Learning what your avian allies actually want and need can take a while, and there are some pitfalls to providing the right balance of nutrition against the best use of your funds. Bird feeding has been popular for centuries, almost tripling during the pandemic lockdown. Supermarkets and other retail outlets have leapt upon this surge in interest to offer you all manner of goodies for the bird table, but not all of it is good, so we’ve prepared a simple guide to help you navigate what’s on the menu. From the point of view of using a bird seed feeder, we’ll take a look at those types of seeds and other morsels that are really good to have, and those that are best avoided, for reasons we’ll explain.
Something to keep in mind is that some birds require different types of food at different times of the year. Also, remember that species differ all over the world, so do your own research for what your natives and known migrants prefer.
Based on a typical year, here’s what we suggest you focus on.
Mating begins in earnest; courtship displays are a go-go. As breeding gets underway, nest building peaks, females create the eggshell around the embryo then lay the eggs, and once those are hatched, the feeding frenzy begins. All of this requires supreme amounts of energy, and nothing beats black sunflower hearts for that. Packed with the right oils, protein and fat, these miracle nuggets provide everything a bird needs, making them perfect for breeding season AND the whole year. Providing only the hearts means no energy is wasted removing the shell, but next best is whole black sunflower seeds whose shells are thin, then striped ones, still perfectly nutritious – their shells are just a little tougher, that’s all. At this time of year, do not put out peanuts: despite being packed of energy too, adults will be bringing food back to the nest for the chicks and peanuts can get easily lodged in tiny bird throats.
The majority of birds will be accessing their given diet, and you may see a drop-off in visits; however, there is no harm in continuing to provide. A range of seeds and other goodies like millet, flaked maize and corn, Nyjer seeds and flax seeds will top up mealtimes for those foraging about. Note - the heat of summer can bring water shortages - always make sure there is a clean and fresh supply of water near your feeder in a shallow receptacle.
Autumn / Fall
Plants have been producing seed heads all summer long, and retailers will be piling up their shelves with this bounty. Nyjer and thistle seeds are highly prized among finches, and linseed is rich in oils that are essential during the molting process which will be in full swing.
Bring out your peanuts! Short daylight hours mean birds have less time to find increasingly scarce food before having to hunker down for the long, cold night. Peanuts are simply a tour de force in providing instant energy, so scatter those crushed chunks of delight in your seed tray. Remember to only use plain ones, never salted or dry roasted peanuts. Also bear in mind peanuts can be high in a natural toxin called aflatoxin which can kill birds, so always buy from a reputable retailer.
Other notes on seeds
Millet is a great filler, but can attract a lot of sparrows and other species who can overwhelm feeders; if you know their populations are doing well where you are, consider leaving this out of the mix. Safflower is a fantastic protein- and fat-rich favorite of many songbirds, and what’s more, squirrels hate it.
A word of warning
You’ll notice that many supermarkets and budget stores will stock cheap seed mixes that contain wheat grass kernels, sometimes split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils. These are added to bulk them up, so you’re actually paying for something that birds simply won’t eat and will rot on your ground instead. The birds won’t get the nutrients they need and you lose money. It’s always best to pay a little more for a mix that you know has the right stuff in it.
Given the intensity of a bird’s life, providing the right amount and type of seeds in your feeder can be a literal life-saver to many thousands of birds: those around now, and those to come from the ones you’ve helped eat well and stay alive throughout the year.