Monday, June 15, 2020

Is it ok to throw bird seed on the ground?

Perhaps you have decided to try feeding birds. You've bought a small bag of bird seed. Now you wonder. Which bird feeder should I buy. Many of them are very expensive. Do I even need a bird feeder? Can I just throw bird seed out on the ground in my yard?

Yes, you can throw bird seed out on the ground. Many birds will eat seed on the ground. But it could become messy, attract pests, and harm the birds if not done with some planning and forethought. This article tells you how to properly set up a ground feeder for birds.


Photo of White-crowned Sparrow feeding on ground
White-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Why feed birds seeds on the ground?


Tossing bird seed on the ground to feed birds is both simple and inexpensive.

You don't have to buy a bird feeder to feed birds on the ground. You don't have to figure out how to hang a bird feeder or put it on a pole. It is so easy to get started!

Many birds prefer feeding on the ground. In nature, seeds frequently fall from the flower to the ground. Birds are used to looking on the ground for food. Thus several kinds of birds actually prefer feeding on the ground.

Widespread backyard birds in the United States that frequently feed on the ground include: Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, Mourning Doves, White-crowned Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Towhees, California Quail, Northern Cardinals, Bobwhite, Brown Thrashers, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and many more.

There are also birds that don't like to feed on the ground, but prefer something higher. That usually includes finches, chickadees, and nuthatches. They will feed on the ground sometimes, but prefer higher feeders, if given the choice.

Photo of Mourning Dove on ground
Mourning Dove
Photo by Greg Gillson

Some potential problems with just throwing bird seed on the ground


There are some things to take into consideration when feeding birds on the ground.

Messy bird seed


Bird seed just tossed on the ground can be messy. Bird seed on the ground can get scattered around. Birds don't eat the outer shells of bird seed. They crack open the two halves of the hull and eat the kernel inside. The hulls drop out the side of their bill onto the ground (I want to say they "spit out" the shells, but bird's don't spit).

Many ground feeding seed eaters like sparrows and towhees "kick" the ground with both feet. This scratches up the soil and turns over leaves to reveal seeds. They even do this when on a feeder. Either way, seeds and shells sometimes get kicked quite a distance.

If the seeds are not found and the kernels inside eaten, they may sprout. Bird seeds deemed possible pests are killed so they don't sprout. But many bird seeds will.

Other seeds may mold if wet, especially on the ground.

Of course, this can happen with a bird feeder, too. But often, a bird feeder will control and confine the messy area.

Rats, cats, and other pests


Yes, rats may climb a pole to eat bird seed in a feeder. But it is so much easier for them to become a nuisance if the seed is in easy reach on the ground. The same can be said for mice, raccoons, opossums, and insect pests.

To reduce these pest problems, don't let seed sit on the ground over night. Feed only what birds will eat in a day. This can be hard when seeds are on the ground where they can hide from birds.

For this rat and pest reason, don't feed birds bread or meat scraps. Especially don't let these items remain overnight. Otherwise these pests are going to make their way into your home.

When birds feed on the ground they are easier prey for cats. Cats like to hide, crouch, and pounce. When feeding birds on the ground, keep seeds away from hiding places for cats. Any small bushes or other places where cats can hide should be at least 10 feet away from bird seed on the ground. Then they birds will see the cat before it pounces.


Photo of Dark-eyed Junco on ground
Dark-eyed Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

Where to place bird seed on the ground


There are some good places to put seed on the ground. Bare soil is perhaps the most obvious. Especially if the ground is frozen, the seeds will be highly visible to the birds. When it thaws, the seeds will eventually mold if not eaten. But, on the other hand, it will stick to the mud and all be located in a smaller area. It should be easier to clean up.

Some people throw out a handful of seeds on top of a crust of snow. The seeds will be available for as long as the snow doesn't melt. If it melts and refreezes, then the birds may see it through a layer of ice, but not be able to get to it.

Cement sidewalks and patios make bird seed highly visible and accessible. Such locations make it very easy for the birds to eat the seed. One caution, though. The seeds may create a slip hazard. The hard round seeds can roll under foot. Or decomposing shells and bird droppings can make the walkway slippery.

If snow is regular in you yard, you might place seed on the ground under a patio table. The table can prevent a build up of snow over the seed.

It is probably not a good idea to throw bird seed into gravel or lawn areas. The seeds will become lost from the birds and will likely sprout up in the spring.

A major factor to consider when feeding birds, is seeing them from inside your home. This is true especially for feeding birds on the ground. They'll be harder to spot on the ground. So you'll want a clear and unobstructed view from a large window in your home. Then you can really enjoy them! Bird feeder placement, even if the feeder is on the ground, is very important.


Photo of Spotted Towhee on ground
Spotted Towhee
Photo by Greg Gillson

Low platform feeders


Until this point I have stayed away from bird feeders and seed containers. But, as we've discussed above, some of the mess and placement of bird seed is better with at least some kind of bird feeder. Bird feeders don't have to be complicated or expensive.

A simple saucer or bowl or pie tin can be used as a bird feeder on the ground. As long as the weather is dry (above or below freezing) the seed will remain edible. These are perfect for your deck or railing or fence post, too.

A simple ground level bird feeder you could buy is a screened floor in a frame on very short legs. The screened bottom allows air to circulate under the food and help dry it out so it doesn't go bad as fast.

From Amazon

Broad platform feeders like this provide plenty of room for ground feeding sparrows and other birds to find food. Platform feeders allow the most variety of birds to eat. But to keep the seed dry you might want one with a roof. Okay, now you're not just throwing birdseed on the ground anymore. Now it is not simple or inexpensive! But birds will love it and the seed will keep better. This would be perfect in the snow. Click this link to go to Amazon to look at other ground level platform bird feeders.




What type of seeds do you feed to birds on the ground?


Most of the other articles on this site steer you away from the cheap mixed bird seed and toward black oil sunflower seed, presented in a tube feeder for red finches, goldfinches, chickadees, and nuthatches.

The exception is the ground-feeding birds. Juncos and Quail and Mourning Doves and House Sparrows do like red milo and cracked corn. White proso millet and black oil sunflower seeds are liked by most birds. These items make up the bulk of the seeds in cheaper mixed seed. Milo is the cheap filler--perfect if you're just tossing it on the ground! (joking)

There is also seed made into large blocks, held together with molasses and gelatin often called quail blocks or smaller seed cakes. These can sit out in the open on the ground or on a stump, fence post, or platform. They may last weeks unless the racoons visit and drag it off. The blocks usually contain cracked corn, wheat, and milo or other seeds most songbirds don't like. So these are more appropriate for quail, doves, and blackbirds. See here on Amazon. The Mr. Bird Wild Bird Feast cylinder has no filler. Instead, pecans, black oil sunflower, sunflower chips, and white proso millet. All your backyard birds should love this! (Amazon affiliate link)


That's it then. If you don't mind the mess, then it's okay to throw bird seed on the ground to feed birds. But it you want to really attract ground feeding birds, you should consider a platform feeder, whether home made or commercial.



You may like some of my other articles:

Kinds of bird feeders (and the birds that like them best)

7 Secrets to feeding birds cheaply



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