7 Secrets to feeding wild birds cheaply

Nuthatch by bonnie-kittle

Last Updated on January 8, 2024 by Greg Gillson

Feeding wild birds is a very enjoyable pastime. It takes some time for birds to find feeders at some homes. Others have the opposite problem. Some home owners have so many birds at their feeders that it becomes expensive to keep feeding all of them!

If feeding birds has become too expensive for your budget and you are looking for cheaper alternatives, perhaps you will find help in my recent research that I present here.

Feed birds cheaply by offering inexpensive kitchen scraps and choosing carefully at the bird shop.

I also have recommendations for how you feed birds, not just what you feed them.

Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch at bird feeder
White-breasted Nuthatch at feeder
Image by GeorgiaLens from Pixabay

Feed wild birds more cheaply from your kitchen

What can you feed birds besides bird seed? Well, you may be throwing away potential bird food from your kitchen and not even knowing it!

Not all food that people eat is good for birds, but many foods are. 

Just remember, though, not too much at a time. Too much human food left out can attract raccoons, opossums, bears, rats or other pests. You should only feed birds the amount of kitchen scraps they eat in a single day.

Cheap bird feeding secret #1. Kitchen food scraps that birds can eat

The first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of feeding birds kitchen scraps is bread. Most birds will eat bread, some eagerly so. However, bread, while filling, is not nutritious. Birds who eat a diet high in bread become malnourished. So bread should only be an occasional snack for birds, not a daily routine.

What can you provide instead? You can try cooked rice. Pasta, cooked or raw, is eaten by birds. Break the pasta into more bite-sized pieces. Don’t feed birds rice or pasta if it has been salted, or after you have added any sauce to it.

You can save bacon grease until you have enough to make your own suet. Save it in a small tin in the freezer. Add some seeds or nuts to it, or serve it plain. Place it in your suet cage. Bacon grease stays solid in the winter; it melts at 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can also make a suet-like peanut butter snack. Add a spoonful onto the bark of a tree to attract many birds.

Cheap bird feeding secret #2. Damaged fruit

Have you noticed that it’s hard to find a store that sells oranges individually? You have to buy a whole net bag. And what do you find?

Most of the fruit is not ripe. You put it on your kitchen counter to ripen up for a few days. What happens? It never really gets ripe, but it goes soft on the bottom. Bird food!

       Fruit by emma-van-sant

Or you buy a cluster of grapes. When you wash them off for your kids you find that some are bruised or split. Rather than grind them up in the garbage disposal or saving them for the recycle pile, save them for the birds!

Bruised or soft fruit can be cut into slices. Then place on a tray feeder or impale them so larger birds like jays or crows don’t fly off with them.

In the fall tree fruit often falls to the ground. Wasted. Gather some up and freeze it. Offer it a few slices at a time throughout the winter.

Oranges and apples are frequently mentioned as being favorites with birds. But grapes, raisins (soaked overnight in water to make them soft), and bruised bananas are also mentioned as being eaten by birds.

See my article: 10 Fruits you should be feeding backyard birds.

Cheap bird feeding secret #3. The last bite

I know you save table scraps for your dog, don’t you? You can save the last bite of certain foods for your wild birds, too!

Apple cores. An orange slice. A couple of raisins. The last bite of your sandwich. A dry piece of bread or cheese. All these items are eaten by birds. Give them a try!

Feed wild birds more cheaply when purchasing from your local bird shop or online

You can save money by making more informed decisions when purchasing bird seed. The lowest price doesn’t always mean the best value. If most birds won’t eat your bird food, then a low price isn’t a good deal, is it?

Cheap bird feeding secret #4. Say “no” to milo in your mixed bird seed

Very few birds eat milo. Milo is a very cheap seed. Up to three-quarters of the seeds in some cheap mixed bird seeds may be milo. Why?

Well, chicken scratch.

Milo is fed to chickens, along with cracked corn. It is thus very available to farmers. Chicken scratch makes cheap bird food to sell to unsuspecting customers. Are you fooled into buying the least pricey bag of bird seed to feed wild birds?

Quail, turkeys, and pheasants eat milo. So do Mourning Doves, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and House Sparrows. Other birds? Not so much.

Are these the birds you want to attract? Or do you want cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, juncos, goldfinches, chickadees, house finches, woodpeckers and more?

Look at the ingredient list of your mixed bird seed. Is milo the first ingredient? One of the first 3 ingredients? Buy another brand.

Does the bird seed contain cracked corn? Oats? Wheat? Chicken scratch! You want white proso millet and sunflower seeds.

Safflower? Some birds eat it, and most squirrels don’t.

       Nuthatch by patrice-bouchard

Pieces of peanuts? Sure.

But milo? No!

Look at the seed visible through the clear parts of the plastic bag. How many black oil sunflower seeds can you see? The darker the seed mixture, the more sunflower seeds there are, and the better birds will like it.

See my article on what kind of bird seeds attract the most birds.

