There are different types of sunflower seeds, often named for the markings on their shell (black, striped, etc). However, they all come from the common sunflower plant, Helianthus annuus. If you are wondering what birds eat black sunflower seeds (also called black oil sunflower seeds due to their high fatty oil content), you have come to the right place. In this article we will discuss which backyard birds like black sunflower seeds, why they are a good seed choice, and other tips for using them in your feeders.
Let’s answer this question right off the bat: What birds eat black sunflower seeds? The quick answer is, most! Here is a short list of backyard birds that eat black sunflower seeds:
- Northern cardinals
- Tufted titmice and other tits
- Mourning doves
- Gray catbirds
- Blackbirds, Starlings and Grackles
- Pine siskins
That’s a pretty impressive list. Why do so many birds like black oil sunflower seeds? For one, the seeds are very nutritionally dense, which I will discuss more later on. However one of the big reasons is the shell or “hull”. Black oil sunflower seeds have very thin shells, and this makes them easy for almost any seed-eating bird to crack open. The other common variety of sunflower seeds, the striped sunflower, has a much thicker shell and birds with smaller or softer beaks aren’t easy able to crack them open.
Yes absolutely! Sunflower seeds are a great source of nutrition for birds. Generally speaking, a 100 gram serving of dried sunflower seeds is composed of 5% water, 20% carbs, 51% total fat (in the form of oil) and 21% protein. Rich in dietary fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, iron and zinc. The fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which if you’re food conscious you may recognize as the “healthy fats”. This high source of fat is especially helpful in the fall and winter months as birds try to consume extra calories to keep warm. This same fatty oil will also help keep their feathers glossy and shiny, helping them to stay insulated against cold and damp.
What are the pros and cons of black sunflower seeds?
- High quality, Low Price: as a nutritious food, the price for these is often very affordable for a large quantity.
- Attracts Wide Range of birds: Black oil sunflower seeds are probably the #1 seed for attracting the widest variety of backyard birds to your feeder.
- High in fat and protein: Great nutrition means your birds will have the energy they need to make it through cold and wet weather.
- Can be used in a variety of feeders: the relatively small size of black sunflower seeds means it fits in most types of feeders including tube feeders, hopper feeders and platform feeders.
- Can be messy: because birds have to remove the shell to get to the sunflower seed meat, you end up with piles of shell casings all over the ground.
- Attracts Squirrels: squirrels also love sunflower seeds so if they are in your yard they are going to persistently try and get this seed. (For help see our article on keeping squirrels away from your feeders)
- Attracts unfavorable “bully” birds: Many people don’t want grackles and starlings at their feeders, but they love this type of seed too. (For help with this see our article on keeping starlings out of your feeders)
- Can kill grass and plants: The shells produce biochemicals that can kill grass and garden plants. More on this below.
What to look for when buying black oil sunflower seeds
Like any other type of food, there are moderate and high quality varieties. Any bag of black sunflower seed you buy will be perfectly fine for the birds. However, if you are interested in making sure you are getting a higher quality item here are a few things you can look for when purchasing the seeds.
- Debris: depending on how the seeds are processed and how much care is taken at the processing facility, some bags can come with a lot of twigs, small wood chips, or lot of empty shell casings. The twigs can sometimes be problematic in clogging up feeder ports. Also, who wants to pay for twigs and empty shells? Most bags of seeds are transparent so you can visually make an assessment of how clean and intact the product looks.
- Nutrition: most good bags of seed will have a breakdown of the nutrition content of the seeds. With black sunflowers, you should be able to get at least 30% fat and 12% protein. I would recommend taking a look to make sure your seeds meet those minimums and anything above that, all the better. It means your birds will get more fuel from your food.
Best place to buy black oil sunflower seeds
We normally recommend Amazon for black sunflower seed. They have some of the lowest prices on bird seeds of all types and their customer service is great. Here’s a 20 pound bag of sunflower seed on Amazon.
How to Keep Black Sunflower Seeds from Killing your Grass
The hulls, or shells, of sunflower seeds contain naturally occurring biochemicals that are toxic to grasses and most garden plants. Some plants, such as the day lily, are not affected. However the vast majority are. If you have a sunflower feeder in one spot for a long time, and have let the shells accumulate on the ground, chances are you’ve noticed the grass or other native plants die off in that spot.
Many people don’t mind having a bit of a bare patch underneath their feeder. You can even go ahead and put paving stones instead of grass directly beneath feeders. However if you want to prevent nearby grass and plant die-off while still feeding black sunflower seeds, here are two tips:
Use a Seed Catcher: you can attach a seed catching dish/tray underneath your feeders to limit the amount of shells that make it to the ground. There are a few types you can try.
- A tray that attached to your feeder pole such as this Seed Buster Seed Tray by Brome.
- A tray that attaches to and hangs under a bird feeder like this Songbird Essentials Seed Hoop.
- You can purchase a tube feeder that has a built in attachment for a seed tray like this Droll Yankees Hanging Tube Feeder with attachable platform seed catcher. Ground feeding birds will likely enjoy sitting on this tray and eating the scraps. I had a similar Droll Yankees feeder and tray, and doves loved to park themselves in it!
Avoid the shells altogether by buying shelled sunflower seed hearts. This is a bag of sunflower seeds with the shells already removed. This costs more than the seeds with shells, but may be worth it depending on your situation. Also please note: removing the shells means the seeds will spoil quicker, so only put out as much as the birds will eat in about three days time.