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Chapter 3
Major grains used in bird seed

Wild bird mixtures

Feeding of wild birds is predominantly a winter activity in northern Europe and North America where wild birds are provided with food at times when foraging is difficult because of the weather. Most wild bird feeding is done around the home. With the increased awareness of nature conservation and outdoor activities such as bird watching, wild bird feeding is now a major hobby and the number of bird food mixes, feeders and other accessories available has proliferated. At the same time there are numerous recommendations to feed wild birds during the spring and summer time which, in the long term, could have a positive effect on the total use of small grains in bird feeding[11].

Originally wild bird seed mixtures varied widely in composition, depending on the availability and price of the raw materials. The most common grains found in these mixtures are black or striped sunflower seeds, decorticated sunflower (also called sunflower hearts or meats), wheat, barley, (hulled) oats, millet, sorghum, Niger seed, (cracked) maize, safflower, groundnut or groundnut pieces, pine nuts, canary seed and quinoa. In addition to grain mixtures, there is a large market in "fat balls" that are made from grains mixed with solid fats or suet. Although basic wild bird seed mixtures are rather unsophisticated blends of grains, the past ten years have seen an ongoing diversification of mixes aimed at particular bird species. One major supplier of wild bird seed in the United Kingdom lists no less than 20 different mixes in its catalogue[12]. These mixes range from single grain (black sunflower, peanuts) to premium mixes that include sultanas, pieces of apple and rosehip, rowan and juniper berries, papaya, banana and sunflower hearts. Some companies include in their product range special mixes that are intended to attract particular groups or species of birds. A high proportion of Niger seed in the mix will attract finches, while peanuts and other large seeded grains will attract woodpeckers and nuthatches. Some mixes will include dried insects or insect larvae to attract insect-eating birds, or pieces of dried fruits for fruit eaters.

Wild bird seed mixes are generally packaged in small (500 g) packs but bulk supplies (25 or 50 kg bags) are also available. Retail prices vary widely but, for simple mixes, prices are around US$1 per kg (see Appendix 5 for some typical retail prices). Most wild bird seed mixes are sold in transparent plastic bags which is important for marketing. The following factors should be considered when formulating a bird seed mix:

In general, the wild bird food markets in the United States of America and the United Kingdom are the most sophisticated. The seed mixes tend to contain the more expensive components such as canary seed and Niger seed. The markets in other western European countries are more price sensitive, which is reflected in the inclusion of cheaper "filler" ingredients such as flaked maize, red sorghum, wheat and barley in the mix.

Caged and companion birds

Nutritional needs

The nutritional requirements of caged and companion birds remains poorly understood. Nutrition in commercial poultry operations has been well researched, and the initial nutrient requirement figures for caged and companion birds were extrapolated from poultry feeding studies. However, it was soon realized that the digestion efficiencies of exotic companion birds were not the same as commercial poultry. This meant that the metabolizable energy values established for maize, soybean meal and other common ingredients used in feeding commercial poultry were not valid for companion bird foods. Since the 1990s more research has been carried out on the nutrient and energy requirements of companion birds and the metabolizable energy content of specialised bird food ingredients.

However, as companion birds cover such a wide range of species, each with its own evolutionary development regarding feeding, this research is far from complete[13]. Many of the current recommendations are based on the experiences of individual bird owners or anecdotal evidence of successful formulae. The need for further research is created by the following developments:

Balanced bird food diets need to take into account the different dietary requirements during the life cycle of the bird and the specific requirements of different species. For instance, breeding or moulting birds will have different nutrient requirements from younger or older birds.

Bird classification

Broadly speaking, the most popular companion birds can be classified into two large groups:

Each group has specific feeding requirements. While passerines require more seed-based diets, psittaciformes require a more varied diet with fruit and vegetables in addition to seed mixes.

Basic mixtures

Bird food mixes can be classified into the following categories:


Treats are supplementary foodstuffs that are given to caged birds to encourage active foraging behaviour. One of the most important bird treats is millet sprays, which are intact heads of millet seed that are hung in the birdcage or outside for wild bird feeding. Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) is the most important species in this category. Other treats are manufactured from a mixture of small grains, fruits, honey, vitamins and minerals and are available in stick form or in fancy shapes such as bells or hearts.

Sprouted seeds

Sprouted seeds are recommended as they are easily digested and provide vitamin-rich additions to companion bird diets. Some bird food suppliers offer sophisticated blends of small seeds in specially designed germination boxes. The sprouting mixtures may contain mung beans and seeds of wheat, Niger, safflower, sorghum, millet and buckwheat.

Pigeon food


Pigeon keeping can be divided into two categories:

Typical composition of pigeon food

Universal pigeon food may contain whole grains of wheat, barley and maize, red sorghum, various peas (tick peas, maple peas and white or green peas) and oats. Just before racing, safflower may be added for extra energy. After racing, special foods (depurative foods) may be offered that contain easily digestible cereals (such as barley) and safflower for extra energy.

Cover crops for hunting and wildlife habitat creation

The use of cover crops to create wildlife habitats for hunting or conservation/observation is increasing in the United States of America and Europe. This is partly caused by an increase in outdoor leisure activities such as hunting and wildlife observation, and partly by the need to create wildlife habitats for nature conservation. Depending on the season (winter or summer) in which the cover crop is established, cover crop mixtures may contain, amongst others: sunflower; millets (proso, Japanese); maize; safflower; quinoa; canary seed; sorghum; Egyptian wheat (Sorghum vulgare rosburghii) (also known as shallu or chicken corn); partridge peas (Chamaecrista fasciculata); Bahia grass (Paspalum notatum); lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata); dolichos (Dolichos lablab); sesbania (Sesbania grandiflora) (known as agati or West Indian pea); browntop millet (Panicum ramosum); borage (Borago officinalis); sesame; clay and iron peas (Vigna spp.); tick peas (Vicia faba); chufas (Cyperus esculentus) and different clover or vetch species. These cover crops provide shelter and feeding for wild turkeys, quail, doves, pigeons and many species of small seed eating birds and waterfowl. Several of the species used in cover crop mixes are originally from the tropics and subtropics or are species that can be grown in the tropics and subtropics.

There are no ready data on the amounts of small grains that are used for wildlife habitat creation, but the market is growing. It should be borne in mind that these seeds differ in their requirements from bird food commodities as good germination and purity are essential quality attributes.

[11] Recent concerns in Western Europe about the decline of common birds from the landscape may contribute towards this trend to feed wild birds in summer.
[12] For an example see
[13] For example, budgerigars, cockatiels and other grass parakeets originate in the vast arid interior of Australia and have adapted to a sparse seed-based diet, while parrots from the New World tend to eat a vastly varied diet including substantial amounts of fresh vegetable matter.

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