Is Safflower Seed for the Birds?

hopper-feeder-and-house-finch-blkforest-2008oct14-lah-202r-2

We gave our daughter and son-in-law a birdfeeder for their wedding anniversary. They were delighted. We filled it with black oil sunflower seeds and hung it on their backyard fence. It didn’t take long for the local House Finches to discover the new food source. My daughter enjoyed watching the pretty red birds gather around the feeder, politely taking turns at the narrow tray.

Then, a few weeks later, a huge flock of red-winged blackbirds realized dinner was available in my daughter’s backyard. They seemed to know every time she filled the feeder. As they jostled for position, they displaced the more subdued finches. Within minutes, the feeder was empty. Clearly, something would have to be done.Meanwhile, at my own house, I was dealing with squirrels. Of course, that’s nothing new. Anyone who feeds birds will find them selves feeding squirrels at some point. I’d actually solved the problem with my pole-mounted feeders, by inserting a cone-shaped baffle between the squirrel and the seed. In the six years I’ve been using them, no agile rodent has gotten past one.

However, my pole feeders are quite far from our house, on the other side of our wide driveway. I wanted to watch the birds right outside my kitchen window. An assortment of “squirrel-proof” feeders (hah!), pepper sprays, and dome-shaped protectors had done nothing to deter the persistent tree-rats.

safflower-seed-2008oct20-lah-016-1I was pondering both my and my daughter’s dilemmas when a bird-feeding friend suggested safflower seeds. Recently, these seeds have gained some notoriety as being unattractive to squirrels and less-popular birds such as blackbirds, while still attracting the songbirds most people want at their feeders.

The Wild Birds Unlimited website isn’t exactly an objective source, but they do offer some useful information. I checked to see what they had to say about safflower seeds:

Safflower is a small, white seed that is high in protein and fat. Many favorite backyard birds—including jays, cardinals, chickadees, House Finches, doves, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches—savor safflower. Blackbirds, grackles and squirrels typically do not.

Well, that certainly sounded promising. I investigated further. Birdwatching.com says, “The great thing about safflower seeds is that squirrels don’t like them. Neither do grackles, blue jays, or starlings.”

Additional sources repeated the mantra. Squirrels do not like safflower seeds. Neither do some other birds. I decided to give them a try. If they worked for me, I would recommend them to my daughter.

Several sites recommended making the switch gradually. As directed, I tried mixing the safflower seed in with the black oil sunflower seeds. The birds looked at me indignantly. They then proceeded to fish out and eat only the sunflower seeds, discarding the safflower on the ground (where it promptly sprouted). Clearly, if I was going to do this, it would have to be all or nothing. I took down most of my feeders, and filled the rest with plain safflower seed.

evening-grosbeak-blackforest-2008apr20-lah-022At first the birds stayed away. Then a flock of Evening Grosbeaks arrived and started feasting on the safflower. This was a new species for my yard. I didn’t know if my seed switch had anything to do with their arrival (I rather doubt it, actually), but I was thrilled to have them.

The House Finches finally condescended to eat my safflower seeds, but the Black-headed Grosbeaks, nuthatches and chickadees that I enjoyed so much would have nothing to do with my offerings. I wavered in my resolve.

The next morning, I woke to find the freshly-filled dish of safflower seeds empty, with only a few shells remaining to indicate anything had ever been there. Could I have that many grosbeaks? I refilled the bowl and retreated to the kitchen window to watch.

Sure enough. No sooner had I disappeared indoors when a fox squirrel crept out from behind the bush where he’d been hiding. Looking cautiously around, he sniffed the air, and then scampered over the bowl and began gobbling up safflower seeds as fast as he could shove them into his expandable cheeks.

squirrel-eating-safflower-seed-bf-6may2008-lah-001

I guess my squirrels hadn’t read the ads.

I finally gave up. My daughter has had some success with safflower, but I’m back to offering mainly sunflower seeds*. The only feeders outside my kitchen window are for hummingbirds. At least the squirrels leave those alone (once I got the kind without the chewable plastic “flowers”). And from October through April, I have to use my binoculars to see the birds across the driveway.

Birdseed that squirrels don’t like? I knew it was too good to be true!

_____
* along with millet, nyjer, suet, peanuts… and dog kibble! But that’s a topic for another day.

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18 Responses to Is Safflower Seed for the Birds?

  1. Carey says:

    You know, I’ve often wished my squirrels would learn to read as well. At some point, they decided they were just as interested in our nyjer/thistle feeder as they were in our regular one, even though all the books said they would not touch the stuff. They even chewed and enlarged the tiny feeder holes so they could get at the seed more easily. I cannot imagine how much nyjer they would need to eat to get enough calories to take care of the energy expended eating the seed! This led to some amusing experiments with vaseline on the feeder pole, a slinky, and finally a baffle that worked.

  2. LAH says:

    I would love to hear the story about the Vaseline and slinky! Which baffle finally worked for you?

  3. Pingback: Are Safflower Seeds Healthy for Birds to Eat?

  4. Pingback: My bird won't eat anything but safflower seeds…help?

  5. jeff says:

    house finches are very fussy with the safflower seed.cardinals,mourning doves,chickadees and nuthatches love it.no more problems with squirrels.

