Although safflower seed is one of the oldest oilseed crops in the history of mankind – some of the first mummies were wrapped in linens dyed with safflower flowers – it has become popular in wild bird feeding only in recent years. The high fat, protein, and oil content of safflower make it a valuable nutritional food source for wild birds. Widely known as the cardinal's favorite food of choice, safflower has also been recognized as the solution to many squirrel problems at birdfeeders.
Safflower seeds are found in most of the quality wild birdseed mixes available on the market today. They are rarely found, however, in any of the bottom-end mixes available at mass merchants or grocery stores since they are more expensive than some of the other seeds commonly used in the cheaper blends. Some wild birdseed mixes offer safflower seed as one of the main ingredients in order to attract more cardinals, one of North America's favorite backyard birds, and are named for them.
In addition to cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, grosbeaks are also attracted to safflower seed, among others. More important, however, is the fact that grackles and starlings – species known as "feeder hogs" that keep other, more desirable birds away from backyard birdfeeders – are not attracted to it.
There has been some debate about the attractiveness of safflower seed in previous studies of backyard bird feeding preferences. In the original, landmark study done Dr. Aelred Geiss for the National Fish and Wildlife Service in 1980, safflower was found to be only "relatively attractive" to birds, in spite of the fact that backyard bird observers noted that safflower was indeed popular with birds. A later study done in 1985 by Dr. Geis and Donald B. Hyde, Jr. showed that when safflower was offered over several months, cardinals actually sought out safflower seeds over black oil sunflower seeds. By the end of the test, safflower was eaten at the same rate as black oil sunflower seeds by cardinals as well as the other species that showed a preference for it.
The National Science Foundation sponsored a Seed Preference Test conducted with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology from 1995 to 1996, and the "Seed Preferences Of Common Feeder Birds" chart that appears on Cornell's FeederWatch site is based in part on the results of that study. The only birds listed as being attracted to safflower in the Cornell chart are cardinals, titmice, nuthatches, finches, and grosbeaks. Again, it's the absence of less desirable birds at feeders offering safflower that makes it so popular with people who feed birds in their backyards, and the popularity of safflower as a wild bird food continues to grow as a result of that finding.
To be fully convinced of the problem-solving value that safflower offers to the backyard bird habitat, one only has to look at some of the personal accounts found in The FeederWatcher's Guide to Bird Feeding by Margaret A. Barker and Jack Griggs, a Cornell Bird Library Guide. There are many accounts of FeederWatchers who have observed that most of their favorite feeder birds will readily eat safflower seed – indeed, they seem to prefer it – while less desirable species like starlings, grackles and blackbirds don't seem to appreciate it at all.
Many of these same observers reported that squirrels ignored safflower, an added bonus. However, some people have observed squirrels eating safflower on occasion so the conclusion that squirrels won't eat safflower is not a hard and fast rule. But over time – and especially when there are other foods available – squirrels seem to avoid safflower and its bitter taste. Chipmunks, unlike squirrels, happen to like safflower seeds, so in areas where they are a problem, safflower should be offered with the same baffles that are used to keep squirrels off feeders.
Any feeder that can hold black oil sunflower seeds will do a good job of holding safflower seeds. However, ground-feeding birds such as cardinals prefer platform feeders that replicate ground-feeding situations, so platform feeders should probably be your first choice for offering safflower seeds for the birds in your backyard.
— written by Carla Davis; The Wild Bird Lady (c) 2004 eBirdseed.com - Written permission required for use of images/text on these pages.
Carla Davis is a Habitat Consultant residing on Long Island, New York, where she gives seminars on how to develop Backyard Bird Habitats through bird feeding and native gardening at Garden Centers, Garden Clubs, Nature Centers, Schools, and Audubon Chapters. She has taught portions of the Master Birding Course for Cornell Cooperative Extension, Suffolk County, New York, and her property has been designated as an Official Backyard Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. She is a contributing writer to Birding Business magazine and The Bird's-Eye reView, the newsletter of the former National Bird-Feeding Society, where she served as a member of the Board of Directors.
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