Nyjer is super healthy food — and not a thistle. photo by Elise Wolf
Nyjer is super healthy food — and not a thistle. photo by Elise Wolf
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

So said Virginia Woolf. These words could not be more valid than for birds. Our flighted friends are essentially Olympic athletes. Their foods should be of a quality to allow them to thrive, not just survive. So, let’s explore bird food!

Sunflower seeds: At 50 percent fat and 24 percent protein, black oil sunflower seeds are greedily consumed. In fact, a sunflower seed beats a mealworm in protein content. They’re also high in vitamin E and magnesium, and pack an energy punch and add fat reserves. Black oil has a lighter shell than striped, which is less work to open. The hearts are great during climatic stress but spoil quicker. Most of our buffet diners eat sunflower. In winter, robins, flickers, even the out-of-place meadowlark can eat chipped sunflower hearts.

Nyjer seed: A high-value seed; 17 percent protein, 34 percent fat, with 1 percent calcium, higher than any other seed. It is not a thistle and is sterilized to prevent spread. Feed readily to goldfinch and pine siskin; juncos will eat it too. Feed alone as it is expensive.

Millet: A seed, not a grain, which is 74 percent carbohydrate, 11 percent protein, and 4 percent fat. Birds often toss this out of mixed seed in favor of the sunflower. Discarded foods bring birds under the feeders, which we should avoid due to disease. Better to feed millet singly in the feeder or tossed on the ground away from the feeders. Ground feeding discourages starlings and house sparrows while supplying the doves, quail, juncos, and native sparrows. Finches love millet.

Peanuts: A favorite for virtually every animal. On par with sunflower at 49 percent fat and 21 percent protein, this nut is fought over by jays, crows, woodpeckers, chickadee, and nuthatch. It can carry aflatoxin, a fungal toxin harmful to birds. The more food is processed (chopped, hulled), the higher the chance of molds and fungi. Best fed in the shell and in cool, dry times. Don’t store or leave in feeders for days.

Safflower: A more expensive seed with a hard shell; 16 percent protein, and 38 percent fat. Only birds that can crush a heavy seed — like the grosbeak and the parrot — eat this. For birds that swallow seed whole, safflower takes more energy to digest than the minimal nutrition it provides. Feed in hoppers to grosbeaks, or stick with sunflower.

Corn: A sugary treat for ground feeders, perhaps grosbeak. Jays and starlings also like it. Corn is high in sugar, low in fat (5 percent), and low in protein (9 percent). It is often tossed from hanging feeders, which is excellent for rodents and squirrels. Feed fine-cracked corn to the turkeys, doves, and quail. Corn is the number-one carrier of aflatoxin, after peanuts.

Fillers: Milo, wheat, buckwheat, rye, canary, sorghum, red millet, and flax. Jays, starlings, cowbirds, and house sparrows like fillers. Flax is pure oil. The fillers are dehydrating and require more energy to digest because they are not cooked, are dry, and high in fiber.

Tip 1: It is more cost-effective to get individual seeds or mixes of only the seeds that are entirely eaten, sunflower and millet, for example. Less waste means fewer trips to the store.

Tip 2: Old rancid seeds, dried-out thistle, and moldy millet, corn, and peanuts can all cause illness and/or lower immunity in our birds. Poorly stored foods can breed molds and fungi, become rancid, and have lower nutritional value.

In the next article, I will share tips on other foods to offer at the bird buffet, as well as what to avoid. Bon appetite, for the birds!