Feeding Wild Birds: A Guide To Seed Types

Is it Good or Bad to Feed the Birds?

November 30, 2020

Is it okay to feed the birds? It depends on the food and the bird. 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 in your backyard.

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 (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.

Reader Comments

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Woodpecker & Sunflower seeds

I have several woodpeckers and flickers who live at my feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds. I have suet there also, but I rarely see them on that. They are literally on the sunflower feeders all day long. If I walk within a few feet of the feeders, there's one in particular, who will watch me carefully but won't fly off unless I head straight for him. I also have a cardinal who did not get the memo that he's a ground feeder. He's on the feeder along with the woodpeckers.


I have a red bellied woodpecker that visits regularly. Not only does he come for the straight suet and the store bought suet cakes (which he seems to like more, the little junk food junkie that he is) he also scarfs up the black oil sunflower seeds.

Sunflower seeds and Woodpeckers

My feeders are filled only with black oil sunflower seeds. I have a woodpecker who no one told that he doesn't like to eat these! He practically lives on the feeder munching away all day. And yes, I'm 100% certain he's a woodpecker.


The Editors's picture

Some species of woodpeckers aren’t too picky and will happily feast on sunflower seeds! Looks like you’ve got one in your yard!

Feeding birds

I didn’t see Bluebirds listed.


I want to feed birds but I'm concerned that more pigeons will come for food also. My neighborhood is overran with them. How can I make sure I'm not attracting them.

Pigeon towed

The Editors's picture

Hi, Venita: This is always a tough challenge. We assume that you are talking about hanging feeders, which is what you should be using. One solution is to hang the feeders on branches or poles that will not allow the pigeons to alight on nearby perches and sit on them to access the feeder. Another solution, although hard to do, is to put some sort of cage or large wire mesh around the feeder that will allow small birds through, but not pigeons. A third way is to get an anti-squirrel type of cannister feeder that slides down and covers up when too much weight–such as that of a pigeon–is on it. Good luck, and thanks for asking!


What is the best way to serve up the apples that some birds and raisins, nuts or any other food from the house?

Thanks for the chart!

Fantastic wild bird food chart you have there! Perhaps this could be expanded to include mealworms and other grubs as these are readily available in most shops and the birds go nuts for them.

I have stopped offering food

I have stopped offering food for the birds because I notice the goldfinches wouldn't touch the seedheads left for them, so I figure if they don't want to eat the healthy coneflowers and blazing stars, they don't need commercial offerings. And it worked, I see the same birds come into my yard as before and it's more fun because they are pecking through the weeds and really every surface has had a bird on it, quite hilarious to be doing the dishes and see a Carolina wren pop its head around the brick and climb up the house!

We have to take our feeders

We have to take our feeders down in the fall due to the number of bears in our area, but as soon as the bears go into hibernation we put the feeders back up.

I think we feed the birds in

I think we feed the birds in order to enjoy a little life and color during those long winter days. Maybe we do it as much for ourselves as we do for the birds. Either way I enjoy the birds, they enjoy my feed....win, win all around!!

Is there a certain date of

Is there a certain date of the year that we are suppose to stop feeding wild birds in the northeast section of the USA? Some people think they are able to find their own food. Please answer. Nancy Hullinger

There's no hard rule. Many

The Editors's picture

There's no hard rule. Many people choose to feed in the winter when birds' natural food is buried; other folks feed year-round to attract them closer. According to Audubon, feeding doesn't hurt the birds as they get their food from a variety of sources and they will migrate when they need to do, regardless.

speaking only for myself, I

speaking only for myself, I NEVER stop feeding the birds.

I keep about 8 feeders in the yard at all times, & go through about 500 POUNDS of seed a year on average.

I also feed the squirrels, which keeps them out of the bird feed.

It never occurred to me to

It never occurred to me to stop feeding birds. I should think they need food in the winter, even if they do fly around and find their own.

We shovel off the deck and put out a feeder heavy on sunflower seeds, and what a beautiful sight in the winter, blue jays and cardinals, juncos and sparrows. Looks like a Christmas card.

I've found most birds like sunflower seed and peanuts (in shell, or shelled, from a jar). Blue jays pick and choose the peanuts and 'swallow' one in their crops. They will hold a peanut with their toes and peck it open..... Cardinals have tiny beaks but I've watched them wrestle with a shell peanut trying to open it..... Smaller peanuts are eaten by all birds, I think. Unless the squirrels are out and hog all of them.

I never stop feeding them,

I never stop feeding them, they can gather their own food. I heard it take the stress of them when feeding little ones in the summer. It's not a must to stop feeding them, it's what u want to do !