Cheap bird feeding secret #5. Fill feeders with only one type of seed

Each species of bird has a food it prefers over all others.

If given a choice–such as at your bird feeder filled with a never-ending supply of mixed seed–the birds will pick through the seed looking for their favorite.

What do birds do with their “less favorite” seeds? They throw it out on the ground! That’s right, birds toss seeds they don’t want out of the feeder in order to find their favorite.

This seed waste may be eaten by other birds on the ground. Most of it will be waste, though, accumulating uneaten under the feeder. Or, worse, it may attract rodent pests, insects, or squirrels.

The secret to saving money on bird seed is to fill each feeder with a different single food item. That way only the birds that like that food will visit that feeder.

More of the food goes to birds that like that food, less to waste.

You can have a black-oil sunflower seed feeder, suet feeder, millet feeder, thistle feeder with Niger seed, hummingbird feeder.

Each feeder will attract it’s own type of birds. The birds that eat at the feeder will not throw less desirable seeds on the ground.

Find more details in my article on setting up a bird feeding station.

Cheap bird feeding secret #6. Purchase hulled sunflower seeds in bulk without the shell

An article in Watching Backyard Birds stated that sunflower seeds are 35-40% waste by weight (source). That means that hulled sunflowers, also known as kernels or chips, may not be as expensive as it first appears.

Black oil sunflower seeds on Amazon are $1 to $2 per pound (cheaper if you buy larger quantities).
This 50 pound bag of Wagner’s black oil sunflower seed was the lowest price I found on Amazon

The cheapest bulk 50 pound bag of hulled sunflowers I found (EazyGo coarse chips) was about $1.40 per pound.

What does this mean? At $1 per pound for the whole seeds, and 35% waste, that’s 32.5 pounds of edible seed in a 50 pound bag. That’s $1.50 per pound for the edible portion. In this case, the coarse hulled sunflower chips are actually less expensive!

If you buy smaller quantities it is less favorable. And medium-sized chips were more expensive. But there’s no waste or mess with the sunflower chips.

If you have a choice between in-the-shell and chips, at the same weight, it is a better deal to buy the chips even if half again more expensive.

Cheap bird feeding secret #7. Feed only a limited amount of bird food each day

Birds will eat all day at your feeder if you provide food for them–even if they are not really hungry.

Note how much they eat from dawn to mid-morning. Only place that amount in your feeder about a half hour before sunset.

When they run out they’ll go elsewhere. But they’ll be back in the morning if you set them up on such a routine.

See my article on how often you should refill your bird feeder.

Don’t forget water!

                   Bird bath by joshua-j-cotten

Birds need to drink water every day.

They need to bathe and thereby keep their feathers in good repair.

Birds will keep coming to your yard for water, even if you are out of bird food. And water is pretty cheap in most places!

You don’t have to buy an expensive bird bath. Birds will drink and bathe in shallow pans or bowls.
I use the little saucers that catch water under ceramic flower pots.

Try some or all of these ideas to see how feeding birds can be done cheaply.


Wrapping Up

The “best” food for wild birds depends on several factors, including the species you’re trying to attract, the time of year, and your location. However, here are some general guidelines:

Safe and healthy options:

  • Seeds: A diverse mix of seeds is ideal, as different birds prefer different sizes and types. Black oil sunflower seeds are a popular choice for many species, while millet, nyjer (thistle), and safflower seeds attract other types. Avoid cheap seed mixes that often contain fillers and unhealthy ingredients.
  • Nuts and fruits: Unsalted peanuts, pecans, and walnuts are great for larger birds like jays and woodpeckers. You can also offer chopped fresh fruits like apples, grapes, and berries, but remove any leftover pieces to prevent spoilage.
  • Suet cakes and mealworms: These high-fat options provide valuable energy during cold weather and attract insect-eating birds like chickadees and wrens. Choose plain suet cakes or make your own with unsalted nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Mealworms can be offered fresh or dried, but keep them in a cool, dry place to prevent them from getting moldy.
  • Water: Provide a clean source of fresh water year-round, especially during hot weather. Birds need water to bathe and drink, and a birdbath or shallow pan will attract many species.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are foods I should not feed to birds?

  • Bread and crumbs: These offer little nutritional value and can attract unwanted pests like squirrels and raccoons.
  • Salted foods: Salt is harmful to birds, so avoid offering salted nuts, chips, or pretzels.
  • Moldy or spoiled food: This can make birds sick, so always remove any leftover food after a few days.
  • Treated seeds: Avoid seeds treated with pesticides or chemicals.

Can birds eat Quaker oats?

Yes, birds can eat Quaker oats in moderation, but there are some important things to keep in mind:

 Birds can safely eat uncooked Quaker oats, such as rolled oats or steel-cut oats. These provide valuable nutrients like fiber, protein, and carbohydrates.

Avoid offering cooked oats to birds. As the oats cool, they become sticky and can harden around a bird’s beak, potentially causing harm.

