A few lessons on birdseed, peanuts, suet and more

In a cartoon in the Star Tribune in early January, a guy says he’d planted some birdseed a while back and was still waiting for the birds to come up. I thought that was rather clever. Why had I never thought of that?

Truth to tell, I’ve had pretty good luck attracting a variety of birds over the years, so I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned.

The one seed that every bird seems to love is black oiler sunflower seed. It has a high nut-to-shell ratio. (Did you know there was such a ratio? A small nut-to-shell ratio means there is not as much nutmeat as the shell size suggests.) There’s also a high-oil, high-calorie content that birds value, especially in winter. Cardinals, finches, blue jays and sparrows have strong beaks that can crack the seeds open. Even black-capped chickadees can chisel their way into the seed by pinning it between their toes and pecking it open to get at the meat.

One drawback with black oilers is the shells. They have a natural herbicide in them, and you’ll notice that where they accumulate, nothing grows. That’s not a problem if they’re falling on a deck or patio, but in the yard or the garden, they’re killing off whatever’s growing under the feeder.

You can buy sunflower seeds without the shells. It’s a little bit more expensive, but you’re not paying for shells and you’ll have grass under your feeder.

I buy seed in bulk, usually in 30-pound bags and store it in a small metal garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. It’s kept in the garage since birdseed often contains eggs from moths or other insects that could hatch in the warmth of your home. This avoids unpleasant surprises when you open the lid.

I mix black oiler sunflower seeds in equal parts with safflower seeds. Safflower seed has a white shell and if dropped on the ground, it will germinate. But as my friend Kraig Kelsey from Kelsey’s Wild Bird Store says, “Any seeds with shells should germinate.” That means the seeds are viable, not rotten or moldy. Most birds can crack the shell, but house sparrows don’t seem to like it. That’s one of the reasons I use it.

I have kind of a geeky way of storing my sunflower/safflower seed mix: I’ve made a barrier out of cardboard that fits down the middle of the trash can. I put the barrier in and then pour sunflower seed on one side of the barrier, safflower seed on the other. Then I pull out the barrier. Now whenever I need to bring out some more seed mix, I dig a scoop right down the midpoint where the two seeds meet, getting half of each into the scoop. I dump the mix into a heavy-duty plastic bag, hold the top closed, and then shake and tumble the bag until I’ve got a fairly even mix.

Goldfinches really love nyger seed. I buy a ready-made mix of nyger and tiny sunflower chips in a 10-pound bag. The sunflower chips are so tiny they fit through the narrow slits on the tube feeder.

One food that all the birds seem to relish is peanuts. I use a tubular peanut feeder that has a sliding shell on the outside, frustrating any squirrel that jumps on it but allowing birds to feed.

I ran out of my usual peanuts a few weeks ago and picked up a bag of red-skinned peanuts at a hardware store to tide me over. They haven’t been disappearing very fast. When I got back to Kelsey’s to get some other seed, I confessed to Kraig that I’d temporarily switched from his peanuts to the red-skinned ones. “Yah, birds don’t like ’em,” he said. It turns out red-skinned peanuts are unroasted and just don’t taste as good as the roasted ones, the ones that fell on the floor at the peanut factory and can’t be sold for human consumption.


I also have a suet feeder, a kind of cage arrangement that holds square suet cakes. Woodpeckers, blue jays, starlings, nuthatches and chickadees like to work on these.

To feed juncos, mourning doves, rabbits and squirrels, I toss seed on the flat limestone pieces bordering our back garden. This seed comes ready-mixed with cracked corn, white and red millet. It’s a favorite of white-throated sparrows, as well as other sparrows, during their migration.

If you haven’t tried black oiler sunflower seeds, get 5 pounds and give them a try. And maybe mix them with 5 pounds of safflower seed. Better seed and better seed choices should mean better birds. But remember those shells.

This column is about birdseed, but to really pull in birds, add a heated birdbath.


Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. He authored “The Birdman of Lauderdale,” available at local bird stores, bookstores and www.BirdmanBook.com.

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