Today is my day to buy seed for the birds. When I first got into feeding birds in a big way, I was buying a small bag of seed here and another small bag there. At the grocery store. The hardware store. Wherever seed could be found in my usual errand rounds. But when you feed birds regularly, sometimes you need to shop around, both for quality and for price. Figure out how much you actually use each month and see if buying in larger quantities from the right sources can save you money.
My grocery store’s selection varies by season but usually has small bags of seed that, while convenient, are usually the most expensive option. There often isn’t a lot of selection at grocery stores either. Typically, if you are lucky, you’ll find black oil sunflower seeds and suet blocks. Usually the rest of what you find are seed mixes. I’ve learned to stay away from most of the seed mixes because they often include filler seed that most birds won’t eat. Red millet is one such seed that, while apparently there are birds out west that will eat it, there don’t seem to be birds in my area that do, so it goes to waste and you wind up having to clean it up off the ground.
After buying seed at the grocery store for awhile, I moved up to the local home improvement store. Here I could find seed in not only small bags, but in larger quantities like ten or twenty-pound bags of black oil sunflower seeds for example, as well as the seed mixes, suet cakes, mealworms and an assortment of bird feeders. The local store seemed to have a decent turnover of seed; it seemed fresh and the birds seemed happy with it.
But during the winter months, when there is a lot of snow on the ground, I go through a lot of seed. So last winter I started shopping around. I eventually found myself at the local farm store, A. A. County Lawn & Farm Center , a farm co-op in Glen Burnie Maryland. They have been in business for eighty-four years. This is the place you come to get feed for your horses and supplies for planting your spring crops. They also have a large section of the store devoted to bird feeding supplies. Here you can purchase fifty-pound bags of a wide range of birdseed varieties or you can scoop out as much as you want into large paper bags and buy it by the pound. The more you buy, the less it costs per pound. They’ve also got lots of other bird supplies, bird feeders, etc. When you buy bigger quantities, they will bring it out and put it in the car for you. This is where I go to stock up on birdseed that I hope will last me awhile.
Today I’m buying fifty pound bags of Safflower, Sunflower Hearts, Nyjer and Black Oil Sunflower seeds. I know, it sounds like a ridiculous amount of seed to purchase and the price does add up. What am I thinking, right? But I’ve got a lot of bird feeders and buying a month or more’s worth of seed at a time does make sense for me. I don’t know that I would do this if I was going through smaller amounts each month, as you always want to offer fresh food. The Goldfinches in particular are very picky about Nyjer seed being fresh, so I would only purchase this much during periods of the year when I’m going through a lot of it and where the store had enough product rotation that the seed is truly fresh.
Yet another place to purchase seed is a store devoted to feeding wild birds. I go to Mother Nature’s in Columbia Maryland. Their seed is really fresh and the staff is fantastic, so you can get help with all kinds of questions about feeding birds. They also have a really deep selection of bird feeders, birdbaths, poles and other assorted birdwatching or bird-related products beyond what you can usually find elsewhere locally. As a small independent store, their prices for seed are a bit higher than the farm store’s prices, but I try to purchase it there when it is on sale. In particular, I purchase twenty-pound bags of Nyjer seed, cases of suet and nut blocks from them as well as peanuts in the shell for the Blue Jays.
I’ve tried different kinds of seed in my feeders over the past year and have settled on mostly these four types of seed. I use the Safflower seed in the ground level feeders because, while it isn’t the absolute favorite of most birds, many of them will eat it and it is less popular with squirrels than other seeds. The Cardinals in particular love it. There are usually one or two pairs of them eating all day and in the hour before the sun goes down every evening, there is a kind of Cardinal cocktail party in the yard with a dozen or more Cardinals coming to eat as the sun sinks. Mourning Doves are quite happy with this seed as well as White-Throated Sparrows and Carolina Wrens. When the ground is covered with snow, all kinds of birds are quite happy with it. Mostly the squirrels leave it alone unless they are really hungry.
I recently tried Nutra-Saff (a.k.a. Nutrasaff or Nutra Safflower), a kind of more lightly-hulled Safflower seed that is supposed to be even more nutritious because it has higher levels of oil, protein and fat. While the local birds would eat it, they were not overwhelmed, seeming to prefer the regular Safflower seed better. It may be that they need time to get used to it. I’ve stuck with the regular safflower for now. It’s worth trying in your yard to see what your birds think.
