A guide to wild bird seed and food

Featured image for a comprehensive guide to wild bird seed and wild bird food in general.

Guide to wild bird seed and food

There are lots of different types of wild bird seed available. So much so, that it can be hard for the well-intentioned bird lover to know exactly what is best to buy and leave out for the birds. In this post, we are going to give a brief guide to wild bird seed and food to hopefully make things a little clearer for you.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for and the best bird seed tends to be the most expensive. While there are plenty of cheap seed mixtures available, they often contain fillers such as oats and red millet that most birds won’t eat. This means you end up with a lot of wasted feed lying around which is a fertile breeding ground for mold and bacteria that can be harmful to the birds. For this reason, the cheaper mixtures are best avoided.

Sunflower seeds

If you want to attract the widest variety of birds then you’ll want to go with sunflower seeds, of which there are two types – striped and black oil.

Black sunflower seeds

Black sunflower seeds have thinner shells than the striped variety and are much easier for small birds to crack open. The kernels have a very high fat content making them extremely valuable for winter birds. They’re not just a winter food though, being suitable for year-round feeding.

Striped sunflower seeds

These have a much thicker shell than the black sunflower seeds, making them harder for smaller birds to open so if you want to attract smaller birds to your garden you’re better choosing the black seeds over the striped ones. If you’re interested in attracting larger birds, then these are a good choice.

Sunflower hearts and chips

Sunflower hearts, also known as chips, are hulled sunflower seeds that are 100% edible. These have two main advantages – the birds don’t have to use valuable energy to crack open the shells in winter, and from the human perspective you don’t end up with lots of shells lying around that you have to clean up – especially important if your feeder is on your lawn, as the shells are toxic to lawn grass.

Sunflower hearts and chips also have the advantage that they attract other species of birds that don’t have beaks that can crack open shells. Because of the manual work required to remove the shells before sale, sunflower hearts are more expensive than the seeds with the shells still on.

The drawback to using sunflower seeds is that they are very attractive to squirrels. There are specialized squirrel proof feeders available that can prevent squirrels from stealing your food.

Nyjer seeds

These are a tiny, black seed from Africa and Asia that are high in oil content and are particular favorites of goldfinches, and also purple and house finches and siskins. Nyjer seeds require a special type of seed feeder that prevents spillage.


Peanuts are incredibly popular with a wide variety of birds, including jays, tits, woodpeckers, house sparrows, finches and wrens but you do have to be careful when feeding peanuts to birds because they can be high in a natural toxin which can harm or even kill the birds. So make sure you always buy them from a reputable dealer, keep them dry and use them relatively quickly.

You can either buy whole peanuts in the shell or peanut pieces.

Whole peanuts in the shell

One of the greatest treats you can feed birds is whole peanuts in the shell. These are particularly popular with woodpeckers and jays.

If you want all the birds to have a chance to get the peanuts then the best type of feeder to use is a platform feeder.

Peanut pieces

These are just broken pieces of peanuts, usually a by-product of preparing peanuts for human consumption. They are often put into special peanut feeders which require the birds to cling to the feeder to get the peanuts inside. The aim is to restrict access to those birds which love them the most.


These are small white seeds that are often found in birdseed mixes but you can also buy them separately. Millet is an inexpensive grain that will attract a variety of different birds such as doves, sparrows and house finches.

Safflower seed

This seed which looks like a white sunflower seed has a thick shell which means its only suitable for birds with sturdy beaks. Because squirrels don’t really like it, this is a popular seed choice for many people’s back gardens. Its suitable for birds such as cardinals, woodpeckers, jays and nuthatches.

Other bird foods

An excellent winter food for birds are fat balls or fat-based food bars. Always remove the nylon mesh before putting them out, if they come in one, as the birds can get trapped in the mesh and hurt themselves. Other food you can give to the birds are fruit, nectar and suet.

Foods to avoid

Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils and cooking fats are bad for birds and shouldn’t be fed to them.

Birds should also never be fed milk as it is bad for them and can make them ill and even kill them.

Moldy foods should be avoided too. While most molds are harmless to birds some can cause respiratory infections and it’s recommended to be on the safe side and just avoid moldy and stale foods altogether.

Choosing quality birdseed

Although birds aren’t usually choosy about the food they eat, higher quality feed provides better nutrition for them and will attract more species to your garden. Even within the same variety of seed you will find differences in quality so always choose carefully. To guide you, here are some of the things to look out for:

  • Quantity – although buying in bulk can make the bird seed less expensive, you need to remember only to buy as much as you will use before it goes stale or mouldy.
  • Quality/freshness – look for any signs of mold or infestation in the seed. Also, quality fresh seed will not have large amounts of dust or other inedible material in the mix.
  • Ingredients – make sure the seed hasn’t been treated with any pesticides or insecticides that could be toxic to the birds. If you’re buying a seed mix, also check the mix proportions used. You should aim to choose seed with a higher proportion of better quality seeds such as sunflower or millet rather than having a lot of lower quality filler such as millet or cracked corn.