Best Seeds for Feeding Wild Birds in Tucson

The widest variety of foods will attract the widest variety of birds to your Tucson-area backyard bird feeders. However, about half of the avian species in our area are seed-eaters, so providing a mix of seeds will still attract a wide range of birds.

In this article, I cover the major types of seeds that can be used in backyard bird feeding stations, discuss which birds those seeds attract, and explain why the “economy seed mix” isn’t actually a good deal. All types of seeds described here are readily available at local bird stores (often in pre-made mixes), can be used in many different types of bird feeders, and provide healthy nutrition for our local and migratory wild birds.

About Bird Seed

Of the many types of seeds that birds eat, including both wild and farmed seeds, some are hard and thick-shelled but very nutritious. Other seeds may be softer-shelled and easier to open but less nutritious.

Each type of seed appeals to different types of birds. For example, seed-eating birds with relatively thick bills may be more efficient at opening hard seeds but may also be less adept at opening smaller or softer seeds than their thinner-billed relatives.

A common local bird, the goldfinch, prefers Nyjer thistle seed as the overwhelming favorite. The seed is small and thin-shelled but has a very nutritious nutmeat at the center and the seed is easily opened by the goldfinch’s delicate yet sharp bill.

Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxia, by contrast, have much larger and stouter beaks relative to size, and can therefore consume harder, thicker-shelled seeds that are bypassed by most other birds. While they cannot swallow these seeds whole, they use their heavy, strong bills to crack the shells, discard them, and swallow the smaller and nutritious nutmeats contained within. In order to crack the seed open, they manipulate the shell in their bills to align and position the food so it will crack with the least amount of pressure.

Seed-Eating Birds in Tucson

Birds on a birdfeeder in Tucson, Arizona

You may find all kinds of birds on birdfeeders in Tucson and surrounding areas

Common seed-eating birds that may come to your seed feeder include:

  • Red finches
  • Goldfinches
  • Cardinals
  • Quail
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Grosbeaks
  • Sparrows
  • Mourning doves and white-winged doves

Sunflower Seeds

The most common seeds used in backyards across the country are the sunflower and millet seeds. They are used singly and as the basic ingredients for most mixes. Even within these two seed groups, there are distinctions and choices to be made.

Within the sunflower seeds, the most popular single seed with the majority of seed-eating birds are the black oil sunflower seeds. These are the smallest in the family and have the thinnest shells to remove, so about 70% of the seed-eating birds prefer this highly nourishing seed. It is highest in fat, which translates into quick energy for birds. These seeds are the highest in protein as well.

The shell of the seed has a distinct cleavage and birds can manipulate each seed in their bill correctly so that when pressure is exerted the outer shell breaks into two halves which the birds let drop. They retain the softer, oiler nutmeat within the seed.

Most seed-eating birds consume seeds in this manner. Gallinaceous birds, like quail, swallow the seed whole and their crop and digestive system break the entire seed down to the point where it is digestible.

Because this particular sunflower seed is extremely high in oil, combined with the fact that Americans are eating healthier by using sunflower oil in their cooking, there is stiff competition in the sunflower market. The overwhelming majority of sunflowers were traditionally and historically grown to be used as bird seed. However, the demand by humans for healthier cooking oils has contributed to the increased cost of these seeds in recent years.

Not to be overlooked in the sunflower market are the large striped sunflowers and sunflower hearts. The large gray-striped sunflower seed was long considered to be the ultimate sunflower for both the bird and human markets. This very large seed was favored by the cardinals, grosbeaks, and other stout-billed birds, as well as for the large pet market trade. The medium and large parrots all preferred this seed. It was also the seed of choice for humans, with seeds large enough to satisfy even human appetites. At baseball stadiums, the seating areas were littered with thousands of these shells to be cleaned up after each game.

However, several years ago the largest variety of this seed disappeared off the market entirely. This particular seed strain was developed by a long-time California farming family, who held the rights to it. When the family retired from the farming business, they retired the rights to grow this seed as well. While other interested parties tried unsuccessfully to buy the rights and continue production, the family refused and this seed is no longer available. Smaller versions of this largest-of-all sunflower seeds were developed but the bird market did not respond as favorably as the human market, so these seeds are rarely seen.

Instead, the large gray-striped sunflower seed has been replaced with the large black-striped sunflower for the birding market. This seed is only slightly smaller but its shell is considerably thinner. It is still thick enough to cause problems for the smallest seed-eating birds like red finches but stout enough for the cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, and grosbeaks.