Nyjer is a favorite of Goldfinches and Pine Siskins, although Dark-Eyed Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows and Mourning Doves will hang out under the Nyjer feeders in my yard to eat fallen seed. Nyjer costs more per pound than most seed, so it’s best to serve it up in tube feeders with tiny slits designed just for these little birds to eat it. You can also find Nyjer filled socks, typically for about $5. They are re-fillable; I have a few of these for times when there are a lot of Goldfinches around and the tube feeders are overcrowded with Goldfinches, kind of like adding a few portable tables when more people come to dinner than your regular dining room table can hold.
Sunflower hearts are a real favorite of many birds. Cardinals, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmouses, Chickadees, House Finches, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Brown-Headed Cowbirds: All kinds of birds will eat sunflower hearts. I did find that when I switched to the hearts in most feeders, the American Crows seemed a bit disgusted and I didn’t see them as often. The Blue Jays were also initially unhappy, but they came around and will eat some of it as well as their favorite, peanuts in the shell.
Unfortunately, the squirrels love sunflower hearts too and if you offer them in a feeder that a squirrel can get into, they’ll sit there for long periods of time eating huge amounts and denying the birds access. If they find this seed on the ground, they will eat it up like little vacuum cleaners.
So I put the sunflower hearts in my Squirrel Buster Plus feeders and in the hanging platform feeder I’ve got on a baffled pole. One thing I really like about sunflower hearts is that you don’t have the mess of the shells. This may sound lazy, but they can be a pain to clean up and there is a substance in sunflower seed shells that deters other plants from growing, so if you let them lay in your yard, you’ll get bald patches in your lawn.
You do need to be careful about sunflower hearts in particular in rainy weather. Because they are out of the shell, if they get wet, they become soft and mushy and rot faster than seeds in the shell. (Although any seed left out in the wet can go bad.) If the weather is really wet, I’ll sometimes switch out the sunflower hearts in the hanging platform feeder with black-oil sunflower seeds in the shell and will try to be conservative with how much I put out at a time. Then after the rainy patch is over, I check all the feeders and discard any wet seed that looks like it is going to mold and replace it with fresh dry seed.
Black-oil sunflower seeds (in the shell) are beloved by many birds as well. If you can only justify purchasing one type of seed and want to attract a wide variety of birds, try black-oil sunflower seeds or sunflower hearts. The black-oil sunflower seed I buy is for the squirrels however. I put it in one feeder right next to a small tree trunk where the squirrels can get into it. The birds will sometimes get into this feeder too or eat the spilled seed under it, but it’s mostly for squirrels. It’s a bit less expensive than the sunflower hearts and I figure having to shell the seed keeps the squirrels busy. They have to eat more slowly and not just vacuum it up. Some American Crows and Fish Crows have discovered the squirrel feeder full of black-oil sunflower seeds just recently and have been hanging around the yard more and will stop buy to get a quick snack of spilled seed under that feeder.
You’ll notice that I tend to put one type of seed in each feeder; I try to match the type of seed to what birds who like to eat at that level and/or type of feeder like, keeping squirrel activity in mind. I will occasionally toss a handful of something else into a platform feeder, but over time I’ve learned that it is usually better to keep the types of seed separate. If you mix them, the birds (or squirrels) who come to that feeder will pick through it to find their favorite seed, often tossing what they don’t like out onto the ground. While there are birds who like eating on the ground who will help clean up this mess, there is usually less waste if you don’t mix the seeds. Then the birds go to the feeder with the seeds they like and everyone is happier.
Of course, if you do want to offer a mix in one feeder, you certainly can. I would suggest purchasing the individual types separately and then mix it yourself. This gives you control of what goes into it. It also gives you the option of using a mix in one feeder but using individual types of seed in others.
When you shop for seed, look for a store with good quality seed. You don’t want to buy a dusty bag of seed that has been sitting on a back shelf for six months. The store needs a good turnover so the seed you purchase is fresh. Purchase in quantities that you think you’ll use up in a month or two. (If you store it well, it’ll last even longer.) Shop around your local area. If you purchase a lot of seed, look for a place that will give you a lower price for buying in larger quantities. You’ll then need a place at home to store the seed so it stays dry and fresh, but that is a topic for another post.
2019 Update: These days I purchase almost all my seed in bulk from Mother Nature’s bird store in Columbia Maryland. The farm coop moved farther away a while ago and became inconvenient and the quality of the seed at the bird store really is much higher. I do try to stock up on seed there when it is on sale if possible.
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