Oats should be offered as a occasional treat, not a dietary staple. Birds need a variety of food sources to get the nutrients they need. Overeating oats can fill them up without providing essential vitamins and minerals.

Don’t add any sugar, salt, or other flavorings to the oats, as these can be harmful to birds.

You can mix the oats with other bird-friendly foods, such as seeds, chopped nuts, or dried fruit, to create a more nutritious and enticing treat.

Can wild birds eat chicken scratch?

Whether wild birds can eat chicken scratch is a bit of a mixed bag. While technically they can consume some of the components of chicken scratch, it’s not necessarily the best food choice for them for several reasons:

Nutritional imbalance: Chicken scratch is primarily designed for chickens, whose dietary needs differ from most wild birds. It often contains a high percentage of corn and other grains, which provide carbohydrates but lack essential vitamins and minerals crucial for many wild bird species.

Missing dietary needs: Wild birds, depending on their specific type, require a diverse diet rich in protein, fats, and certain nutrients found in insects, fruits, and nuts. Chicken scratch typically falls short in these areas.

Potential health risks: Some chicken scratch mixes might contain additives or medications meant for chickens, which could be harmful to wild birds. Additionally, certain types of grains or seeds in the mix might not be suitable for all wild bird species and could cause digestive issues.

Attracting unwanted guests: Chicken scratch’s strong scent and abundance of grains can attract larger birds like pigeons and squirrels, potentially displacing smaller, native bird species that you might prefer to attract.

Alternatives: Providing wild birds with a more specialized mix of seeds, nuts, fruits, and suet cakes would be a better option. These mixes are formulated with the specific dietary needs of various bird species in mind and offer a more balanced and nutritious source of food.

Overall: While wild birds might eat some parts of chicken scratch, it’s not ideal for their health or well-being. It’s better to stick to birdseed mixes specifically designed for their dietary needs to ensure they receive the proper nutrients and avoid potential health risks.


Related Articles:

QUICKLY attract birds to your feeder!

7 kinds of bird feeders and the birds that like them

My recommendations for your first bird feeder setup

My review: Wagner’s Songbird Supreme bird seed

Bird feeders to attract smaller birds

My review: No mess and waste free bird foods

Comments 14
  1. Very good knowledge- l am obsessed with bird feeing and gardens and l know how time consuming and costly it can be, to take care of our feathered friends etc not only in summer, BUT ESPECIALLY SO in the Winter Months when food is Scarce and also a little top up of Habitat. We are LOSING Soo Many Animal Species Including Birds because of Selfish, Greedy, Uncaring, Thoughtless, Humans And Several Generations Down The Line I Predict Birds And animals mostly gone and Narsasist Humans Ennmasse – Thank You for the post Cd BA hons

  2. Great article. I feed on the ground off my deck and bird feeders in the winter. My biggest problem are the squirrels. I don’t have a squirrel proof feeder but they take over the hanging feeders and they are all over the ground����

  3. Thanks Jean. Squirrels can be a problem in some places. It seems they can outsmart just about any obstacle! Squirrel proof feeders and baffles above and below, with not place to jump, may help.

  4. I have heard not to use bacon grease for birds. If you have dogs be careful with grapes as they are toxic to dogs.

  5. I cannot afford to feed squirrels and chipmunks too so I relocate the squirrels and chipmunks (harder to catch) to a park with a lake so there's plenty of water! I haven't seen any come back yet so I'm thinking they're enjoying their new home.

  6. Please be careful, though. Trapping and releasing wildlife to other areas is illegal in most places.

    Remember, the wildlife in the new area is already in balance. The squirrels already there may not appreciate having another squirrel "invade" their territory.

  7. This was great info, thank you for compiling everything! I live in a heavily wooded area and while not rural, my neighbors don't put up feeders, so I feel the pressure to support the birds and little critters. I have droves of birds, a band of bluejays that number at least 14. Dozens of finches, sparrows and woodpeckers ect, ect.. I usually make $200 orders to chewy, which next to walmart has the most competitive prices. I have tried my local pet stores but they just can't get the seed at the low price the big box stores can. I try to buy my dog stuff from them though. I've found that filling my feeders up only half way helps stop the squirrels from emptying them. To supplement, I'll buy several of those birdseye steam fresh brown rice bags when they go on sale for 99cents and Walmart sells huge canisters of their brand raisins for $3. CVS does alot of but 1 get free deals with nuts and you can usually see the 20oz cans of peanuts go for cheap combined with a CVS coupon for a certain amount off when you spend $20 on snacks ect. I buy bricks of lard from the spanish market for $2 a pound and I'll make raisin and peanut suet which is a big hit. My husband thinks I'm crazy but being frugal is the only way to go. It's better for my wallet and the birds get more variety. If I just spend my money on the fancy seed they would be on diets! Thank you again, great tips!

  8. the articles is excellent which you have shared with us. I get some informative article by your post share time some about wild bird food thank you for sharing your on saving money feeding birds ! Great

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like