The 14 Most Popular Foods for Backyard Birds (with Pictures and Facts)

food for backyard birds

In this post, I list the 14 most popular food types for backyard birds. The list is arranged from the most to the least popular food type based on 98 bird species that regularly visit backyard feeders in North America.

Preference for specific food types was obtained from reports by thousands of bird enthusiasts who participate in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Feederwatch Project.

Food preferences are listed in the table of contents ordered in descending order—the highest number of bird species consumed food type #1, and so on.

Information about each of the 14 most popular food types includes nutrition value, how to feed it to birds, and interesting facts about them.

Scroll down to see every foot type or jump to the desired type using the table below.

1. Hulled Sunflower Seeds

hulled sunflower seed

Hulled sunflower seed is the kernel inside black oil sunflower seed where the shell has been removed.

Hulled sunflower seed is known as the “no mess” sunflower seed. Birds eat the whole grain without generating the chaff on the feeder or underneath.

Although more expensive, hulled sunflower seeds can be purchased in stores as pure or part of birdseed mixes.

Bird species that eat sunflower seeds: Birds that eat black oil sunflower seed favor hulled sunflower seed, which represents a work-free seed alternative.

Hulled sunflower seed is the most popular birdseed among North American birds. Most birds, 88 (89.7%) that visit feeders eat sunflower seeds.

Without the hull’s protection, the sunflower kernels can get spoiled relatively fast and develop fungus and bacteria if not kept dry in the feeders or stored.

Nutritional Value: As with black oil, hulled sunflower seed is rich in fat (27-29%), followed by fiber (24-26%) and protein (14%). Hulled sunflower seeds also contain vitamins A and E and traces of Iron, Calcium, and Potassium.

How to feed it to birds: Hulled sunflower seed is a work-free and easy to handle grain.

This fat and oil-rich seed are offered pure or as part of birdseed mixes in tube and hopper feeders.

Because of its high cost, some bird enthusiasts offer pure hulled sunflower seed in feeders that prevent flocking birds such as grackles and starlings from hastily eating the feeders’ content.

Without the hull’s protection, this seed in humid conditions may develop fungus and bacteria potentially harmful to birds.

If offered pure, hulled sunflower seed should be kept dry to prevent fungus and bacteria growth.

Facts:

  • Hulled sunflower seeds can be offered in chips, broken or semi-crushed, to make them easy to handle by small birds.
  • If spilled onto the ground, the hulled sunflower seed does not germinate.
  • Because of the labor necessary to remove the shells, hulled sunflower seed is among the most expensive birdseed.

2. Black Oil Sunflower Seeds

2nd best food for birds black oils sunflower seed

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds is one of the most popular birdseed. A few varieties differ on the color patterns and thickness of the shell, but only one plant, Helianthus annuus, produces them all.

Birds need to crack the shell open to eat the kernel, which generates waste on tray feeders and below hopper and tube feeders.

Feeding birds sunflower seeds requires cleaning up the feeders and the ground below frequently.

Birds that eat Black Oil Sunflower seed: Birds that favor black oil sunflower seeds are those with strong beaks to crack open the shell. Birds that eat black oil sunflower seeds include cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, finches, chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, grackles, and blackbirds.

Black oil sunflower seed is the second most popular source of food for birds that visit feeders.

Seventy-one species (72.4%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America favor black oil sunflower.

Most birds peel off the seed to eat the heart, but others such as wild turkey, quails, pheasants eat it whole.

Nutritional Value: Black oil and hulled sunflower seeds are among the most nutritious birdseed. This seed has a high content of fat (27-29%), followed by fiber (24-26%) and protein (14%). Sunflower seeds also contain vitamins A and E and traces of Iron, Calcium, and Potassium.

How to Feed it to birds: Most birds that eat black oils sunflower seeds need a stable surface and space to handle this relatively large seed. Tray or platform feeders are ideal. Some use large and small hopper feeders, and some put sunflower seed directly on the ground.

