Black sunflower seed like Pennington® Select Black Oil Sunflower, with a high meat-to-shell ratio, high fat, and thin shell, is the best single seed to offer cardinals and many other seed-eating birds, especially in cold, rain, and snow. The thin shell makes it easy for birds to access the high nutrition, minimizing wasted calories when their bodies need every bit of “fuel” to stay alive. Cardinals prefer sturdy feeders—hoppers or tray feeders—or the ground. Chickadees will take sunflower seed from just about any kind of feeder, least often from the ground.
Many birds that feed on sunflower seed crack open the seeds one by one, as this dark-eyed junco is doing.
Unfortunately, some birds that aren’t quite so popular with people or that cause problems for native bird species, such as exotic house sparrows, can easily access sunflower seeds from any of these feeder types. If you have a problem with sparrows, you may be able to discourage them by switching to striped sunflower. The inner seed isn’t quite as fatty (fat is very good for birds, especially in winter), but the thicker shell makes the seed harder for many species including house sparrows, to open, while cardinals can easily crack them open and chickadees don’t work too hard hacking into the shell to feed on the meat.
Blue jays and chickadees hold sunflower seeds in their feet, and hack a hole into the shell with the tip of their beak. When blue jays “swallow” a whole seed, they’re actually putting it into their throat pouch to hide for later.
If the problem continues, switching to safflower may solve it; try Pennington® Select Safflower Seed. Most cardinals take safflower as readily as they do sunflower, but many species just aren’t interested in it, including house sparrows. If you have a great many birds visiting your feeder and want to ensure that something will interest cardinals, mixing safflower will ensure that some seed will be left for the cardinals.
Both safflower and sunflower can be bought in small bags, in bulk, or in mixtures. White millet is a very high quality seed that can be mixed in to feed a wider variety of species—mourning doves and many native sparrows love it. Peanuts can also be a good choice in mixtures.
Make sure to rake the ground beneath feeders occasionally, especially during wet periods, to prevent mold and bacteria growth that can endanger your birds.