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by Leonard Perry
by Leonard Perry


In extension I serve as an advisor and consultant to the greenhouse and nursery industry, primarily in Vermont but throughout the region and beyond as well.

I give presentations on my research to the industry, and to home groups. In Research, my focus is "herbaceous perennial production systems".

His website is at  Leonards zone of gardening: home with my trials, generally USDA 4a. Campus in Burlington is 5.

November 25, 2018

Many gardeners, and even non-gardeners, enjoy feeding and watching birds, particularly during the winter. I often think of all these birds struggling to find food and water to survive bitter cold outside, while we are warm inside out homes. Knowing a few basics on types of bird seeds, and preferences by birds, will help you to attract more species, and to provide them with the most energy to stay warm.

Unless you have a landscape rich with weeds, perennials, and shrubs that produce abundant seeds, you’ll need to supplement a bird’s diet with bird seeds you purchase. Even if you have a landscape of such plants, they either won’t provide sufficient seeds all winter or may be covered with snow if they’re perennials or low shrubs.

If you’re thinking of adding more landscape plants this coming season, consider at least some that will provide either bird food (berries and seeds) or habitat (evergreens). A favorite large shrub for summer fruit is the shad or serviceberry; winterberry is a favorite for fall fruit.

To keep the most bird species around your home, you should supplement with the specific foods that each species prefers, and serve the bird food in the appropriate types of feeders for various species. Make sure the feeders can be cleaned regularly and easily, such as with removable bases. Also make sure they are appropriate to the species you have, or want to attract. Cardinals, for instance, need larger perches on tube or hopper feeders than chickadees.

Nuthatches and woodpeckers like to cling, so a wire mesh feeder is best for them. If you have a wire mesh feeder, make sure the openings are large enough for the birds to access the seeds you’re providing. I’ve tried some decorative mesh feeders shaped like snowmen or scarecrows, only to have the mesh openings too small for birds to obtain the sunflower seeds.

Some mesh tube feeders are just for shelled peanuts—a favorite of woodpeckers, bluejays, nuthatches, and chickadees. They also can be taken over by crows and crackles when these are passing by. You may need to put them out of reach of squirrel access, hanging away from objects they can climb, or using pole baffles. If using a peanut feeder other than in winter, when animals are not hibernating, you may need bring them in at night to prevent raccoons and perhaps bears from ravaging peanut feeders.

If shelled peanuts get wet they can harbor aflatoxins, which can make birds sick, so make sure to either keep them dry, use the feed up in a day or two if it gets wet, or replenish and clean feeders well and often. Peanuts in the shell, placed on a platform feeder or just a deck, don’t spoil as readily and are attractive to blue jays as well as squirrels.

To attract the most number of bird species, and if you just want one type of food, sunflower seeds are the food of choice. You can find black oil (the kind I use), striped, or the out-of-shell hearts. If you don’t want larger birds— such as crackles, blue jays, blackbirds, and starlings— to take over the feeders and eat pounds of seeds a day, serve the seeds in feeders such as tube ones with perches for smaller birds. Other “exclusion” feeders have weight mechanisms that close the openings when larger birds or squirrels step on them. As with the peanut feeders, you may need to “squirrel proof” feeders holding sunflower seeds.

If you don’t want the mess of all the spent sunflower shells on the ground, or on a deck or patio, you may want to feed the more expensive sunflower hearts out of their shells. Without the shell protection these can quickly spoil with bacteria that will make birds sick, so only put out what they can eat in a day or two.

One means to discourage squirrels, and perhaps starlings, is to provide safflower seeds. This has a thick shell which is hard for some birds to open, yet is favored by cardinals and some grosbeaks, chickadees, native sparrows, and doves. For these seeds, use a tray or hopper feeder (with wide perch) that some of these birds need. Nyjer seeds are a common one for small birds, often sold as niger or thistle. It’s not really a thistle, though, as these have become invasive in North America. Nyjer seeds are small, oily and rich and from a daisy-like plant, imported from overseas. Since they are heat sterilized, they won’t germinate and spread. Goldfinches, indigo buntings, pine siskins, and redpolls like nyger seeds served either in mesh socks or tube feeders with a fine mesh or small openings.

You’ll see dried corn for sale, particularly cracked corn. Dried corn cob pieces, placed on a post with spikes (which you can buy or make quite simply), attract blue jays. Loose dried corn is attractive to larger birds such as quail, turkeys, ducks, and pheasants, as well as songbirds such as grosbeaks, cardinals, and blue jays. However, it attracts less desirable birds also such as cowbirds, geese, and starlings, as well as bears, raccoons, and deer.

Another problem is that corn can spoil quickly when wet, harboring aflatoxins which can be quite toxic even at low levels. So avoid buying corn or storing it in plastic bags where it may stay damp, change it daily during rainy weather, and rake up old corn so it won’t be eaten. Don’t use corn for planting which has red dye as a marker for fungicide treatment. And don’t provide buttered or popped corn, which can spoil quickly.

Less common seeds include milo or sorghum (more for western birds), and white millet (more for ground feeders). There are many other seeds used as fillers, particularly in the less expensive seed mixes. These include golden millet, red millet, and flax which are avoided by most birds. So they are just a waste of money and, if not being eaten, will spoil. This, in turn, can breed harmful fungus and bacteria. If you’re trying to save money, stock up on seeds such as black oil sunflower when they’re on sale. Many hardware and garden stores have sales in the fall; some stores offer reduced prices more often.

You may find filler seeds in suet cakes, as well as peanuts, corn, and even fruit bits and insects. Since the birds are most interested in the animal fat which provides high energy and is easily digested, the rest of the fillers aren’t really needed. Since the peanuts and corn can spoil, buy suet from reputable dealers, keep it refrigerated when storing, and put outside only when temperatures are below freezing to keep it from becoming rancid.

Another food source that some feed birds is mealworms, which are not worms at all but rather the larvae of the darkling beetle. They are attractive to bluebirds, particularly when raising their young, as well as many other birds—so much so that this food may be affordable only if fed in narrow tube feeders with holes for small birds. Although when alive these insects are more attractive to birds, dried ones in bags are fine and often what you find in stores.

If you are lucky and have many birds, especially during summer when the young begin feeding too, or when large numbers are flocking and passing by, you may want to invest in a larger feeder or two. While smaller ones may contain a quart or two of seeds, larger ones may hold 4 quarts or more and so not need filling every day.

In addition to providing food, birds need water so consider adding a heated bird bath if you don’t have one already. You can find such with heating elements built in, or a heating element you can merely add to your summer bird bath. As with the feeders, make sure you keep bird baths cleaned regularly.

You can learn more about feeding birds from books, or websites such as those of various bird seed manufacturers, the magazine Birds and Blooms (, or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (

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