Food Values

With bird-feed prices soaring, how do we stock the best bird buffet? Can we pick the cheapest seed mix and still feed birds the nutrition they need to survive?

When temperatures plummeted recently, birds changed diets. Did you notice? Shelled peanuts vanished in a blink; black-oil sunflower seeds gained renewed interest; sunflower hearts took top spot. And for good reason: To stay warm, birds need plenty of fat and ample protein. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are packed with both.

Of course, these are also the priciest seeds. So why not choose an inexpensive mixture of, say, milo, red millet, cracked corn, and other grain products? Three reasons:

PictureWhite-breasted Nuthatch feeds on black-oil sunflower seed.

·  First, milo and red millet, like wheat, are of little or no interest to birds. They’re fillers—added by birdseed packagers to add weight without price.
·  Second, cracked corn is attractive to many undesirable backyard birds, notably starlings and house sparrows. To offer it is to attract them; and they, in turn, will crowd out native birds.
·  Third, the term “grain products” refers to things like chaff and dust. Think “floor sweepings.”
Thus, as a result of the fillers and floor sweepings, the mixture offers little food value for birds. In fact, it contains almost no protein and only miniscule fat.

How do you know? Read the label. Just as we read our own food labels at the grocery, we must read birdfeed labels as well. By law, every birdfeed bag must list ingredients, in descending order by content. But more importantly, every label must also list the percents of protein, fat, and fiber. Look for high levels of fat and protein and low levels of fiber.

The Wild Bird Feeding Industry posts these values, based on half-cup volumes:

PictureSunflower chips contain high food value.

·  Sunflower chips: 72% fat; 12% protein
·  Peanuts: 73% fat; 16% protein
·  Thistle: 71% fat; 18% protein
·  Black-oil sunflower: 68% fat; 14% protein
·  Corn: 11% fat; 7% protein
·  White millet: 9% fat; 11% protein

PictureEastern Bluebird takes a bit of suet.

Since different birds prefer different seeds, and since birds like dietary variety, offering several high-fat, high-protein seeds provides the best nutrition. Some commercial blends meet the standard; others fail miserably. Compare labels.

Suet labels are equally telling. Fillers like millet and cracked corn simply take up volume, reducing the amount of suet (fat) you’re offering birds. Pure suet cakes provide the best nutritional value for your dollar.

Finally, check labels for “inert matter,” meaning non-food ingredients—never a good return for your dollar. When prices soar, packagers look for means to increase profit. Inert matter fills their bill—but not the birds’ bills. Any product less than 95% pure must be so labeled.

While it’s important to feed the right foods to birds, it’s also important to NOT feed things that adversely affect birds’ health. In fact, sometimes what folks put out for birds does more harm than good, and birds would be better off without those handouts. To find out about that and other backyard bird feeding issues.