Facts:

  • Sunflower seed is the most nutritious of all birdseed.
  • Humans also consume sunflower seeds in salads and salted kernels.
  • Never feed salted sunflower seeds to birds; it can be very harmful.

3. Peanuts hearts

peanut hearts

Peanut hearts are a very nutritious and popular food for birds. Peanuts are not a nut but a legume produced by the peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea). Peanuts are rich in oils and fats and provide a reliable energy source, mainly in the cold fall and winter months.

Peanuts are offered to birds as peanut hearts and peanuts in the shell (see below). Peanuts are also provided as peanut butter, pure or mixed with bird seeds.

Birds that eat peanuts hearts: Cracked peanut hearts are among the favorite food type for birds that visit backyard feeders.

Fifty-eight species (59.1%) of the 98 species visit feeders in North America eat peanut hearts. These include crows to warblers.

Jays, sparrows, finches, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, brown creepers, and even Eastern and Western bluebirds go crazy about peanut hearts.

Peanut butter is eaten by chickadees, titmice, wrens, brown creepers, and woodpeckers.

Nutritional Value: Peanuts are a high-energy food. Using 100 grams of raw peanuts as reference fat accounts for 49.2 gr, protein 25.8 grams, carbs 16.1 grams, fiber 8.5 grams, sugar 4.7 grams, among essential components.

How to feed it to birds: Peanuts can be offered to birds as whole or cracked.

Whole peanut hearts can be offered in wire mesh tube feeders of squares of approximately 6 millimeters. Bird cling on the wire mesh and take small pieces of peanuts. Some offer perches on the wire mesh tube.

Cracked peanut hearts are typically offered on tray or platform feeders. Some put the cracked peanuts directly on a tray feeder, while others use shallow plastic or glass dishes or jars.

Peanut butter can be smeared on logs or substrate for that purpose. Some use shallow jars or small plates with peanut butter.

A common practice is to mix peanut butter with millet and other small cracked grains stuffed in pine cones.

Peanuts in any form are squirrel and chipmunk magnets. If these furry visitors are a problem, think of a squirrel baffle that fits your feeder.

A word of caution. Accumulations of the wet whole, or cracked peanuts, can develop a fungus that produces aflatoxins, which is harmful to birds and other mammals.

To avoid peanut accumulation, put out amounts that will be consumed in a day or two.

Facts:

  • Do not offer birds salted, smoked, or flavored peanuts. Birds can tolerate only small amounts of salt.
  • Peanuts are native to South America and are now grown on all continents.
  • Peanuts were used to feed livestock before becoming a popular source of food for humans and birds.

4. Cracked Corn

cracked corn

Cracked corn is regular corn that has been dried and ground into smaller grains. It is an excellent supplement source of food when combined with oil-rich seeds.

The size of the grain in cracked corn varies in size and depends on the grinder used. Small birds have difficulty handling large-grained cracked corn and may pass on it.

Cracked corn is affordable and readily available in stores that sell animal feed. It can be purchased purely or as a filler in birdseed mixes.

Birds that eat cracked corn: Cracked corn is the favorite food of many birds that feed on the ground and platform feeders.

After sunflower seeds and cracked peanuts, cracked corn is the most inexpensive food source favored by many birds.

Forty-eight species (48.9%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America favor cracked corn.

These include doves, pigeons, quails, jays, finches, and sparrows.

Cracked corn is also favored by bully birds such as starlings, cowbirds, grackles, and house sparrows. Some bird enthusiasts do not offer bird cracked corn, not to attract flocking bully birds.

Nutritional Value: Cracked corn is a starchy food without the fiber and high oil and fat content of other seeds. However, it supplements other seeds offered to birds by containing traces of Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Vitamin B12, Vitamin E, Phosphorus, Calcium, Potassium, Zinc, and Selenium.

