Thursday, May 21, 2020

What is the best sunflower seed for birds?

The seeds of the sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus) attract more backyard birds to your feeder than any other kind of birdseed. No wonder, they are good for birds. They are full of nutrients including fats, protein, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B-6, and iron.

But at the store you see different kinds of sunflower seeds. You may wonder: Are all types of sunflower seeds the same? What's the difference between black and striped sunflower seeds? And what is the difference between sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts?

This article answers those questions.

You will learn that there are three types of sunflower seeds to offer birds at the feeder: black oil sunflower seeds, striped sunflower seeds, and hulled sunflower seeds. There are different reasons to offer each type of these seeds.
  • Black oil sunflower seeds are best for attracting most seed-eating finches, sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches.
  • Striped sunflower seeds are best for attracting larger cardinals and grosbeaks while also discouraging starlings, house sparrows, and cowbirds.
  • Hulled sunflower seeds are best for attracting many types of birds while leaving no mess behind!

Photo of male Black-headed Grosbeak on bird feeder
Black-headed Grosbeak eating sunflower seeds
Photo by Greg Gillson

Black oil sunflower seeds for birds


At your backyard bird feed store you will no doubt see black oil sunflower seeds offered for sale as bird food. Is it any good? Yes it is! Birds love black oil sunflower seed!

What is black oil sunflower seed?


This sunflower seed is exactly as the name would suggest. The hull (also called the shell or husk) is colored solid black on the outside. The kernel contains nutritious fatty acids (linoleic acid) necessary for both human and bird health. The oil of this sunflower is used for cooking oil and as a base for some cosmetics.

These seeds are a bit smaller than the striped sunflower seeds used for human snacks.

Black oil sunflower seeds sold as bird food is not as "clean" as food for human consumption. Some people complain that these seeds sometimes contain dirt, stems, or stones. These non-edible items can sometimes block the feeding ports of tube feeders. Some consumers feel that different brands of bird seed have less non-seed items than others. However, they probably have little control over quality as bird seed providers buy bulk seed from a limited number of growers.

Why feed birds black oil sunflower seeds?


Seed eating birds love black oil sunflower seeds! The hulls are rather thin compared to striped sunflower seeds. The seeds are a bit smaller. This makes it easier for small birds to extract the kernels from the hull.

Birds prefer black oil sunflower seeds so much that they will often pick through mixed bird seed to eat just the sunflower seeds. Many birds toss other kinds of seeds away looking for the sunflowers. This is wasteful. So many people switch to feeding only black oil sunflower seeds in tube or hopper feeders. Then they offer mixed birdseed in tray feeders where birds can pick through the seeds to find the ones they want.

Birds eat the internal hearts of the sunflower seed. They dispose of the shell. They open the shell either by chewing or by pounding them open with their bill.

Which birds eat black oil sunflower seeds?


Nearly all birds that come to your feeder eat and prefer black oil sunflower seeds. All finches, goldfinches, sparrows, grosbeaks, towhees, cardinals and buntings love black oil sunflower seeds. They sit on your feeder and chew them open. They drop the shells out the sides of their mouth, but grab the kernel with their tongue and swallow them.

Chickadees and nuthatches and titmouses grab seeds one at a time and take them away. Because they can't move their mouth sideways to chew, they pound open sunflower seeds on a branch to reach the edible seed hearts.

Mourning Doves, jays, starlings, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and English house sparrows (not related to native North American sparrows), gobble them up too. In fact, these birds may quickly eat up these sunflower seeds. But these birds don't feed as well at tube feeders. Thus, offering black oil sunflower seeds in tube feeders often reduces the amount of seed these "less-desirable" birds eat.

Squirrels also love black oil sunflower seeds. Special squirrel-resistant bird feeders keep the squirrels from taking over the bird feeder and slow down consumption.

How much do black oil sunflower seeds cost?


Sunflower seeds for birds are generally sold in bags ranging from 5 to 50 pounds. The larger bulk you buy, the less expensive it is. In May 2020, the best price on Amazon for 40 pounds of black oil sunflower seeds is $40.95, which is $1.02.

Here are my research results:

Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $21.99 $23.56 $4.40 to $4.71
10 pounds $24.00 $32.69 $2.40 to $3.27
20 pounds $29.15 $34.99 $1.46 to $1.75
40 pounds $40.95 $63.50 $1.02 to $2.05

Walmart indicates there is a 40 pound bag available at my nearby store for $28.00. Now that's a great deal!

Striped sunflower seeds for birds


Striped sunflower seeds are the same ones that people eat. But those offered to birds aren't salted and aren't as clean as those for human consumption. Birds like them, but not as much as black oil sunflower seeds.

What are striped sunflower seeds?


All sunflower seeds are from the same species of sunflower plant. But they have been bred for different purposes. Wild sunflowers have several heads. Domesticated varieties have a single head. Some are very tall. Some are grown for the beautiful flower itself. Others are grown for cooking oil and bird and animal feed. The striped variety is grown for human consumption, but also some bird seeds.

The striped sunflower seeds are larger than the black oil sunflower seeds. They are familiar as the gray and black striped snack food. They are also called confection sunflower seeds.

Why feed birds striped Sunflower seeds?


Not all seed eating birds like striped sunflower seeds. Not only are the seeds larger, they are thicker and harder to open. This presents some opportunity for this seed to discriminate against some birds.

The reason you would feed birds striped sunflower seeds is to keep pest birds from gobbling all the sunflower seeds down and taking over the feeders.

House Sparrows can be troublesome pests at some feeders. Switching to striped sunflower seeds can reduce their impact. Cowbirds can sometimes be a nuisance during certain seasons of the year, depending upon how far north or south you live. They have more trouble eating these seeds than the black oil type.

