There is an ancient grain known to humans as millet (Panicum miliaceum). It is a small round seed, about the size of a peppercorn. About a third of the world’s population uses it as a staple food. It is rich in iron, B vitamins, calcium, and is naturally gluten-free. Fiber, fat, and proteins are also found in this tiny, nutritious grain. Americans have recently discovered the health benefits of ancient grains such as quinoa, spelt, farro, chia, and kamut. Millet is likely to be the next to join the list.
For as long as people have grown and enjoyed millet, so have the birds. And that is how most people know this grain. It is often found mixed in with other bird seed offerings, but is can be difficult to find by itself at most backyard birding supply stores.
Male painted bunting
Most of the birds who eat white proso millet are ground feeders, such as doves, sparrows, juncos, towhees, cardinals, bobwhites, and quail. Two spectacularly colorful birds to add to this list are the painted and indigo buntings. While it can be put into hopper feeders, or low-set tray feeders with good drainage, it is just as easy to sprinkle it on the ground, just make sure not to put out more than the birds can eat in one day.
Male indigo bunting
This highly nutritious grain is just as good for the birds as it has been for people, and the outer shell is thin enough to be easily opened by the birds, but thick enough to protect it some from the weather.
In researching millet I discovered that there is a traditional wooden Russian toy called Chicken Eating Millet. You may have seen these at some point. I own one in fact. They are brightly colored round wooden paddles, with five little painted wooden chickens lined up along the edge of the paddle. Strings connect the chickens to a wooden ball suspended beneath, so that as you hold the paddle flat and move it in a circular motion, the chickens heads bob up and down, eating the millet that is painted on the paddle beneath them. I find that even I can be entertained for several minutes watching the chickens ‘eat’.
Hopefully you will find equal entertainment watching real live birds pecking at the millet you put out for them.