How to feed it to birds: One can offer corn on platform or tray feeders elevated from the ground. Because cracked corn is favored by many species that feed on the ground, putting cracked corn on the ground is a good alternative.

Cracked corn should be offered in amounts that are going to be consumed in a day or two. Accumulated wet corn can develop fungus that produces aflatoxins, which can be lethal for birds and other animals.

Facts:

  • Never offer buttered popcorn or any kind of microwave popcorn.
  • Some bird enthusiasts avoid feeding corn on the ground, not to attract pigeons and other flocking birds.

5. Suet

suet

Suet is rendered animal fat mixed with peanut butter, ground cornmeal, wheat flour, a variety of bird seeds, dry mealworms, chopped peanuts hearts, and a variety of dry fruit.

The most popular animal fat sources are stripes of fat from cattle, sheep, and drippings from fried bacon.

Suet can be critical during the fall and harsh winters providing essential calories and carbohydrates birds need to survive.

Birds that eat suet: All woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, wrens, and brown creepers love suet. Thrushes, grosbeaks, orioles, blackbirds, and jays welcome suet as supplemental food.

Forty-seven species (47.9%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat suet.

Nutritional Value: Suet is a superfood for birds. Animal fat plus peanut butter, ground cornmeal, wheat flour, a variety of bird seeds, dry mealworms, chopped peanuts hearts, and a variety of dry fruit includes the entire spectrum of nutritional needs.

Studies found that suet available to birds in the Fall and Winter was instrumental for birds’ survival.

How to feed it to birds: Suet is sold commercially in blocks, balls, cake, and plugs. Some make their suet blocks.

Most bird enthusiasts use a suet metal cage to offer suet blocks.

One can also be creative and carve holes on logs, stumps, and tree trunks to stuff suet in them.

Birds that have never seen a suet cage before may require training on recognizing suet as food.

Facts:

  • If not consumed, suet can become rancid, and birds will not eat it.
  • Suet in warm temperatures can melt and stick to bird’s plumages, preventing them from flying.

6. White Proso Millet

proso millet

Proso Millet seed is a tiny seed in colors such as golden, red, and striped. Proso millet is produced by the plant Millet (Panicum miliaceum).

The most popular seed bird enthusiasts use is the golden-colored proso millet,  commonly called White Proso Millet, Hog Millet, or Broom Corn Millet.

Flour made of millet makes bread and other baked products for people unable to tolerate gluten. It is also used as grain to brew alcohol and as grain for livestock.

Birds that eat proso millet: This inexpensive birdseed attracts a variety of large and small birds.

Small birds such as native sparrows, painted and indigo buntings, house and purple finches, Cardinals, and Blue Jays, love millet. Larger birds such as doves, grackles, Blackbirds, and quails readily take it.

In Florida, pure millet is the preferred food of painted and indigo buntings.

Forty-one species (41.8%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat millet.

Nutritional Value: While the seed’s external appearance varies among the various millet types, the starchy content rich in carbohydrates is very similar.

Compared to other sources of food for birds, millet would be the equivalent to bread.

The approximate raw millet content is 9% water, 73% carbohydrates, 4% fat, and 11% protein. It is also a source of dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and dietary minerals, such as manganese.

How to feed it to birds: Millet is rather versatile. It can be offered to birds pure or as part of birdseed mixes in tube, hopper, and platform feeders.

Birds that generally feed on the ground, such as quails, doves, and native sparrows, can take millet from an elevated platform or the ground.

Facts:

  • Millet is also used for brewing alcohol.
  • Millet is also used as a grazing crop for livestock.

7. Mealworms

meal worms

Mealworms are an ideal food for birds. Sold at pet shops as food for many pets, mealworms are the larvae stage of the mealworm or Tenebrio beetle Tenebrio molitor.

Mealworms are a relatively new food source for backyard birds in North America.

Mealworms are sold dry or live, ready for bird consumption. Alternatively, you can raise your mealworms and feed them fresh to hungry birds on your feeders.

