Above, black-oil sunflower seed, shown at the top of the photo, is the birdseed of choice for feeders that are above the ground. Cracked corn, shown at the bottom of the photo, is a good choice for birds such as doves, pheasants, and quail, and should be scattered on the ground.
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DIFFERENT BIRDS HANG OUT IN DIFFERENT RESTAURANTS. In other words, different birds have different styles of eating and prefer different types of food. Some, like doves, sparrows, juncos, pheasants, and quail, prefer to eat on the ground rather than from a feeder that's suspended above the ground. They also tend to enjoy cracked corn and millet.
On the other hand, birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, and finches, like to visit feeders that are suspended above ground. Fortunately for those of us who prefer to keep our bird feeding activities as simple as possible, all of these birds seem to enjoy black-oil sunflower seed. In fact, studies show that black-oil sunflower seed is the favorite food of chickadees and nuthatches, two species that are widespread and universally loved.
So the easiest and most cost-efficient way to fill feeders is to buy black-oil sunflower seed in quantity, store it in a dry place (a metal garbage can works well if the seed is stored where rodents might get to it), and use it in all the feeders.
Why is black-oil sunflower seed so popular with these small birds? The seeds are small and have a thin shell, making them easy to eat. They are also very nutritious.
The seed is also a good choice for you, the person who is earning the money to buy the seed for these little guys. Black-oil sunflower seed keeps well, and it's inexpensive compared to some other seeds such as niger thistle (aka nyger). What's more, there don't seem to be any major environmental concerns around growing sunflowers for seed; in fact, sunflowers are North America's only native agricultural crop. Most of the crop is used to make oil for human use; the seeds that are designated for birds are those that are not of good enough quality to be used for oil.
Now, black-oil sunflower seed is more expensive by the pound than many birdseed mixes you might find in grocery stores, but in practice it probably is cheaper to use because there's less waste. When mixes are offered in feeders, birds tend to pick through the seeds, looking for the ones they like best. The seeds they don't care for are dropped on the ground, where they can make a mess or attract rodents.
Seed on the ground also attracts birds such as sparrows and juncos. But it's best not to encourage these birds to eat right underneath your feeders. (Think about it--it's not very hygienic!) All in all, the best strategy is to buy one type of seed for the feeders and, if you want to feed ground-feeding birds, buy them some seed of their own.
I usually buy black-oil sunflower in quantity for the feeders and keep it in a metal garbage can on the porch. For the ground-feeding birds, I buy both cracked corn and an inexpensive mix that is predominantly composed of millet (those round, shiny, off-white little seeds) but also has a bit of sunflower seed in it. This appeals to a wide variety of ground-feeding birds, including the pheasants we get around here. (When I lived on the West Coast, the same strategy attracted whole families of California quail.) Food for ground-feeding birds is scattered right on the driveway, away from the hanging feeders.
Coming soon: How to set up a bird feeding station.