Bird Feeding Primer

Bird Food

The best all-around bird seed is black oil sunflower seed. Large bags can be purchased at many supermarkets and pet supply stores. The birds eat the seeds inside and drop the shells on the ground so there is a fair amount of waste. Some of these seeds may sprout in the spring. You can also buy this food in the form of sunflower chips, which are shelled seeds. The chips are more expensive, but will attract more birds and there is no waste. It will attract chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and all other birds. When these chips fall to the ground they do not sprout, and it will be eaten by ground feeders like sparrows or doves.

It may be tempting to buy the cheap bird food at the supermarket, but this is not a good option. This food often has a lot of cheap filler seeds in it that most birds won’t eat (and that is not as nutritious for the birds). It usually has a lot of red millet which House Sparrows love, but no other birds eat. Many of the cheaper seeds will sprout and come up in your yard in the spring. It is more economical in the long run, and better for the birds, to buy high-quality bird-feeding supplies.

Niger seed, either by itself or mixed with little chips of sunflower seeds (often called Finch Feast) is another good choice. Finches like redpolls, House Finches, Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches love this. It also will not sprout.

Suet cakes, usually contained in a wire cage, are good for many birds to provide a high-energy meal. Woodpeckers and nuthatches love suet, but it should not be offered in the summer months as it goes rancid in hot temperatures.

Shelled nuts are great for many birds too. You can purchase a metal peanut feeder to hang in a tree, which attracts woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches and chickadees. You can also use a squirrel-proof feeder (the simple steel tube feeder with big holes works well). Squirrels will absolutely destroy any wooden or plastic feeder to get at the seeds, and if the nuts are on a tray or otherwise accessible, squirrels, magpies and jays haul them away in no time.

Some birds (sparrows, doves) prefer to feed on the ground or on an open hanging tray, so spreading a bunch of niger seed, sunflower chips, and a few nuts on the ground is a good idea.

There are three stores in Calgary which sell good high-quality seeds: Golden Acre Home & Garden at 620 Goddard Avenue NE, The Wild Bird Store on MacLeod Trail and Heritage Drive SE, and The Fairplay Store on Kensington Road just west of Crowchild Trail NW.

Examples of Bird Feeders

Crossbills at sunflower chips

Crossbills at sunflower chips

House finch, pine siskins at nijer feeder

House Finch, Pine Siskins at nijer feeder

Northern flicker at peanut feeder

Northern Flicker at peanut feeder


Downy Woodpecker at suet feeder


Blackbirds at black oil sunflowers


During the summer months it may be possible to attract hummingbirds to your yard. You can use packaged hummingbird nectar or a sugar water recipe (the correct ratio is 1 part white sugar dissolved in 4 parts boiling water, allow to cool and store any excess in the refrigerator). Don’t use honey, raw sugar or brown sugar in your feeder. Hummingbirds can’t digest it as well. Fermentation & mold growth also occurs faster in solutions made from things other than white granulated sugar or packaged nectar mix. Do not use artificial sweeteners. Red dye or food colouring is completely unnecessary.

i-Zg2ptSJ-MDeter bees and wasps by using a “flat top” or “top feeding” style hummingbird feeder where the nectar is not sitting at the feeding port. The hummers can reach the nectar but bees and wasps cannot. Keeping the feeder clean of spills and drips will also help. Avoid putting out feeders whose feeding ports have yellow centres – yellow is the colour that bees and wasps associate with food!

Clean your feeder every 2 –3 days in warm weather. In cooler weather you may be able to go as long as one week. Every time you change or refill your feeder, wash it with dishsoap and water and rinse well. At least once a month, disinfect your hummingbird feeder thoroughly with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Soak your feeder in this solution for one hour, and then clean with a bottlebrush. Rinse well with running water and refill. Bleach is both safe and very effective.

Hummingbirds are extremely loyal to feeding sites. A hummingbird that feeds in your yard one year will return to that feeder the next. The key to successful hummingbird attraction is to keep the feeder clean and the nectar fresh. If you see hummers flying around your feeders but not feeding it’s a sure sign that something isn’t clean and fresh. Fermented nectar can support the growth of deadly molds. If a hummingbird gets a taste of fermented nectar from your feeder it will look elsewhere for a drink and remain suspicious of the offending feeder for a long time.