You still might want to feed black oil sunflower seeds at tube feeders for the smaller birds. Larger birds may have trouble perching on small tube feeders. Then feed the striped sunflowers at the platform or hopper feeders.

Which birds eat striped sunflower seeds?


Due to the larger size and thicker hull of striped sunflower seeds, many smaller birds have trouble opening and eating them. It's just too much work.

In fact, these seeds are harder for starlings, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and English house sparrows to eat. Even squirrels may not eat as many striped sunflower seeds. These seeds slow them down and make them look for something easier. If you have trouble with these feeder "pests" you may want to switch to striped sunflowers.

Of course, this means that goldfinches, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and smaller sparrows and finches do not prefer these seeds. They will eat them, but will go for any black oil sunflower seeds first, if any are present.

The birds that like these striped sunflower seeds are the big-billed seed eaters: cardinals, grosbeaks, towhees.

How much do striped sunflower seeds cost?


Striped sunflower seeds are priced about the same as black oil seeds. But there doesn't seem to be as wide a variety of different sizes.

Below is a table for the range for such seeds at Amazon in May 2020. The best price on Amazon for striped sunflower seeds is 25 pounds for $24.98, which is $1.00 per pound. This is the same price per pound as the best price for black oil sunflower seed.

Here are my results from today, mid May 2020:

Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $15.99 $18.25 $3.20 to $3.65
20 pounds
$43.14 $2.16
25 pounds $24.98 $55.00 $1.00 to $2.20
50 pounds
$79.99 $1.60

My local Walmart is out of stock on striped sunflower seeds today. However they do sell a 25 pound bag for $39.28 and a 50 pound bag for $57.67. Those aren't exceptionally good prices.

Hulled sunflower seeds


Hulled, dehulled, shelled, or shell-less. How can these words all mean the same thing? But they do! Birds love these sunflower seeds, too.

What are hulled sunflower seeds?


Hulled sunflower seeds have had their husks mechanically removed. That leaves only the wholly-edible kernel of the seed.

The kernel is also called the heart or meat. If the kernels are broken, then the pieces of broken seeds may be called chips. Sometimes whole kernels are called coarse chips, kernel halves are graded as medium chips, and small broken pieces are called fine chips.

I haven't seen anything directly on this, but I believe that hulled sunflower seeds are made from striped sunflowers and not black oil sunflowers. If I find out any different in the future I will update this paragraph.

Why feed birds hulled sunflowers?


The largest benefit of hulled sunflowers is that they are entirely edible. When the birds eat them there is no mess made by the shells. There are no shells. [At the end of this article I link to an article I wrote on how to feed birds without the mess. You may like to learn of other no-mess foods to feed birds.]

The shells, or hulls, of sunflowers can be quite messy as birds drop these in or below the feeder. These shells have a natural biochemical substance that inhibits growth of most plants (if interested, see Wikipedia explanation of allelopathy). So the area below the feeder often turns to mud or moldy shells in winter, with any former lawn killed. Spilled sunflower seeds often sprout, too.

Which birds eat hulled sunflower seeds?


Seed eating birds that like eating other seeds are also likely to eat hulled sunflower seeds. In addition, smaller-billed sparrows like Dark-eyed Juncos as well as small goldfinches may have trouble with sunflower seeds in the shell. They will appreciate these easier-to-eat sunflower seed kernels or chips.

From what I've seen, though, House Finches prefer black oil sunflower seeds in the shell over hulled sunflower seeds (which may be from striped sunflowers). This may be true of some other birds, too.

Wrens, winter warblers, chickadees, nuthatches, as well as sparrows, grosbeaks, finches, towhees and other seed-eating birds will eat hulled sunflowers.

This winter a Black Phoebe regularly ate from my hulled sunflower feeder! These flycatchers are only supposed to eat insects.

Of course, since it is so easy for birds to eat these seeds, some birds could really eat a lot! This would include mourning doves, jays, starlings, blackbirds, house sparrows and other big eaters. If you do offer hulled sunflower seeds you may have to ration it out each day!

One problem with hulled sunflower seeds, especially the broken chips, is that they mush up when wet or damp. So you will need to clean out your feeder more often than whole sunflower seeds in the shell. This is another reason to limit the amount of seed you put out at one time.

How much do hulled sunflower seeds cost?


Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive than sunflower seeds in the shell. Or are they?

Lets see what I found in mid-May 2020. The best price on Amazon for hulled sunflower seeds is 25 pounds for $35.69, which is $1.43 per pound.


Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $15.99 $20.26 $3.20 to $4.05
10 pounds $24.94 $25.49 $2.49 to $2.55
25 pounds $35.69 $58.44 $1.43 to $2.34
50 pounds $72.99 $94.99 $1.46 to $1.90

My local Walmart only carries a couple of options for hulled sunflower seeds ("sunflower hearts and chips"). The best price is an 8 pound bag for $16.93, or $2.12 per pound. Not a great deal.

Hulled sunflower seeds are less expensive than they may first appear. Why?

Up to 30% of the weight of sunflower seeds is the inedible shell (source). The best price for sunflower seeds in the shell (black oil or striped) is about $1.00 per pound. The best price for hulled sunflower seeds is $1.43 per pound. That's about 40% more. So, really, after removing the shell, it's only about 15% more by weight to have the no mess, no waste, hulled sunflower seeds.


How do they get the hulls off the sunflower seeds? With this noisy shaking machine!



Now you know that not all sunflower seeds are the same. Birds really love sunflower seeds, but different types. There is one best sunflower seed for the birds you want to attract to your yard. Make sure you have the proper kind of sunflower seeds at your bird feeder!



Please read my other articles on birdseed: 

Kinds of bird seeds that attract the most birds

Feeding birds without the mess



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