A black-headed grosbeak eats birdseed. Choosing a higher-quality mix of seed can help attract more birds.

All birdseed is not created equal.

Birds know the difference. Have you ever seen birds knock most of the seed in feeders to the ground where it lies mostly uneaten? If this happens at your house, then you are likely feeding birds a diet they don’t like.

Most seed-eating birds eat black-oil sunflower, sunflower chips (sunflower without shells), millet and peanut pieces. Those are the favorites of house finches, grosbeaks, chickadees, nuthatches and almost all seed-eaters. If your mix contains millet, then it is perfectly natural for birds at your feeder to kick the millet to the ground while they search for sunflower, chips and nuts.

The millet that ends up on the ground should be eaten by ground-feeding birds, like juncos, dove and towhees, who prefer to eat on the ground and prefer millet. But if you see a lot of seed not eaten on the ground, then you are not feeding the right birdseed blend.

It’s likely the mess under your feeder is milo and other grains birds don’t eat. Milo is a round, reddish brown seed and a common filler grain in many commercial birdseed blends. The funny thing about this “birdseed” is that birds don’t eat it. Milo is a very low-cost grain, so bird-food mix makers can load up a bag with a little sunflower, some millet, and a lot of milo and charge a very low price. If most of your seed ends up uneaten on the ground, then it’s clearly not a good value.

Check the birdseed label. You don’t want to see milo, “grain products,” wheat or rapeseed. These are low-cost fillers that birds don’t eat. You want to see sunflower or sunflower chips listed first, then maybe peanut pieces or other nut pieces, and some white millet.

Millet is also a lower-cost grain, so sometimes you’ll see a high percentage of it in a mix. If you’re using a high-millet mix as a ground feeding mix, that’s fine because ground feeding birds love millet. But if you are putting that mix in an elevated feeder, then the millet should be lower on the ingredient list than sunflower or sunflower chips.

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If you are feeding a quality blend and still end up with too much millet on the ground, switch to a low-millet or no-millet mix. Some more open habitats like parts of Eldorado have more ground-feeding birds, so it’s good to have a bit more millet. Heavily treed areas have fewer ground-feeding birds, so a low or no-millet mix loaded with sunflower or chips is best.

Sometimes folks tell us they have lots of uneaten sunflower seed on the ground. Sometimes they are actually seeing only the sunflower shells. If your sunflower goes uneaten, you might consider switching to a no-mess blend. No-mess blends usually contain mostly easy-to-eat sunflower chips, peanut pieces, suet nuggets and hulled white millet. These ingredients are liked by birds and are easy to eat so rarely end up under a feeder making a mess.

We’re all price sensitive when we shop, but I think we all want to buy good food for ourselves, our family, our pets and our birds. Like other commodities such as oil, grain prices go up and down depending upon supply, demand, weather, acres planted, etc.

Birdseed grain prices have recently increased, so your favorite blend may have gone up a bit in price. Watch out for some bird food manufacturers to increase the percentage of fillers in their mixes to offset this increase.

Quality bird food costs more. Birds can tell the difference. If you feed high-quality food, you’ll attract more birds and a wider variety of birds. Low-cost mixes loaded with milo tend to attract mostly sparrows, doves and pigeons. These birds will eat high-end food too, but if you’ve chosen the right mix for your habitat you can welcome all sorts of other birds.

Migration is right around the corner, so it’s a great time to start feeding a birdseed blend that will attract the widest variety of birds. It’s also a good time to add suet or bark butter (spreadable suet) to your bird buffet. Bark butter attracts more birds than any other food and is a wonderful companion to a quality bird food blend.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.

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(2) comments

Joy Thurlow

You should add safflower seed to your list - after sunflower, it's the favorite of cardinals. Mourning doves, song sparrows and white-throated sparrows also enjoy it.

(According to a 1982 study by Aelred D. Geis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Joy Thurlow


John Jenicek

Very helpful article...I had all those issues in the seed I have been using, way too much millet as filler, the birds would just throw it on the ground to get to the sunflower seeds they wanted. The ground feeding birds couldn't eat enough so is just lay in a pile under the feeder. Staff was helpful in getting a more universal seed mix...we'll see how it goes.

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