16 thoughts on “Bird Feeding Primer

    • Golden Acre Home & Garden at 620 Goddard Avenue NE has good bird feed, as does Fairplay Stores at 2604 Kensington Road NW.

  1. Is there any where in Calgary or surrounding areas to buy bird seed in bulk? I usually buy from Canadian Tire.

    • You can buy large amounts of good-quality bird seed at The Wild Bird Store on Macleod Trail and Heritage Drive, and at Fairplay Stores on Kensington Road just west of Crowchild Trail. I recently heard that Golden Acres Garden Centre on Goddard Road NE is now selling seeds and nuts from a sustainable source as well (I haven’t checked it out myself yet). Please read our Bird Feeding Primer – it is uneconomical and not great for the birds to use low-quality seeds.

  2. Thanks for the reply to my comment regarding attracting so many pigeons. The suggestion is good about the hanging feeders only. I enjoy the squirrels as well. I very regularly clean under my feeding area..I’m sure the suggestion will help cut down on waste as well. Cathy

  3. I am attracting a flock of pigeons which doesn’t bother me in particular but have had a comment from two neighbours about disliking them. I have always fed whatever comes feeling that everything has a right to share. I also have squirrels come readily. My feeding station has what I call a corral underneath which was made to contain the spread of seeds that fall and the shells etc. I am trying to find a balance without creating a nuisance..suggestions? Feeding and watching birds is my “vice” so stopping the practice is not an option for me. Thanks, Cathy in Marlborough, Calgary.

    • The less seeds that end up on the ground, the less squirrels and pigeons you will have. Pigeons feed on the ground. You can invest in squirrel-proof feeders if you only want to feed small songbirds. These can also be set to exclude larger birds. It’s important to clean up regularly underneath as well.

  4. I recently switched from a regular squirrel buster (for sunflower seeds) for another squirrel buster for nyjer seeds. I have mostly chickadees, nuthatches and sometimes jays and finches near my place. I switched hoping to feed smaller birds and not so much the crows.

    The birds like the nyjer seeds initially but stopped coming around soon after. Any suggestion why this might be?

    • Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Jays prefer sunflower seeds (especially without shells) and nuts. Nyjer (or niger) seeds appeal more to small finches like Goldfinches or Redpolls. I suggest getting a solid metal tube with large holes that you fill with nuts. They are great for Chickadees, nuthatches, and all woodpeckers. Squirrels try but can’t get much and can’t wreck them. But if you had a Squirrel Buster feeder the tension on them can be adjusted so only small birds can feed, and heavier birds like crows cannot.

  5. I don’t know if this applies where you are, but we tend to put in a good mix of either maggot castors or dried mealworms in the Summer months into our feeders, usually soaked first. The extra protein is great for chicks and the species we get around our garden usually clean out the food within the day!

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  7. To prevent sprouting of fallen seed, I bake it for a couple of hour at 250’F in a big baking pan. Stir it every half hour or so to make the heat gets through.

  8. I recently cleaned and stained our wooden bird feeders in Northwest Calgary. As such, no birds have taken to the newly cleaned houses. Why? In the past, black capped chickadees were plentiful. Our chickadess disliking the fact that I stained the wooden houses or is it for another reason?


    • I doubt if the stain itself is the problem. If you painted them a bright colour, it could scare the birds off, but a dull or earth-tone stain should be OK (non-toxic of course). I think it’s more likely that since you must have taken the feeders down to clean and stain them, they were not available to the birds for a while, and it can take some time before the birds find the feeders again.

      • Many thanks for the reply. I noticed one or two birds at the feeder, but to no avail. They simply didn’t return. As you pointed out, only time will tell.

  9. This information has been very helpful, Just wish I’d have read it upon first moving to Calgary. The squirrels have destroyed a lot of my feeders already even the ones that are supposed to be squirrel prof. Just planted new grass this summer, now I’m afraid I’ll have a bunch of weeds growing from my feeder. I’ll switch to the chips, and nijer right away. I used to buy a treated product in Sherwood Park, that didn’t grow weeds, but I can’t seem to find it in Calgary. I’m also very excited to start working on attracting the hummingbirds summer of 2014. We vacation in Thunder Bay and wow, do they get hummingbirds.

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