Birds that eat mealworms: The majority of birds welcome mealworms on feeders. Mainly insectivore birds such as all the woodpeckers, titmice, robins, chickadees, wrens, orioles, and warblers go crazy about mealworms.

For most bird enthusiasts, mealworms are the go-to source of food to attract Eastern and Western Bluebirds.

Thirty-seven species (37.5%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat mealworms.

Nutritional Value: Mealworms are a great source of food in the Fall and Winter when insects are not readily available. Mealworms contain approximately 53% of protein, vitamins A and B,

and 12 of the 16 elements found in living tissues.

How to feed it to birds: Mealworms can be purchased dry or alive and come in different sizes.

Small-sized mealworms are easy to handle by most birds.

Mealworms can be offered to birds in shallow glass or plastic plates with a rim of at least 1.5 inches tall to prevent live worms from climbing over.

Facts:

  • Mealworms are also called yellow mealworms or golden grubs.
  • Mealworm beetles do not fly and do not pose a threat to humans.
  • Dried mealworm skin and other debris from raising mealworms at home may cause breathing problems similar to asthma.

8. Milo or Sorghum

milo

Milo or Sorghum is an inexpensive grain produced by a type of grass Sorghum bicolor. It has an undeserved reputation of being a filler in cheap mixes of birdseed sold in stores.

Milo does not have the nutritious value of other bird seeds but is an excellent supplement for a healthy round bird diet.

Bird enthusiasts mix milo with more nutritious seeds such as black oil sunflower seeds to create a more well-rounded custom mix. left off

Birds that eat milo: Many birds eat milo, mainly when it is the only seed left after the better-quality birdseed has been consumed.

Blue jay, Cardinals, grackles, blackbirds, sparrows, finches, and even woodpecker with readily eat milo.

Less selective species such as doves, quails, house sparrows, and starling readily eat milo.

Squirrels and raccoons also like milo and can be a problem.

Thirty-two species (32.6%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat peanut hearts.

Nutritional Value: Milo is rich in carbohydrates and a good source of fiber, iron, and calcium needed to round a well-balanced diet.

How to feed it to birds: Milo is a small seed that flows well in tube and hopper feeders. Some offer mixes that include milo on-tray feeders.

Birds target seeds of better nutritious value and toss milo out of the feeders, causing spillage. Some bird enthusiasts place a tray underneath a hanging tube or hopper feeder to catch the falling milo and still be available to birds that feed on trays or the ground.

If birds do not consume milo on the ground, it can germinate. Accumulation of milo can result in fungal growth that can be harmful to birds.

Facts:

  • Milo seeds are used for human consumption in developing countries.
  • Milo on the ground can attract pigeons and grackles that some backyard birders do not welcome.

9. Peanuts in the Shell

peanut in the shell

As with whole and crushed peanuts mentioned above, peanuts in the shell are what peanuts look like when they are harvested.

Peanuts in the shell may be more difficult for some birds to open and access the content but last longer on the feeders without getting spoiled by having the protective shell.

Some argue that peanuts in the shell are kept fresh and retain a higher nutritious value than peanut hearts.

Birds that eat peanuts in the shell: Peanuts in the shell are not as sought after by backyard birds as peanut hearts.

Thirty-one species (31.6%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat peanuts in the shell.

Birds with strong bills and able to hold and open the shell favor this source of food.

Jays, crows, and magpies go crazy about peanuts in the shell. Some of these birds take them away from the feeder and cache them for later consumption.

Chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches readily take peanuts in the shell.

Nutritional Value: As mentioned above, peanuts are a high-energy food. One hundred grams of raw peanuts contain 49.2 gr of fat, 25.8 gr of protein, 16.1 gr of carbs, 8.5 gr of fiber, 4.7 gr of sugar, among essential components.

How to feed it to birds: Peanuts in the shell are typically offered to birds on tray feeders. They are too big for any other feeder type.