  6. LAH says:

    Jeff, I wonder how much of this difference in taste is regional variation? We don’t have cardinals in Colorado Springs (usually), but our squirrels clearly love safflower. (But then, they love seed with cayenne sprayed all over it, too.) I’m glad it works for you!

  7. Joe says:

    Jeff mentioned above that House Finches are very fussy with safflower seed. In my back yard that’s an understatement. My primary objective is to attract Cardinals and deter Grackles at all costs (three be-headings in the last 10 days courtesey of my Grackles). Safflower seems to be the ideal solution – along with a new Cardinal-friendly / Grackle-unfriendly feeder I’m about to purchase – except for one problem: my House Finches love the Safflower (which is fine) and prefer it apparently over Black Oil Sunflower, but some of them are so picky that they discard four Safflower seeds for every one they eat. It’s expensive seed, and who needs that? I’ve had this problem with multiple, fresh bags (Wagners). Is anyone else having this problem? Do different brands vary enough to try others? Suggestions? The wasted seed that drops to the ground does get eaten, but by the wrong birds. I may try a seed catcher but I imagine the wrong birds (Doves especially) will eat it up on the catcher platform too…. I was also thinking of catching the discarded seed in a way that the birds could not get to it, separating the shells from the unopened seeds, and then returning them to the feeder, for the cardinals and less picky finches to have another shot at them….. Make sense ? I’m new to birding and am amazed how complicated this has gotten :-) Thanks for any advice.

  8. Teresa L says:

    I have a similar problem. But my birds are throwing both the black oil and safflower seeds on the ground. The cardinals and doves get some of them but it is just a mass of seeds under my feeders. We feel it is such a waste. We tried catching them and putting them back in the feeders but we not sure if this was healthy for our bird friends. It is very frustrating though. I had not thought of the seeds being undesirable. I will try different brands to see if this issue gets better.

    • LAH says:

      I don’t know if you have a seed mix, but sometimes birds toss the unwanted seeds on the ground in order to get to the ones they like best. I found that separating the kinds of seeds into different feeders helps a lot. Or, your seed could be stale or something. I’ve never heard of birds snubbing black oil sunflower seeds!

  9. Diana says:

    I live in the city where we have no squirrel problem, thank God. I was, however, having problems with the blackbirds. I didn’t mind the red-winged ones but the others would come by the hundreds, scarring off all the birds that I really wanted. Read this and switched to the safflower. It worked wonders. It did seem that it took a couple of days to get my regular birds back and I’m not sure they like it as well as the wild bird feed but they are tolerating it. Thanks for the help!

    • LAH says:

      So glad this was helpful! I’m imagining hundreds of blackbirds at your feeder as something out of Hitchcock!

  10. Mary says:

    I am finding that the squirrels LOVE the safflower seeds and the cardinals, finches, mourning doves,chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers HATE it. They toss it all out. I think maybe the tufted titmouse likes it. What they all really love is the Pennington Ultra Nut & Fruit blend. Maybe they were spoiled by it.

    • LAH says:

      I’m sure there are regional differences in what birds, and squirrels, will eat. I tried adding cayenne pepper to my birdseed to keep squirrels out. It didn’t slow our squirrels a bit–they just drank more water! And yes, I agree that you have spoiled birds! 8-)

  11. Bob F. says:

    We used quality bird food but became overrun with black birds. Looked like being attacked by the birds. Took feeder down for a few days and replaced food with nothing but safflower seed hoping to get rid of blackbirds. It worked well but we wanted the small birds, finch and cardinals. Mixed quality cardinal food with the safflower seed and now have more fun watching lots of cardinals and finch having fun. Also installed a finch feeder with thistle seed. Black birds try to get to it but the holes are to small for them. Beautiful yellow finch are now steady visitors. Love watching the
    small birds. We also installed a bird bath with fresh water daily and sure enjoy watch then having fun. Keep those bird feeder clean. They get filthy on the botton if you don’t.

  12. Lucy says:

    I found your ‘blurb’ about safflower while trying to find some help as to why all of our birds are tossing out the ‘straight’ safflower we’ve put out. The finches just sit there and toss-toss-toss. I’ve even tried chasing them away but, of course, they eventually come back – lol. ANYway…you wrote something that is one of my pet peeves: you said squirrels have expandable cheeks. They don’t, of course. They’re not like chipmunks. Squirrels just eat really, really fast. I watch them all the time from our porch windows. Plus, I have many books about them. :) So I felt compelled to comment/correct.

    • LAH says:

      Thanks for letting me know about the squirrels. I learned something new. Now I need to stare at our squirrels and see how they manage to eat so fast! Also, I suspect birds in different areas have different seed preferences, probably because the seeds naturally available vary from place to place. I’ve gone back to black oil sunflower seeds, and just serve them on a squirrel-proof (for seven years so far!) platform feeder.

  13. I’ve switched to safflower 5 years ago and only chickadees, cardinals and house finches visit my feeders… well also chipmunks load up in the fall. Squirrels don’t touch the stuff. I live in a suburb of Montreal, Canada.

    • LAH says:

      Interesting that your chipmunks like safflower, and the squirrels don’t. I think animal preferences vary regionally, and we have to try an assortment of seeds before we hit on a combination that works.

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