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What to Feed Birds

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On this page:

Bird seed

Suet

Nectar

Other

Grit

Water

Tips

Seed preferences chart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bird seed

The variety of bird seeds and mixtures on the market is staggering. In most locations, however, the best all-around attractant is black-oil sunflower seed. This seed has a high meat-to-shell ratio; it is high in fat; and its small size and thin shell make it easy for small birds to handle and crack. (Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have thicker seed coats.)

Try starting with sunflower seeds, then experiment with other seeds or mixtures. A table showing the seed preferences of various bird groups can be seen at the bottom of this page. Remember that the table is a generalization, and that some bird species have different preferences in different parts of their ranges.

Read more about different types of seeds.

Suet

Suet is a good choice for attracting insect-eating birds. Most suet is beef kidney fat, which is inexpensive and available at many meat counters. Suet also can be purchased as processed cake that includes seeds, berries, and other ingredients. Be careful if you offer suet in hot weather; it may become rancid if it has not been specially processed.

Bushtits at suet feeder, by Lisa Schwab, Mt. Vernon, Washington

Nectar

To make nectar for hummingbirds, add one part sugar to four parts boiling water and stir. A slightly more diluted mixture can be used for orioles (one part sugar to six parts water). Allow the mixture to cool before filling the feeder.

Store extra sugar water in the refrigerator for up to one week (after that it may become moldy, which is dangerous for birds). Adding red food coloring is unnecessary and possibly harmful to birds. Red portals on the feeder, or even a red ribbon tied on top, will attract the birds just as well.

Hummingbird at nectar feeder, by Thomas Fedewa, Estacada, Oregon

IMPORTANT: Change nectar every three to five days to prevent mold and deadly fermentation. NEVER use honey or artificial sweeteners. Honey readily grows mold that can be harmful to hummingbirds. Do not put any kind of oil around feeding portals to deter bees; you might contaminate the nectar. If bees or wasps become a problem, try moving the feeder.

Other foods

Several species, including jays, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, readily consume peanuts. Be creative and see what you can attract with a variety of foods. Try popped popcorn (without salt or butter), hulled sunflower seeds, peanut hearts, soaked raisins, pieces of fruit (orioles like oranges), fruit seeds (melons, apples), grapes, or mealworms.

Grit

Birds “chew” their food in the muscular part of their stomach, the gizzard. To aid in the grinding, birds swallow small, hard materials such as sand, small pebbles, ground eggshells, and ground oyster shells. Grit, therefore, attracts many birds as a food supplementor even by itself. Oyster and egg shells have the added benefit of being a good source of calcium, something birds need during egg laying. If you decide to provide eggshells, be sure to sterilize them first. You can boil them for 10 minutes or heat them in an oven (20 minutes at 250 degrees). Let the eggshells cool; then crush them into pieces about the size of sunflower seeds. Offer the eggshell in a dish or low platform feeder, separate from your seed feeders.

Water

Since birds need water for drinking and bathing, they are attracted to water just as they are to feeders. You can purchase a bird bath or simply use dishes or shallow pans. Birds seem to prefer baths that are at ground level, but raised baths will attract birds as well. Change the water every day to keep it fresh and clean.

If the bath is on the ground, arrange a few branches or stones in the water so that birds can stand on them and drink without getting wet (this is particularly important in winter).

Bathing Northern Cardinals, by Harold Jackson, Memphis, Tennessee

One of the best ways to make your birdbath more attractive is to provide dripping water. You can buy a dripper or sprayer, or you can recycle an old bucket or plastic container by punching a tiny hole in the bottom, filling it with water, and hanging it above the birdbath so the water drips out.

In freezing climates, a birdbath heater will keep ice from forming. Never add anti-freeze; it is poisonous to all animals including birds.

Bird-feeding tips

  • Birds may be wary of new foods. If you add something new to your bird-feeding station, offer it in a familiar place.
  • If you buy a lot of seed, store it in a cool, dry place, in a rodent-proof, metal can. Check the seed often for mold. Do not use seed that has been stored for an extended period of time. Dispose of any seed that is questionable.

BirdNotes

Download free Lab of Ornithology BirdNotes about bird feeding.

  Seed Preferences of Common Feeder Birds
 
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FeederWatch is a joint research and education project of:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Home Page
Bird Studies Canada