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Bread may be the “food of life” for some human cultures, but it is not nutritious for birds. What should you feed your backyard birds?
Black Oil Sunflower, which is easy to open with its thin shell and contains more oil and calories, is the best choice for birdseed. The striped sunflower has a thicker shell that is more difficult for house sparrows and starlings to crack open, so it is a good choice where they are a problem.
White millet is excellent for native sparrows and doves. Many other tiny seeds used as filler in seed mixes are often not eaten and go moldy. If you notice the birds picking up mostly sunflower, try a different mix or switch to regular sunflower.
Many species prefer corn and especially peanuts. But when wet, both promote fungal growth, producing dangerous “aflatoxins.” Peanuts and corn sold for human, animal and animal consumption are tested for this. Surprisingly, no law requires peanuts or corn to be sold for wildlife food, so I buy peanuts at the grocery store. I don’t use corn often, but when I do, I buy it from a feed store where it’s labeled for livestock or pets.
Pure beef tallow is hard to find in most grocery stores these days. Most of us buy suet patties, which combine suet with other ingredients, such as sunflower chips, white millet, fruit pieces, nuts, and even dried insects. I avoid suet patties with other seeds or lots of cornmeal.
Many birds (and squirrels) love peanut butter. Oils separate in natural peanut butters, which is not a problem in cold weather but can cause problems when temperatures rise. Processed peanut butter is sticky, so many people mix it with cornmeal or seeds to make it grittier. Check the ingredients: some brands are now sweetened with xylitol, which is extremely dangerous for dogs and probably not safe for birds.
Many people make jelly for migrating orioles. Sugars provide essential calories during migration, and catbirds and other species are also attracted to them. But jelly is sticky, so only offer it in small containers so birds don’t get it on their feathers or feet. I choose brands that use sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.
You can use cane or beet sugar for the hummingbirds (about ¼ cup of sugar per cup of water). Prepared nectar mixes are more expensive than your own and are not nutritionally better. If you want prepared nectar, make sure it’s clear: food coloring is harmful. Hummingbirds come to our feeders for carbohydrates, getting many other nutrients from nectar and insects. You don’t need to boil water unless you’re making large quantities for later use, but keep your feeders clean (use a bottle brush and rinse with hot water) and change the water immediately if you see clouds or dark spots inside the feeder. In hot weather, change the sugar water daily or every other day to prevent fermentation.
Just as we consider nutrition and safety when buying for ourselves and our families, we must keep these principles in mind when buying birds. Knowing that our feeder birds actually benefit from visiting our yards increases our own enjoyment of watching them. Win-win!
Find more information on seeds and feeders, seasonal feeding tips, and more.