Many of the species that feed on peanuts in the shell grab one case and fly away from the feeder to open it where they feel safer or for caching it for later consumption.

Facts:

  • Peanuts in the shell last longer on feeders without spoiling.
  • Peanuts are native to South America and are now grown on all continents.
  • Peanuts were used to feed livestock before becoming a popular source of food for humans and birds.

10. Safflower seeds

safflower seed

Safflower seeds are another highly nutritious birdseed produced by the Safflower plant (Carthamus tinctorius). The safflower seed is a relatively new birdseed in North America but is growing in popularity because many birds favor it.

Safflower seed has a similar shape, size, and hard hull as black oils sunflower seed but is pale in color and bitter in flavor.

Birds that eat Safflower seed: Birds with strong beaks can open up the hard hull of safflower seeds. These include northern cardinals, evening grosbeaks, white-crowned sparrows, house and purple finches, titmice, and all woodpeckers.

Some bird enthusiasts claim that squirrels and bully birds such as Common Grackles, European starlings, and house sparrows refuse safflower seed. But others, in other regions, affirm that squirrels and bully birds have no problems eating safflower seeds.

Twenty-five species (25.5%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat safflower seeds.

Nutritional Value: The safflower seed is another nutritious birdseed. It contains approximately 17% of fat, 7% of calories, 9% of protein, and small amounts of carbohydrates, fiber, and sugar.

How to feed it to birds: Safflower seed is considered a large seed and one that is hard to handle by some birds. As such, birds need a firm surface and space to handle it. Safflower seed can be offered on platform (tray) feeders, large hopper feeders. Some sprinkle it directly on the ground.

Facts:

  • The use of safflower by humans dates back to 2500 BC.
  • Safflower seed oil is used for human consumption. It is nutritionally similar to the black oil sunflower seed.
  • The U. S. produces 26% of the world’s production of safflower seed.

11. Nyjer Or Thistle

nyjer or thistle

Nyjer or Thistle is a tiny seed produced by the African yellow daisy (Guizotia abyssinica).

The proper pronunciation is (NYE-jerr). Others call it thistle seed.

With backyard bird feeding’s growth in popularity, the demand for nyjer seed has increased. In parts of the world is used for human consumption but in others exclusively as birdseed.

Nyjer is one of the most expensive bird seeds.

Birds that eat nyjer seed: Nyjer has a broad appeal among birds that attend feeders, but only birds with sharp and pointy bills can handle the seed readily. These include goldfinches, pine siskin, indigo, and painted buntings and chickadees.

Native sparrows, finches, doves, blue jays, and woodpeckers also favor nyjer seed. However, given the price, nyjer is given in small amounts, often with specific species in mind.

Twenty-three species (23.4%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat nyjer seed.

Nutritional Value: Nyjer ranks among the most nutritious bird seeds. Seeds contain approximately 17–30% of protein, 34–39% of carbohydrates, 9–13% fiber, 1.8–9.9 g ash, 50–587 mg/100 g calcium, 180–800 mg/100 g phosphorus, 0.43 mg/100 g thiamine, 0.22–0.55 mg/100 g riboflavin, and 3.66 mg/100 g niacin.

How to feed it to birds: Bird enthusiasts use tube feeders with tiny ports or sock-like bags that allow only birds with small and pointy bills to access the seed.

Nyjer is also offered to birds as part of birdseed mixes in regular tube and hopper feeders.

Facts:

  • Nyjer that falls on the ground quickly germinates. Due to the threat of nyjer becoming an invasive plant species, all nyjer imported is sterilized and does not germinate.
  • Nyjer seed is produced industrially for human consumption in Kenya and Ethiopia in Africa and India, Myanmar, and Nepal.

12. Fruit

fruit

Almost all birds include some fruit as part of their diets year-round or during part of the year. Other birds are frugivores, which species that are specialized in eating mostly fruit.

Most fruit consumed by humans is suitable for bird consumption. However, fruit offered to birds has been largely limited to apples and oranges for orioles.

