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Top 10 Wild Bird Food

rose-breasted grosbeak
Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Terry Lunn from Surfbirds Galleries

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the array of foods available to feed winter birds. Here are our Top 10 winter bird foods.

1. Sunflower Seeds

Black-oil seeds rank as the single best wild bird food. These small. thin-shelled seeds are easy to open and are rich in fat and protein. Virtually every bird that visits backyard bird feeders eats black-oil seeds. They work well by themselves or as the primary ingredient in quality mixes.

Striped sunflower seeds are larger and thicker shelled than black-oil seeds. Consequently, only birds physically able to crack open these seeds can eat them. Grosbeaks, Finches, Jays, Nuthatches and Woodpeckers can handle them. Hulled sunflower seeds - kernels mechanically stripped of their shells are ideal for most birds because they are pure food. Birds need not spend any time or energy cracking the seeds to remove the meat. In fact, sunflower kernels are the best of the best. If we offered only one food in our backyard, it would be hulled sun-flower seeds.

Black-headed Grosbeak
If you live in the West, you might be lucky enough to see a Black-headed Grosbeak in the spring. These birds love the striped Sunflower seeds. Photo ©

2. Nuts

Peanuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds and other nuts are natural, nutritious, energy foods for many birds, especially woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, and nuthatches. Nuts are more expensive than sunflower seeds. But after you discover how much birds love nuts, there's no turning back! But squirrels and chipmunks love nuts, too, so nut feeders must be as squirrel-resistant as possible. Peanut hearts the embryos removed during the manufacture of peanut butter -are overrated as bird food and often attract starlings.

red-bellied woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpeckers love corn! © Mark S. Szantyr from Surfbirds galleries

3. Nyjer (thistle)

Nyjer is a high-calorie finch magnet. Imported from Africa and Asia, again it can be pricey. Doves and many native sparrows clean up the spillage from the tiny seed ports of finch feeders, which are designed to exclude larger birds. Contrary to its popular nickname, nyjer is not a thistle, It will not germinate and invade backyards and gardens. Nyjer is sterilized before it enters the USA.

Lesser Goldfinch on a Nyger feeder
Lesser Goldfinches absolutely love Nyger! Photo ©

4. Live Food

Live food is a real treat to most birds during winter. Woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches ignore nuts and sunflower seeds when live food is available. Even birds such as bluebirds and robins, which rarely visit feeders, enjoy live food. Mealworms (beetle larva) and wax worms (bee moth larva) are available from several suppliers.

5. Suet

In the wild, high energy animal fat or suet from carcasses sustains many wild birds. Fortunately commercially packaged suet cakes serve the same purpose. Suet cakes come in many pure suet, suet-peanut butter blends and suet mixed with a variety of seeds and nuts. Birds love them all. No winter feeding station is complete without a suet feeder. Suet lovers include woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, jays, wrens and some

6. Millet

Several varieties of millet, including white, red, golden and Japanese are eaten by a variety of ground-feeding sparrows and waterfowl. When given a choice, these species usually prefer white millet, so it's a major ingredient in many seed mixes.

One of millet's best qualities is that its seed coat is hard enough to resisting, but not too hard for birds to crack. It is best offered on the ground or on low platform feeders. Among the more exciting birds that eat millet are Painted Buntings in the southeast and Harris' Sparrows on the Great Plains.

painted bunting at feeder
seedeaters such as this Painted Bunting in southeast USA love millet © Brandon Holden from Surfbirds galleries

7. Corn

Birds such as doves, quail, turkeys and ducks love corn. At back-yard feeders whole corn kernels attract Red-bellied Woodpeckers, crows and squirrels. Unfortunately, it also attracts and grackles. Nutritionally, corn is high carbohydrate and fat, but low in protein. In urban settings where pigeons are a problem, whole corn is best avoided. Cracked corn, and especially finely cracked corn (also called chick chops or chick corn), appeals to many backyard birds but it does have some serious disadvantages. Cracked corn is dusty, spoils quickly when wet and attracts many undesirable birds. Pigeons, starlings, House cowbirds and grackles quickly find feeders filled with cracked corn, so use it sparingly where these birds are a problem.

8. Safflower

Safflower is often advertised as a magnet, but many birds don't prefer it to sunflower seeds. Safflower is an oil seed and makes a fine minor ingredient in a quality seed. Doves, titmice and house finches safflower seed. It is also touted as being distasteful to squirrels. We have no experience to back that up.

9. Fruits

Fruits may seem like a summer food but across the sunbelt and on warm winter days in the north, woopdpeckers, jays, robins, bluebirds, catbirds and mockingbirds can be coaxed to a feeding tray with fruit. Raisins, craisins, sliced apples and oranges and bananas all work well. Scatter on an open tray or impale on small brances or nails.

10. Nectar

Birders across the southern states can feed hummingbirds all year but over the past decade Rufous Hummingbirds have been appearing in winter throughout the east. Nectar provides the calories that hummingbirds need. Hummingbird Nectar Recipe

rufous hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird © Chris Wormwell from Surfbirds galleries. Click here for an article on winter hummingbirds