Be Your Own Birder

The Most Versatile Birdseed

When you want to feed birds in your yard, it can be confusing to see all the different types of seed, seed blends, specialized mixes, and other foods available. Which ones do you need? Which are best for different birds? Which are most economical for your bird feeding budget? The same seed is the answer to all three questions.

Mixed Birdseed
Mixed Birdseed – Photo by Mr ATM

Types of Birdseed

There are many different types of birdseed to choose from, and all of them will indeed feed hungry birds.

  • Millet – Finches and buntings love these small, pale seeds.
  • Nyjer – These oil-rich, black, thin seeds are a favorite of finches, redpolls, and siskins.
  • Safflower – These large, white seeds are bitter but loved by cardinals and buntings.
  • Milo – A BB-sized, carb-rich seed, milo is great for doves, grackles, and quail.

In addition to these popular seeds, other foods like peanuts, cracked corn, wheat, suet, nectar, fruit, and mealworms can all be part of a bird feeding buffet. But in terms of seed, which one is the very best to offer to the most birds?

One Seed All Birds Like

Black oil sunflower seed is the top choice among birds and birders alike. These seeds have a good balance of oil-rich calories for abundant energy as well as fat, fiber, and protein for good nutrition. They’re a medium-sized seed, perfect for a wide range of bird species, and the shells are thin enough so birds with different bill shapes don’t have too much difficulty breaking into them. At the same time, the shells are thick enough that the seeds are protected from moisture, and they won’t mold or rot very quickly.

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds - Photo by oatsy40
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds – Photo by oatsy40

All sorts of birds will flock to black oil sunflower seed, including cardinals, finches, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens, grosbeaks, catbirds, bushtits, buntings, sparrows, jays, and so many more. This one seed can bring a diverse flock to any birder’s yard, and is well worth offering at all feeding stations.

Types of Sunflower Seed

It has to be noted that black oil isn’t the only type of sunflower seed available. Striped sunflower seed is another common option, but it is significantly different than the more versatile black oil sunflower seed. The seeds tend to be larger with slightly thicker shells, and therefore aren’t as friendly for smaller birds like titmice and chickadees – though these tenacious birds will still work hard to enjoy the seeds all the same! But black oil is a better option for smaller birds, while jays, cardinals, and other larger birds with sturdier bills enjoy striped sunflower just as much.

Striped Sunflower Seed - Photo by David Swart
Striped Sunflower Seed – Photo by David Swart

Hulled sunflower seed is another option. This is the heart of the sunflower seed, with the shell removed. Both black oil and striped sunflower seed can be converted to hulled sunflower seed – also called sunflower hearts, or if broken up, sunflower chips. The extra work to remove the shells, however, makes this seed more expensive, and because the seeds no longer have their protective shells, they are more susceptible to mold, fungus, and other spoilage. Many birds will quickly gobble up hulled sunflower seed, however, and it’s easy for all birds to enjoy since they don’t need to extract the seeds themselves.

Sunflower Hearts
Sunflower Hearts – Photo by David Harris

How to Offer Sunflower Seed

Downy Woodpecker With Sunflower Seed - Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS
Downy Woodpecker With Sunflower Seed – Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS

Sunflower seed’s medium size and tapered shape makes it ideal to offer in a range of feeder styles. All hopper feeders can hold sunflower seed, or it can be offered in tube feeders that have larger feeding ports (not the very thin, skinny ports meant just for Nyjer seed). Mesh feeders can hold sunflower seed, and it’s easy to add sunflower seed to an open platform, tray, or dish feeder. Sunflower seed can even be sprinkled on the ground without any feeder at all, and it’s easy to add sunflower seeds into homemade suet cakes to add to cage feeders.

Because whole sunflower seed is protected in its own shell, it can be added to exposed feeders that may get rained on, though it is best if the seed is kept dry to minimize the risk of mold. If the feeder is broadly open and can dry out quickly with a breeze, such as a platform or mesh feeder, that can be suitable, otherwise it is best to use baffles or covers to keep seed – sunflower seed and other types of seed – as dry as possible.

Growing Sunflower Seed

Another great benefit of sunflower seed is that it is easy to grow, even for beginners, non-gardeners, or anyone whose thumb isn’t any shade of green. In fact, some birds even grow sunflower seed themselves from seeds they bury in the yard!

To grow sunflower seed, choose seeds right from your favorite birdseed mix, or buy a packet of sunflower seeds. If you do buy a packet, be sure it is a sunflower hybrid that will produce seeds – some sunflower cultivars are developed for more colorful blooms or specific heights, and may not produce abundant seeds.

Field of Sunflowers - Photo by Esther van Dijk
Field of Sunflowers – Photo by Esther van Dijk

Sunflower seeds can be planted in a flowerbed, along a fence line, or in a container. Simply sprinkle the seeds or push them into the dirt, making sure they’re covered with 1-2 inches of soil. Sunflowers will grow best in full sun, so take that into account when choosing where to plant the seeds. They can thrive in nearly any type of soil, and fertilizing is not necessary.

Water the seeds, and keep the soil watered daily until the seedlings appear and are well-established. After that, water the plants every other day, and skip watering when Mother Nature provides adequate rain. In very hot or dry climates, seeds might need extra watering, but the plants will let you know – sunflower leaves droop quickly when they need water, and they recover just as quickly once they get a drink.

Tall Sunflower - Photo by Heather Spaulding
Tall Sunflower – Photo by Heather Spaulding

These plants will grow quickly, and the tallest varieties might need a stake to stay upright. This is especially true if the plants might be subject to high winds or rough storms that can knock them over. As the flower heads mature and seeds develop, the weight of the heads can also cause the plants to tip and staking or other supports can be helpful.

Staggering sunflower seed plantings is a great way to ensure an ongoing supply of seed, and in just a few weeks, the first sunflower seeds will develop and be ripe for hungry birds. In fact, many birds may nibble at sunflower seeds before they’re fully ripe, and there’s no need to harvest the seeds to feed birds – birds will pluck seeds right off the plants themselves! Full flower heads can be cut from the stalks and added to tray feeders, tied to a fence or post, or just tucked into a tree crook for birds to enjoy. Store extra heads in cool, dark places out of reach of rodents so birds can enjoy them at different times. With a good crop, you may never buy sunflower seed again, and next year’s supply can come from the seeds you’ve grown this year.

Sunflower seeds are so valuable to so many birds, and so easy to grow, there’s no reason why every birder can’t have a sunny crop of their own and enjoy all the birds that seedy sunshine will bring.

Black Oil Sunflower Seed - Photo by Valdemar Fishmen
Black Oil Sunflower Seed – Photo by Valdemar Fishmen

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