Feeding the Minnesota Birdies in Winter

Who are we attracting to the bird feeder?

The following birds are the most common grazers at the seed buffet in Minnesota.


A variety of bird food

Black-oil sunflower seed. This seed will attract almost any bird. Birds that can’t crack the seeds themselves will scour the ground under the feeders, picking up bits and pieces. This seed became available in North America in the early 1980s. Birds prefer the outer shell of a black-oil sunflower seed because it is thinner and easier to crack. The kernel inside the shell is larger than the kernel inside a white-or gray-striped sunflower seed, so birds get more food per seed.

Peanuts. Peanuts are a fairly recent trend in bird feeding, at least in North America. Peanut manufacturers and processors have now identified the bird-feeding market as a good place to get rid of the peanuts that are broken or otherwise unfit for human consumption. Woodpeckers, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice will readily visit a feeder for this high-protein, high-energy food. Even cardinals and finches will eat peanuts.

Suet. Suet contains a lot of fat so it serves as an excellent source of energy. Suet cakes are blocks made from suet or a thick substitute mixed with other ingredients, such as corn meal, peanuts, fruits, or even dried insects. Suet is particularly attractive to woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, and starlings. Wrens, creepers, kinglets, and even cardinals and warblers occasionally visit suet feeders.

Good, mixed seed. Bad mixed seed has a lot of filler in it—junk seeds that most birds won’t eat. Bad mixed seed can include dyed seed meant for pet birds, wheat, and some forms of red milo that only birds in the Desert Southwest seem to eat. Good mixed seed contains sunflower seed, cracked corn, white millet, and perhaps some peanuts. You can also buy the ingredients separately and create your own specialty mix.

Nyjer seed. Nyjer, or thistle, seed is easily consumed by all the small finches—goldfinches, house, purple, and Cassin’s finches, pine siskins, and redpolls. The two most commonly used types of thistle feeders are a tube feeder with small thistle-seed-sized holes, and a thistle sock. A thistle sock is a fine-mesh, synthetic bag that is filled with thistle seed. Small finches are able to cling to this bag and pull seeds out through the bag’s mesh.
Safflower. This white, thin-shelled seed is eaten by many birds and has the reputation for being the favorite food of the northern cardinal.

Cracked corn. Sparrows, blackbirds, jays, doves, quail, and squirrels are just a few of the creatures you can expect at your feeders if you feed cracked corn. Fed in moderation, cracked corn will attract almost any feeder species. Whole corn that is still on the cob is not a good bird food because the kernels are too big and hard for most small birds to digest. Cracked corn is broken up into smaller, more manageable bits.

Mealworms. Most feeder birds, except goldfinches, will eat mealworms if you offer them. Mealworms are available in bait stores, or by mail order. Mealworms aren’t even worms; they are the larval stage of a beetle.

Fruit. Fruit is an important dietary element for birds, but it can be hard to find in many areas in midwinter. Set out grapes, slices of citrus fruits, apple or banana slices, and even melon rinds. If you want to feed raisins, chop them up and soak them in warm water first to soften them up a bit. Offering fruit to tanagers and orioles is a traditional spring and summer feeding strategy, but many winter feeder birds will eat fruit, too.