There appears to be a lack of incorporating more types of fruits to see if other birds begin to take those fruits. It may take some time for birds to get used to unfamiliar fruit types.

Birds that eat fruit: Almost any type of fruit can be offered to birds. Even fruit that is overripe and no longer tasty can be offered to birds; they may reject it if it is far too ripe or borderline rotten.

Besides orioles, all woodpeckers, American robin, waxwings, warblers, mockingbirds, and bluebirds take fruit.

If birds do not seem interested in what’s being offered, try small amounts of other types of fruit.

Birds are hesitant to try new fruit because birds have specific fruit types they regularly eat in the wild.

Twenty species (20.4%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America take fruit at feeders.

Nutritional Value: Fruit is an excellent source of sugar, carbohydrates, and multivitamins needed for a bird’s daily activity.

How to feed it to birds: Fruit needs to be offered in a way that resembles how fruits look in nature.

Impale half an orange or apple on tray feeders so that fruit stays firm when birds eat it.

If you feed soft fruit such as strawberries, impale them as well, or cut into small pieces and offer them on a shallow plate or jar.

Facts:

  • Only offer as much fruit as birds will eat in a day.
  • Bananas are an extremely popular food item at feeders in South America. Bananas are untested for acceptance by birds in North America.

13. Oats

oats

Oats are familiar to most as a popular cereal for human consumption. Produced by the plant (Avena sativa, the grains are also called common oat.

As food for birds, oats are considered a “filler” seed in birdseed mixes. Oats fed to birds are uncooked.

However, oats have a high carbohydrate content, and it is an inexpensive seed one can use to attract birds.

Birds that eat oats: Oats are favored by pigeons, doves, quails, and native sparrows. Grackles, starlings, and house sparrows also like oats and often is the reason why some bird enthusiasts do not include oats in their feeders.

Twelve species (12.2%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America eat oats.

Nutritional Value: Oats are a good source of carbohydrates. Additionally, oats contain small amounts of protein, dietary fiber, Vitamin B, and minerals such as manganese.

How to feed it to birds: Oats are often part of birdseed mixes offered to birds in large and small hopper feeders. Oats are also provided to birds on tray or platform feeders.

Many birds that feed on the ground readily take oats. Hence, bird enthusiasts put oats on the ground or platform feeders slightly elevated from the ground.

Facts:

  • Oats are also a popular livestock feed for livestock as forage and grains.
  • Oats can be an inexpensive alternative food for birds.
  • Some bird enthusiasts offer oats to birds only when cereal boxes’ content becomes stale or when there is no other use for them.
  • Oats as bird food are not commonly used in North America.

14. Nectar

nectar

Nectar is a sweet liquid produced by plants to attract pollinators. Pollinators drink the high-energy nectar, rubbing pollen on parts of their bodies and transporting it to other flowers, ensuring cross-pollination.

Nectar offered to birds is water with sugar mixed in a proportion similar to natural nectar.

Birds that drink nectar: Hummingbirds are the prime nectar consumers. Orioles and woodpeckers are also attracted to nectar.

Seven species (59.1%) of the 98 species that visit feeders in North America drink nectar.

Nutritional Value: Artificial nectar is water and sugar, which is a source of energy for birds with high metabolisms, such as hummingbirds.

How to feed it to birds: Nectar is offered in specialized feeders, commonly known as hummingbird feeders.

Facts:

  • No bird feeds exclusively on nectar. Hummingbirds supplement their diets with insects to include protein, amino acids, and essential minerals.
  • The sugar content of natural nectar is variable and may contain more or less sugar than artificial nectar.
  • Nectar-eating birds are called nectarivorous.


Final Remarks:

Whether you are starting to feed birds in your backyard or want to attract specific birds at an already established feeding station, this information will help you plan your strategy. I would love to hear from you on whether the information on this post helped you with your backyard bird feeding goals.