Sunflower hearts, the kernel or nutmeat at the center of the larger seeds, is a favorite when feeding birds as the shell is already removed leaving nothing but the fatty, nutritious nutmeat. There is absolutely no waste involved in providing this seed. For this reason they cost more than seeds with shells on but there’s the advantage of no littering of shells on the ground. Folks who are concerned about maintaining as clean a feeding area as possible prefer using this seed. People with very close neighbors, like those who live in apartments, condominiums, and townhouses, tend to prefer using sunflower hearts, too.

Millet Seeds

The millet family of seeds is used by humans and birds throughout the world. For example, in Ethiopia, white proso millet is a staple of the human diet and used creatively in many ways. In the West, millet is gaining popularity; it can easily be found in health food stores and is used as an ingredient in cereal mixes and breads.

All the millet seeds are rather tiny and round in appearance, but give consumers a good bang for the buck when used as bird food. A pound of millet contains far more seeds than a pound of any other seed, with the possible exception of Nyjer thistle seeds.

White proso millet is usually considered the highest quality for nutritional reasons and, in bird seed mixes, is usually the second most important ingredient after sunflower seeds.

Golden brown German millet is also used extensively in the bird food market, but as a distant second to the white proso variety. About the same small size as the white millet, it has a slightly off-white, or tan color. Rarely is it a true deep brown. Probably due to supply and demand issues, this seed is not always as readily available as its white relative and oftentimes is priced considerably higher. For those reasons, it is not as popular as the white millet. It seems to be a secondary preference for the birds as well.

Red millet is also used in both human and bird foods, although from the bird’s point of view, it would be their third choice in terms of favorability. True to its name, it is a red seed with some brown undertones.

Rape Seed / Canola Seed

Rape seed is also popularly found in seed mixes. Like the millets, it’s a small seed that is far more popular with the smaller seed-eaters. Also known as canola seed, this seed is grown mostly for the human market where its cold-pressed oil is sold as canola oil.

Rape seed is very tiny, round, and black in color. While birds do and will eat it, it is not as popularly accepted as the millets. I think this is due to the extremely hard and relatively thick shell for such a small seed.

Flax Seed

Last among the smallest seeds commonly used in some bird mixes is flax seed. Flax is also admired by humans. It is recognized as equitable to fish oil supplements and therefor has a large health-conscious following. Flax is also the source for one of our more valuable fibers – linen!

It is a small seed, dark brown in color, somewhat flat, and pear-shaped.

Regular finch mixes are usually composed of all or most of the above mentioned smaller seeds and they can used in virtually any feeder design, including Nyjer thistle feeders, as the seeds will pass through even the tiniest of seed food ports.

Hemp Seed

Perhaps the healthiest of all seeds is hemp. It has more uses and benefits than virtually any other seed. I think of it as preventive medicine for birds.

However, probably due to its increased cost and prohibition, it has not been used much in bird seed mixes for over 70 years. In the U.S., politicians have long confused hemp and cannabis, and effectively banned the cultivation and research of both plants in the 1930’x with \ legislation outlawing both plants. While the rest of the world has long recognized the importance of both plants to humans, it is only in very recent years that U.S. laws have begun loosening up enough to allow new research and allow the importation of this seed.

While growers in several states have successfully petitioned the government to begin growing hemp to fill the growing demands for the wide variety of uses this plant offers, hemp seed from Canada has been the only available source to bird seed manufacturers. Hemp, long considered the most important and essential of all seeds in bird seed mix, was the primary ingredient of Hartz seed mixes for birds until the 1939 prohibition. Today, American farmers are in the infancy of producing a promising new crop that will greatly influence both human and bird uses for this seed.

Safflower Seed

Safflower seed is another very healthy seed to provide to birds. Pressed for its high-quality oil, it is familiar to American consumers and a staple in many kitchens.

For birds, it has the advantages of providing most of the same nutrients as do the best of the sunflowers, but with less fat. Fat translates into quick energy for wild birds. However, fat can be a death knell for pet birds like parrots. As a result, safflower is a preferred seed for caged birds which can’t expend as much energy as free, wild birds.

It is an almost pure white seed and of medium size – slightly smaller than the smallest sunflowers but larger than most other seeds in any given mix.

Nyjer Thistle Seed

The most popular seed sold in America is Nyjer thistle. It is not a true member of the larger thistle family and as such, was renamed in recent years. Nyjer more scientifically classifies this seed and the spelling was altered to help with correct pronunciation.

