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Grow Your Own Birdseed

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

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.

The most commonly used birdseed are sunflower seeds, with black-oil sunflower seeds being the most popular. It's 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.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.