Is it ok to throw bird seed on the ground?

Carolina Wren by Imogen Warren

Last Updated on January 6, 2024 by Greg Gillson

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.

             Bird Table by Llewee

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.

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. 

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.

Wrapping Up

There are numerous benefits to feeding birds, both for the birds themselves and for the broader ecosystem. Here are some key advantages:

  • Supplemental food source: Bird feeders provide additional nourishment, especially during harsh weather conditions or times when natural food sources are scarce. This can help birds maintain energy levels, raise healthy chicks, and increase their survival rates.
  • Attract diverse species: Different feeders and seed mixes can attract a variety of bird species, enriching your backyard or garden with their presence and songs.
  • Provide shelter and safety: Bird feeders can offer a refuge for birds to escape predators and harsh weather.
  • Promote conservation: Feeding birds can foster a sense of connection with nature and inspire people to learn more about birds and their habitat needs, potentially leading to conservation efforts.

Benefits for the Ecosystem:

  • Pest control: Some birds like blue jays and chickadees eat insects and other harmful pests, helping to control their populations naturally.
  • Seed dispersal: Birds that consume fruits and berries often deposit seeds elsewhere, aiding in plant reproduction and contributing to a healthy ecosystem.
  • Pollination: Hummingbirds and other nectar-loving birds act as pollinators for flowers, ensuring the reproduction of flowering plants.
  • Biodiversity: A thriving bird population indicates a healthy and diverse ecosystem, contributing to the overall balance of the natural world.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should you not put out bird seed?

While feeding birds offers many benefits, there are times when it’s best to hold off on putting out bird seed. Here are some situations where refraining from bird feeders is the responsible choice:

Disease outbreaks:

  • If there’s a local outbreak of avian disease, such as avian influenza or trichomoniasis, putting out feeders can facilitate the spread among birds. These diseases can be highly contagious and potentially fatal, especially for vulnerable species. Consult your local wildlife authorities or bird conservation organizations for updates on any active outbreaks in your area.

Migration season:

  • In some places, especially areas with abundant natural food during migration periods, providing supplemental food may not be necessary. In fact, it could potentially disrupt their natural migration patterns or lead to dependence on feeders instead of foraging skills.

Nesting season:

  • While attracting birds to your backyard can be enjoyable, too much activity around feeders can disturb nesting birds and potentially lead to nest abandonment. If you have nesting birds nearby, consider temporarily removing feeders or placing them further away from the nest site.

Pest control conflicts:

  • If you’re facing issues with rodents or other pests attracted to bird seed spills around feeders, it’s best to take a break from feeding until the problem is addressed. You can try using squirrel-proof feeders or placing feeders on poles away from structures to minimize pest access.


What is the most popular bird feed?

Determining the absolute “most popular” bird feed is somewhat tricky, as preferences can vary depending on region, bird species, and individual feeder setups. However, here are some strong contenders, often topping the popularity charts and attracting a wide range of birds:

Black-oil sunflower seeds: These hulled seeds are high in fat and calories, making them a favorite among many songbirds like cardinals, chickadees, finches, and jays. Their clean black shells minimize mess and attract less unwanted wildlife like squirrels.

Mixed birdseed: Blends typically contain a mix of smaller seeds like millet, canary seed, and nyjer (thistle), catering to a broader variety of birds with different dietary needs. These mixes often include sunflower chips or hearts for added appeal.

Suet cakes and feeders: Suet, rendered beef fat, provides high energy and attracts insect-eating birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers during colder months when natural insect sources are scarce. Suet cakes come in various flavors and can be placed in specialized feeders for safe access.

Peanuts: Shelled or unshelled peanuts are another popular choice, especially for larger birds like jays and woodpeckers. However, be mindful of potential choking hazards for smaller birds and choose raw, unsalted peanuts for optimal bird health.

Hummingbird feeders: Filled with sugar water solution, hummingbird feeders attract these vibrant aerial acrobats. Different feeder designs cater to specific hummingbird species and preferences.

Fruit and nectar mixes: Some birds like orioles and tanagers enjoy fruit-based mixes or berries. Nectar mixes can also be used in hummingbird feeders for added variety.

Why do birds eat all the bird seed so fast?