As far as the family of North American goldfinches is concerned, this is not only the king of seeds, but the only seed they consider worth consuming. Of course, in the wild the goldfinches do eat other plant materials, such as grass seeds and certain flowers, along with a complement of certain insects. But, at backyard feeding stations, Nyjer thistle attracts these brilliant yellow songbirds much like iron filings are attracted to a strong magnet. There simply is no other better seed for them.

Nyjer thistle is a tiny, slender, black seed much smaller than a single grain of rice. The extremely tiny nutmeat inside the shell packs a nutritional wallop and rush of energy that enables goldfinches to quickly dehull the shell and eat their fill of this miraculous food source.

Nyjer is banned from cultivation in the entire western hemisphere as it is considered a noxious weed and cattle react badly when eating it. As a result, all Nyjer thistle is imported into this country from two other countries where its oil is the common cooking oil – Ethiopia and India. In fact, both of these countries subsidize this important oil to ensure even the poorest of the poor have access to high-quality cooking oil. Its more expensive price tag reflects the larger growing, shipping, distribution, sterilization, and importation costs. Recently, there’s been a growing movement among American farmers to produce the pure Nyjer our goldfinches crave without getting into the legal and scientific questions that surround the cultivation of pure thistle.

Three different bird seeds on a grey background. The seeds are complete patio blend seed mix, exclusively cardinal mix, and nyjer thistle seed

Three birdseed options from The Wild Bird Store in Tucson. Starting at the top left and going clockwise: Complete Patio Blend Seed Mix, Exclusively Cardinal Mix, and Nyjer Thistle Seed

Using Seed Mixes

Seedeaters attracted to backyard feeders usually prefer a particular seed or seeds, while ignoring others. Filling different feeders with individual seeds is preferable to using most commercially prepared mixes – especially “economy mixes”.

Most commercially prepared mixes are created with the lowest cost to the consumer and greatest profit to the producers as the highest priority – not the best interest of the birds. Most of these mixes are very high in grain content, especially corn and cracked corn, red and white milo (which resembles seed with its round shape and relatively small size), wheat berries, oats, etc.

These types of “economy mixes” are most prevalent in the big box, franchise, and chain stores such as discount stores, supermarkets, hardware stores, nurseries, feed stores, home improvement stores, etc. Most often they are packaged in clear plastic twenty pound bags.

The least expensive mixes have the highest content of grains, which the true seed-eaters reject. These mixes contain up to 90% grains, particularly Milo (the cheapest of all grains) and only 10% or less of true seeds such as sunflowers or millets.

In every case, the grain content is dropped to the ground underneath the feeders as the birds seek out the true seeds. This is the most common reason that doves and pigeons are attracted to the ground underneath feeders. Dove-proof feeders filled with real seed or real seed blends alleviate this problem, attract a wider variety of desirable birds, and prove to be more cost-effective.

High grain/low seed mixes may be cheaper in cost at the outset but are less cost-effective than quality ingredients over the long run. For example, you could spend $12 to $15 on a twenty-pound “economy” mix that lasts for about four to five days. Or you could buy a quality mix of pure seeds without any grains for about twice the cost – but it will last two to four times longer. The high grain/low seed mix will empty out onto the ground quite quickly and attract many unwanted or less desirable birds, such as House Sparrows, doves, and pigeons. The all seed mix will stay in the feeder much longer, not be wasted on the ground, and, best of all, it will attract a wider variety of more desirable species into the yard.

The reduced bird visits, much higher costs per bird visit, increase in mess and wasted foods, possible increase in pests, and potential spoilage problems should make the “inexpensive” mixes an undesirable option.

In Summary

In the wild, nature provides many different seeds, grains, edible plant parts, and other foods for birds to forage or hunt. By contrast, we are quite limited in what we offer birds in our backyards.

Birds depend upon their wild foods for the basis of their diets. Most experts agree, and research bears out, that wild foods account for up to 90% of their diets.

Birds visit our feeders to supplement their natural diets. By providing high-quality and highly nutritious supplemental foods for them, such as seeds, we can help them thrive.

Jon Friedman

Jon Friedman is an artist, poet, amateur naturalist, nature lover, and founder of The Wild Bird Store – the first nature store devoted to birds in Southern Arizona. Now semi-retired, he consults on the design of feeders, birdhouses, and specialized wild bird food mixes for which his store is known.


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