Grow Your Own Bird Seed - U of I Extension

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Grow Your Own Bird Seed

This article was originally published on December 20, 2017 and expired on February 15, 2018. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

Feeding and watching birds has become one of America’s favorite pastimes. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, nearly half the households in the United States provide food for wild birds. In honor of my husband’s December birthday, I’m writing about the different plant-based ingredients in birdseed.

The most commonly used birdseed are sunflower seeds, with black-oil sunflower seeds being the most popular. Its small size and thin shell make it easier for small birds to eat. Striped sunflower seeds are larger with thicker shells. Sunflower (Helianthus sp.) are easy plants to grow and come in various colors and heights.

All sunflower shells contain allelopathic toxins that prevent other seeds from germinating. This is partly why the ground beneath a feeder is often bare when feeding sunflower seeds. If this is a problem, consider feeding sunflower hearts instead. The hearts are expensive but contain no shell. 

Safflower seeds look similar to sunflower seeds but have a very tough shell that only larger birds can crack. They are the seeds of the annual safflower plant (Carthamus tinctorius). This herbaceous, thistle-like plant is also grown commercially to produce vegetable oil.

To attract finches, use a tube hanging feeder filled with black nyjer seed. Although sometimes also called thistle or niger, the nyjer seed sold today is not a thistle at all. Rather, it is a daisy-like plant, known as Guizotia abyssinica. Nyjer is an annual flower with bright, yellow-orange flower heads that turn into seed pods. You can grow your own by starting the seed indoors or planting seed directly in the ground after all danger of frost is gone. Similar to sunflowers, you can harvest the seed or leave the plants for birds to feed on all winter.

Cereal grains are used alone or as filler in birdseed mixes. They include dried whole kernel corn, cracked corn, millet, and milo. Millet or milo are the little round seeds often found in mixes. Millet comes from a Pennisetum plant, while milo is a type of grain sorghum. Both are available as ornamental plants with attractive colored leaves and seeds. Purple Majesty (Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’) is a cultivar of pearl millet with dark purple foliage and stems, and stunning purple-brown seeds that are a favorite of many birds. Ornamental sorghums are available in earth-tone colored seed heads and grow seven to twelve feet tall.

Like picky kids, birds have different food preferences. Hands down, black-oil sunflower seeds are the most popular food among a large variety of birds. Cardinals love safflower. Juncos and sparrows go wild for white proso millet; goldfinches can’t resist nyjer seed, and chickadees and titmice will delightfully indulge themselves with peanuts. In a nutshell, the key to successfully attracting birds to your backyard is to add variety.

Source: Rhonda J. Ferree, Extension Educator, Horticulture, ferreer@illinois.edu

Pull date: February 15, 2018