How to Choose Sunflower Seeds for Birds

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Serve sunflower seeds if you want to attract more birds to your yard. But do you know how to choose the best kind of sunflower seeds for birds?

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Nuthatch eating black oil sunflower seeds

Sunflower Seeds for Birds

Fill your favorite backyard bird feeder with sunflower seeds and wait for birds with cone-shaped bills to swoop in for lunch. Birds like northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks and purple finches have thick, short beaks designed for breaking open seeds with ease. Here’s how to choose the best sunflower seeds for birds.

Black Oil Sunflower Seed

Heap of Black sunflower seeds isolated on white backgroundYevgen Romanenko/Getty Images

Sunflower seeds are an ideal snack for many birds. There are two types of commercial sunflower seeds. Oil seed (known as black-oil sunflower seed to backyard birders) is small, black and processed for sunflower oil. Black-oil sunflower seed is the pizza of bird food: Nearly everyone in the backyard will enjoy it. It’s an ideal option if you have space for only one feeder. These seeds have fatty meat and a thin shell for easy feasting. A seed preference test performed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology showed that the majority of feeder birds prefer high-fat black-oil sunflower seed. It’s simple to serve, too—spread it right on the ground or fill up a tube, tray or hopper feeder. The seed is popular with most birds that winter in the northern regions and is typically easy to find in feed stores or even grocery stores.

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Striped Sunflower Seed

handful of whole sunflower seeds closeup on whiteKrimKate/Getty Images

Non-oil seed is larger, black and-white striped and used in food. These are the same kinds of seeds you may eat as a healthy snack—but make sure they’re unsalted and unseasoned if you want to share with your feathered friends. Striped sunflower seeds are hearty but tougher to crack. Because the seeds are less fragile than black oil sunflower, birds may have a harder time cracking them open easily.

With both of these types of seeds, sunflower seed shells may collect on the ground under your feeders, and there’s no need to remove them right away. Many birds are more comfortable feeding on the ground, and they’ll rummage through the shells looking for morsels that other birds have missed. But if the debris is more than an inch or two deep, you should remove it and add it to your compost pile, since it can get moldy or spread diseases.

Check out 9 foods you should never feed to birds.

Sunflower Hearts and Chips

Close-Up Of Sunflower Seeds Against White BackgroundGermano Poli / EyeEm/Getty Images

If you’re trying to attract birds to a balcony or if you just don’t want the mess of seed shells on your lawn and garden, sunflower seed hearts or chips (small pieces) might be a better choice for you. You may also attract birds like wrens that have trouble cracking open seeds. There’s no waste, and birds don’t have to use extra energy to get to the food.

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What Birds Eat Sunflower Seeds?

titmouse eating sunflower seedCourtesy Brian Hendrix
Tufted titmouse eating black oil sunflower seed.

Next, discover 10 foods you aren’t feeding birds yet.

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Lori Vanover
Lori Vanover is the senior digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor's degree in agricultural and environmental communications from the University of Illinois. Lori enjoys growing vegetables and flowers for pollinators in her backyard gardens. She also is an avid bird-watcher.