Birds devour bird seed quickly for several reasons, driven by their natural instincts and adaptations:

High metabolic rate: Birds have incredibly high metabolisms, burning energy rapidly to maintain their constant body temperature and fuel their active lifestyles. They need to consume a lot of food relative to their size to keep their energy levels up.

Small stomachs: Despite their impressive appetite, birds have surprisingly small stomachs. This means they need to eat frequently throughout the day in small bursts to stay fueled. Observing fast seed consumption is simply their efficient way of fulfilling their immediate energy needs.

Social competition: Bird feeders often attract multiple birds, creating a sense of competition for resources. This can drive them to eat faster to secure their share of the food before it disappears.

Storing for later: Some birds, like jays and chickadees, have natural tendencies to cache food. Seeing them grab multiple seeds might not immediately translate to eating everything. They might be storing some for later, contributing to the seemingly swift disappearance of seed.

Seasonal needs: In colder months, birds require even more energy to stay warm. Their increased appetite and faster seed consumption during this time reflect their effort to meet their heightened energy demands.

Seed type and feeder design: Certain seed types, like sunflower seeds, are high in energy and particularly attractive to birds. Additionally, feeder design can influence feeding speed. For example, mesh feeders often dispense seeds faster than hopper feeders, leading to quicker consumption.


Related articles:

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

7 Secrets to feeding birds cheaply

Comments 24
  1. Learned much from your article. Now to the back yard to fix my mistakes. Good article.

  2. I'm glad the article provided you with the information you sought.

    And you get to spend more time outside, that's good!

  3. Hello from England! Wish we had Towhees here. What a pretty little bird! Is it a songbird?

  4. Greetings, Christine!

    Yes the towhee is a songbird in the New World Sparrow family, related to some of the European buntings rather than your house sparrows.

    It is found in chaparral and brush, and is rather shy. But it comes to the seed feeders when the rowdy finches and others have moved on.

    The song of the the towhee is a simple trill following a sharp note or two. There is some regional variation. It is named after it's song: "to-weeeeee."

  5. Those black birds eat everything and anything there are so many of them so even in the winter they keep chasing off all my other birds wish there was a way to keep them away from my feeders had to move a smaller feeder up by my deck trying to get the other birds to eat up here so I can keep the black birds out even moved the peanuts up here for the blue Jays tried everything to get rid of them they have 2 feeder (bigger ones) gone in a day dont have to worry about feeding them on the ground there is enough of them to eat but thank you for the artical

  6. When I fill my feeders, with in a day or two most of the seed is on the ground from the birds anyway, it's good to know that it's not a bad thing, now just getting rid of those peaty rabbits!!!!!

  7. I fastened a piece of plywood to my deck railing and spread seed on it. The birds seem to like it and I get a good view through my patio door

  8. You need to watch how you feed birds on the ground because cats kill over one billion birds a year if you're going to do it put it in a big open space where they have time to react react

  9. I like your article. It's very informative. I feed on the balcony floor. The birds love it. I'm on the 3rd floor. I have morning doves, finches of all kinds,blue Jay, Cardinals,Woodpeckers of many kind. I debated getting bird feeders and decided the birds like eating on the balcony floor. I have a bird bath though and it's truly loved by all.
    And yes I have 2 squirrels that frequently eat here too. They are all welcome here. 😉❤👍

  10. Good article but no mention of the biggest pests, squirrels (I love to watch them try so hard to get the food) and my brother showed me the perfect trick to keep them away. Run a 4 inch PCv pipe through the pole of the feeder and they can't get their hands around it to climb up. Not very attractive but it sure works. Have had it 3 years and no problems.

  11. That's a good idea as long as the feeder is 5 feet in the air and no closer than 10 feet to a roof or tree that they can jump across to!

  12. Great article
    I ground feed all the birds, wild ducks and squirrels in my apartment complex. The crows and the magpies get along great with the sparrows, squirrels, pigeons and ducks. They all co-mingle together and I've never seen a fight over food before between all the different animals. A neighborhood cat also visits, and she has never attacked any of them.

  13. Yes I put suet on the ground and it was taken. Previous tenant had a suet feeder tied up. Now I know why

  14. wish i had problems like that, no bird ever visits my feeder

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