Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Why do birds throw seeds out of the feeder?

 So, why do birds throw seeds out of the feeder?

Here are the top 3 of the 7 reasons birds throw seed from feeders. Birds may not like certain kinds of seed, so they throw them away searching for their favorite. Birds are eating the edible kernel but tossing the inedible outer hulls. Birds may accidentally knock seed from the feeder.

Below I identify 7 reasons why birds might throw seeds out of your feeder. Once we understand those reasons, we are in a better position to solve this common feeder problem. Throughout this article I link to other articles that solve some of these problems.

Only one of these reasons is accidental, though. In the other six cases, birds are throwing seed from the feeder on purpose. Why would they do this? Let's find out.

Photo of birds at bird feeder. GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

Birds throw seed hulls from the feeder

In general, birds do not eat the entire whole seed.

Birds eat the meat of the seed, the kernel. They discard the seed's fibrous outer covering, the hull. If you examine the seeds under the feeder you may see that it is mostly the two inedible halves of the hull that have been tossed on the ground. This is true even for tiny seeds--they all have an outer covering that must be discarded before they reach the edible kernel.

[I have written an article comparing different types of no mess and waste free bird seeds. Most of these have seeds with the hulls removed.]

Finches and sparrows "chew." Their jaws move both up and down and also sideways, in a circle. Thus they are able to use their bill and tongue and split the seeds in half, extract and swallow the kernel, and spit out the hulls. They sit on the feeder and chew and spit. Okay, it's not really spitting, more just letting the inedible pieces fall from their mouths. These are the birds responsible for much of the mess.

Chickadees and nuthatches are not able to chew in this way. Thus, they take one seed at a time, such as a sunflower seed, and fly off with it to a nearby perch. They hold the seed with their toes against the tree bark to wedge it tightly. Then they pound the seed open with hammer blows of their beak. In fact, this is very action is the origin of the nuthatch's name.

This type of “one seed at a time” and eating it elsewhere makes for a very neat bird feeder. Don't we wish all birds were so non-messy?

Photo of Spotted Towhee in blackberry bush
Spotted Towhees habitually kick when they feed. Greg Gillson.

Some birds kick seeds out of the feeder by habit

Towhees, Fox Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows and some other ground-feeding birds habitually kick over leaf litter as they feed, searching under fallen detritus for a snack. They can't help themselves when they get on the feeder. Kicking is how you eat. Off flies perfectly good seed—thrown from the feeder!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (source) calls this maneuver of the towhee the "double-scratch." They quickly kick and scratch the ground, hopping forward and back with both feet at once. Then they look to see if they've unearthed any goodies to eat.

Birds throw poor quality seeds from the feeder

The components of bird seed are harvested by machine. The plants are cut and the seeds separated from the stalk and leaves. By cutting all at once there will be some mature seeds and some not quite ready. Some seeds may not have anything in them.

Birds weigh and examine and test seeds to see if they have a nice meaty center, before they open them. If there's not food inside, then they are discarded. There's no sense expending energy on an empty seed. A bird who can't figure out the difference won't long survive.

Photo of bird feeder with uneaten cracked corn
Birds ate the sunflower seeds, but not the cracked corn.

Birds throw seeds they don't like from the feeder

While you may think you're getting a great deal on bird seed, the birds may have other ideas.

Many of the cheaper mixed bird seed packages contain more than half seeds that most birds don't like. Such seed includes red milo, wheat, and cracked corn.

What do you do with food on your plate you don't like? Yep, into the trash it goes. Birds throw out the seeds from the feeder they don't want in order to get to the seeds they do want.

What does this mean? It is the equivalent of buying a whole bag of mixed bird seed, bringing it home and immediately dumping half of it out on the ground! No wonder it creates a mess!

Most birds at the feeder love black oil sunflower seeds. Many sparrows also love white proso millet. Choose bird seed with mostly these two ingredients.

[I recommend Wagner's Songbird Supreme (my review) as a mixed seed with only foods that birds love! No filler! It's what I continue to buy for my bird feeders.]

Birds throw germinating seeds from the feeder

Is wet bird seed bad for birds?

Not at first, during or immediately following a rainstorm. Wet bird seed may clump together and be hard to eat. 

If bird seed gets soaked through it may germinate and start growing. Birds will not eat germinating seeds. Birds will throw such "bad" seed out of the feeder. And it leads to the next problem if not quickly cleaned up.

Birds throw moldy bird seed from the feeder

If seed sits in the bird feeder and stays wet it will become mushy and dank-smelling. That's mold and bacteria growing.

Can birds eat moldy bird seed? They may try. And it may end up making them sick or killing them. If they don't eat it, they may throw it out of the feeder, making quite a mess.

