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A birdfeeding shopping list

birdfeeding shopping list
CUSTOMER: A female Northern Cardinal nabs a nutritious black-oil sunflower seed from a backyard feeder. Photo by Terry Putnam/Shutterstock

Bread may be the “food of life” for some human cultures, but it’s not nutritious for birds. What should you be feeding your backyard birds?

Black-oil sunflower, easy to open with its thin shell and packing more oil and calories, is the single best choice for birdseed. Striped sunflower has a thicker shell, harder for House Sparrows and starlings to open, so 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 mixtures are often left uneaten and get moldy. If you notice that birds are mostly picking out the sunflower, try a different mixture or switch to plain sunflower.

Many species prefer corn and especially peanuts. But when they get wet, both foster fungal growth, producing dangerous “aflatoxins.” Peanuts and corn sold for human, pet, and livestock consumption are tested for that. Shockingly, no laws require peanuts or corn sold for wildlife feeding to be safe, so I buy peanuts at the grocery store. I don’t use corn often, but when I do, I get it at a feed store where it’s labeled for livestock or pets.

Pure beef suet is hard to find at most grocery stores nowadays. Most of us buy suet cakes, which combine suet with other ingredients, such as sunflower chips, white millet, fruit bits, nuts, and even dried insects. I avoid suet cakes with other seeds or a lot of cornmeal. 


Many birds (and squirrels) love peanut butter. Oils separate out in natural peanut butters, which isn’t an issue during 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 set out jelly for migratory orioles. The sugars provide essential calories during migration, and catbirds and other species also are attracted to it. But jelly is sticky, so offer it only in small containers so birds won’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 hummingbirds (about ¼ cup of sugar per cup of water). Prepared nectar mixtures are more expensive than mixing your own, and no better nutritionally. If you do want a prepared nectar, make sure it’s clear: food coloring is harmful. Hummingbirds come to our feeders for carbs, getting plenty of other nutrients from nectar and insects. You don’t need to boil the water unless you’re making large quantities for later use, but do keep your feeders clean (use a bottle brush and rinse with hot water) and change the water immediately if you see any clouding or dark smudges inside the feeder. In hot weather, change sugar water every day or two to prevent fermentation.


Just as we consider nutrition and safety when shopping for ourselves and our families, we need to keep those principles in mind when shopping for the birds. Knowing that our feeder birds are genuinely benefiting from visiting our yards enhances our own enjoyment in watching them. Win-win!

Find more information about seeds and feeders, seasonal feeding advice, and more.

Originally Published
Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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