The Official Bird Seed Tier List

Eastern Bluebird Eating a Worm

You show up at your local outdoor store, Lowe’s, grocery store, Atwood’s, what have you, and finally get to the bird feeding aisle. And you find dozens and dozens of different options, all promising to attract all the most desirable songbirds. What do you choose?

Or maybe you’ve been feeding birds for a while now and you’d like to up your game just a bit, maybe treat your birds to something special.

In this article, I’m going to cover the “default” seed blend. That is, I’m not going to touch on any specialized individual seed bags, but rather I want to discuss the sort of thing most people put into their “main” or only bird feeder.

There are a few caveats I’d like to get out of the way first.

For one, I can only speak in general and from my own experiences. Some people have different luck with different seed blends because the birds in their area are different. Just as an example, I’ve never seen safflower seeds advertised for House Finches, but mine are positively addicted to safflower.

For two, I’m still adamant that black oil sunflower seeds alone are the best bang for your buck you can get. Unless you’re willing to shell out for a seed bag that has some more “premium” ingredients, I highly recommend sticking with straight sunflower. That being said, I don’t deny the allure and fun of serving lots of different kinds of food for your birds. I’m with you!

I think the best way to do this article is actually to rank the various possible ingredients in a bird seed blend in a tier list. If you’re unfamiliar with a tier list, you’ll quickly pick up on how it goes as I type this out for you.

In ranking these, I factor in a few things: Number of birds that eat it, how much birds seem to like it, if it attracts anything besides birds, and my general observations. I will go Let’s get into it!

THE QUICK VERSION:

S-TIER: Black oil sunflower seeds

A-TIER: Sunflower chips, shelled peanuts, tree nuts, safflower seeds, mealworms

B-TIER: White millet, peanuts with shells, black stripe sunflower seeds

C-TIER: Dried fruit, pumpkin seed

D-TIER: Cracked corn, shelled corn, nyjer

F-TIER: Milo, oats, wheat, buckwheat, rapeseed, pretty much anything except for what’s listed above

THE LONG VERSION:

S-TIER:

  • Black oil sunflower seeds are the only seed to make the S-tier. They are absolutely essential in any bird seed blend. They are nutritious for birds, pretty much every bird that will eat seeds loves sunflower, and it’s generally inexpensive. The only downside I can see is that sunflower seeds can leave behind a mess from their shells. If mess is a concern, you can still reap the benefits with the A-tier seeds.

A-TIER:

  • Sunflower chips are just black oil sunflower seeds with no hull. The only reason chips didn’t make the A-tier was because the chips way too easily attract starlings and other undesirables.
  • Shelled peanuts are beloved by a lot of bigger birds like Blue Jays, but are also adored by nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees. I also find that peanuts produce a smell that attracts birds. The downside is that grackles are peanut lovers. Also, peanuts do not quite attract the wide array that sunflower attracts.
  • Tree nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, etc.) all have the same advantages and problems that peanuts do.
  • Safflower seeds are my go-to starling and squirrel repellant. Plenty of “good” birds love safflower, but starlings hate the shells and squirrels hate the taste. Like peanuts, safflower isn’t beloved by quite as many birds as sunflower. Still, it deserves an A-tier spot.
  • I struggled with whether or not to include mealworms, but ultimately decided that since some blends include mealworms, I’ll add them too. Mealworms attract insect-eating birds like bluebirds, but have the negative effect of also attracting starlings who may gobble it up before the more timid bluebird has a chance. Even so, you can just watch the birds go crazy when they realize you have worms in there.

B-TIER:

  • White millet can easily be mistaken for the horrible milo. Smaller birds really like millet, but I find it’s appeal limited to the really little guys. You can just fine without it, but don’t discount a blend just because it has millet.
  • Peanuts in shells are often eaten by nuthatches and titmice, but also eaten by bigger nuisance birds and squirrels. Peanuts without shells are a little more versatile and the birds will appreciate not having to put in so much effort.
  • Black stripe sunflower seeds are the larger cousin of the black oil sunflower seeds. These have less fat content, making them less nutritious for birds, and they are also larger and harder to open. The only reason to substitute in stripes would be if starlings are giving you issues with your black oil seeds. They are not able to crack open black stripe.

C-TIER:

  • Dried fruit, such as raisins or dehydrated cranberries, can be a good treat for certain fruit eating birds like cardinals or possibly bluebirds, but it can be expensive and I don’t find that setting it out really increases visits.
  • Pumpkin seed occasionally shows up in blends and I don’t see that it has any advantage over any other seed. Sometimes it’s sold as a premium addition to a blend, but birds don’t naturally eat pumpkin seeds. They might eat it if it’s there, but it’s like most other seeds you’ll find in bird seed bags where the birds might find it in the wild.

D-TIER:

  • Corn just straight-up sucks. Nobody except grackles, ducks, squirrels, and doves really care for it. Corn is generally a filler and should be avoided.
  • Nyjer is a specialty seed that finches like, but it generally doesn’t belong in a blend. Nyjer goes bad quickly and everything except finches will ignore it. Plus, it’s been my experience that finches prefer sunflower anyway.

F-TIER:

  • Everything about milo is bad. Most birds hate it and it’s just a cheap filler for “economy” blends. If a blend has milo in it, don’t buy it. It’s a waste of money. Same goes for literally all the other things listed.
American Goldfinch and House Finch at feeder
Two different finches just finished up grabbing a meal from a nut-heavy seed blend without nyjer, illustrating there really is no point in buying nyjer seed to attract finches!

Next time you go buy a bird seed blend, I hope that consulting my tier list will help you choose a great blend. Sadly, there are far too many blends out there for me to review each one individually, so for now I’ll have to do it this way.

I’ll have individual articles about different seeds and their benefits, but the tier list is designed to be a way to figure out the quality of a seed blend at a glance.

This list is not definitive, nor does it cover all options for feeding birds. There are still many other ways like setting out fresh fruit or using all manner of suet. In addition, your particular birds will have different tastes. I encourage you to experiment and see where your sweet spot is.

I did some poking around on Amazon and I found a two seed blends that I think score well using the tier list. I have not tried these blends, but I would purchase them myself based on their ingredients:

Wagner’s Songbird Banquet – Contains: black oil sunflower (S), stripe sunflower (B), shelled peanuts (A), safflower (A), and tree nuts (A). As you can see, this blend incorporates only one B-tier seed, the rest are A-tier and S-tier. If you have a squirrel problem, this won’t solve it, but there is zero junk in this blend.

Cole’s Nutberry Suet BlendContains: sunflower chips (A), shelled peanuts (A), tree nuts (A), berry and insect kibble (A and C-tier), other fruits (C-tier). This is a more expensive blend and the cost seems to come from the high amount of dried fruit. If you have a lot of fruit-eaters, this is a great blend.

Try using the tier list for yourself the next time you shop! Don’t discount a blend just because it has a C-tier ingredient. Those C-tier ingredients might be one of your backyard friend’s favorite foods!

Let me know what you think! Am I wrong about something? Is this helpful? What blends do you use?

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