. Sunflower hearts and chips shouldn’t be offered in tube feeders where moisture can collect.

Suet Cake

Birds love a simple suet cake, especially chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and bug-eating birds. Note that a lot commercial suet cakes have too much filler (oatmeal, cornmeal, millet) and very little of the peanuts and high-quality ingredients that birds actually need when temperatures become severe. See how to make suet here. Even better is straight suet though it’s expensive. You can generally get chunks of suet at the butcher’s or supermarket.

Read more about gardening for the birds.

Learn about choosing the right bird feeders.

See our video demonstrating how to feed the birds in winter.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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