More than likely, though, they'll abandon a feeder that has moldy bird seed, especially if it is wet.

For the same reason, birds may not eat old seed left over from last year. Start with fresh seed every fall.

Birds accidentally spill seed from the feeder

Sometimes the seed is accidentally knocked out of a hopper or tray feeder by active birds. 

Or when pulling one seed from a tube feeder, another seed or two falls to the ground.

For all these reasons, birds may throw out seed from the feeder, making quite a mess.

So, that begs the question: What do you do about it?

For that, please read my article:  End the mess of feeding wild birds!

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

End the mess of feeding wild birds!

How do you feed wild birds without making a mess?

Many people give up on feeding birds. You can see those abandoned bird feeders in people's yards. One major reason people stop feeding birds? "It's just too messy!" 

So, how do you feed birds without making a mess?

You can feed birds without making such a mess by making 3 changes. Change the amount of food you offer to only what the birds eat in a day. Change the type of food you offer to hulled sunflower and other hulled seeds. Change the type of bird feeder to a tube feeder.

Photo of White-crowned Sparrow by Greg Gillson.

Messy bird feeders are discouraging. Fallen seeds and hulls can kill the grass. They can draw insect pests. Messy bird feeders can even draw rats. Worse yet, if not cared for properly, bird feeders can actually spread diseases to birds we're trying to help and enjoy.

I've lived in homes with ample backyards where bird feeding was simple. Any seed spillage just went to the ground at the rough back edge of the property. However, I've also lived in second-floor apartments and other places where feeding birds was not practical because of the mess.

Winter weather can blow bird seed hulls all over the yard, tip over feeders, and make a gooey mess of moldy seeds unless you clean up immediately. Let's face it, going out regularly in winter weather to clean the bird feeders is not high on most people's list of fun things to do.

If you've stopped feeding birds because of the mess, perhaps you can use these tips to start feeding birds again--this time without the mess!

Make bird feeding less messy by putting out less food

Do your birds have a never-ending supply of bird seed? If so, the birds have no need to search for any seeds spilled on the ground under the feeder.

By putting out less food than your birds can eat in a day, you encourage birds to feed on the ground searching for spilled seed after the feeder is empty.

Make sure to refill your feeder every day, though, or birds will not return regularly. If there's no extra food in your feeder it is less likely to go bad or attract non-bird pests.

[You may like this related article: Bird feeder empty in a day--How often should you refill?]

Make bird feeding less messy by changing to hulled sunflower and other seeds

The most popular bird seed blends that people buy are the least expensive. But these are filled with up to half seeds that birds don't like. They throw it out and it creates a mess. Don't buy bird seed that contains red milo. It is actually less expensive to pay twice as much for bird seed that has no milo.

Most of the seed that birds do eat is the inedible hull. Hulls are entirely waste. Hulls are heavy. By weight, sunflower seeds are 35-40% hulls, waste, mess. Hulled sunflower seeds probably cost more than double that of seeds that have the hulls on. But there's no mess with hulled seeds.

Also consider offering non-seed alternatives. Fruits and nuts (shelled) are a good supplement to hulled sunflower seeds. Suet is a good choice in cool weather.

[I wrote an article on different kinds of sunflower seeds, including hulled sunflowers.]

Make bird feeding less messy by switching to a tube feeder

Some sparrows habitually kick and scratch the ground while they eat. If they're on a tray feeder, seeds will fly.

Large numbers of birds on the feeder create chaos, and bird seeds may fly!

Tube feeders make bird feeding less messy. Only a few seeds at a time are available to one bird per feeding port. This makes spillage less of a problem.

Photo of a tube feeder. AtlAdGuy from Pixabay
Chickadee at tube feeder

Tube feeders are also more resistant to rain soaked seeds, reducing the chance for moldy seeds. Ground feeding birds will still feed on any spilled seeds under the tube feeder. A bonus to tube feeders is that large birds have trouble coming in and eating all the food at once.

Not all birds eat from tube feeders. Tube feeders attract finches, goldfinches, chickadees, siskins, and nuthatches. 

However, if any seeds do spill out, sparrows, juncos, towhees, and doves may search under the feeder and keep the ground clean.

Feed different foods in different feeders. That way birds will go to the feeder that has the food they want and they won't be picking through and throwing away the seeds they don't want.

Go out there. Give bird feeding another try. This time make it non-messy!

This is an updated rewrite of one of my very first articles:  How to feed birds without making a mess.

I have also written a related article comparing different types of no mess and waste free bird seed. This article also has a couple of my recommended brands of no mess bird seed for you to try.

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