Any type of sunflower seed is great to feed birds, but for ease, saving money, and happy birds, hulled sunflower seeds are the best option. Understanding why these seeds are ideal for birds and how to offer them appropriately at feeders can help birders add them to any backyard buffet.
Hulled Sunflower Seeds
All sunflower seeds are from the sunflower plant, Helianthus annus, and hulled seeds are the same as striped or black oil sunflower seeds, just without the hard, inedible shell. Also called sunflower hearts or cracked sunflower seeds, these seeds are a superior source of fat, fiber, protein, and vitamins, providing excellent nutrition for all backyard birds. In addition to whole hulled sunflower seeds, these seeds are often available in chips or pieces: broken or semi-crushed seeds that are even easier for small birds to eat. Though hulled seeds are the same nutritionally as any other sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower has several additional benefits that sunflower seeds in the shell do not have, such as:
- No wasted energy removing the hull, making this a more fuel-efficient seed for winter bird feeding
- No discarded hulls to clean up under bird feeders or around feeding areas
- Easier for small birds such as finches to eat, as their bills are not as powerful for opening thick hulls
- Sprouting of discarded or spilled seeds is very rare
The most obvious disadvantage of hulled sunflower seeds is their price, and they are often more expensive than whole seeds because of the labor necessary to remove the shells. Birders need to look at the price in more detail; however, birdseed is typically sold by weight, and by purchasing hulled seeds, they are not paying for the weight of shells that will not be eaten. The convenience of this no-waste seed and the other benefits it provides more than compensate for the higher cost for many birders.
Birds That Eat Sunflower Seeds
Just as any sunflower seed is popular with a wide range of bird species, there are dozens of species that will happily eat hulled sunflower seeds. Birds that regularly feast on hulled sunflower hearts or chips include:
- American goldfinches
- Black-capped chickadees
- Black-headed grosbeaks
- Carolina wrens
- Downy woodpeckers
- Hairy woodpeckers
- House finches
- Mourning doves
- Pine grosbeaks
- Pine siskins
- Red-bellied woodpeckers
- Red-breasted nuthatches
- Tufted titmice
- White-breasted nuthatches
- White-throated sparrows
This list is by no means complete; most birds that will visit feeders will at least sample hulled sunflower seeds, and once they realize how easy the seeds are to eat, they may quickly empty feeders and return eagerly whenever the feeders are refilled.
How to Feed
Because hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive, it is best to offer them in feeders that have some protection from bully birds or voracious eaters, and many birders prefer not to offer these pricey seeds in open platform feeders. Large hopper feeders are ideal, but the feeders should be covered to protect the seed from moisture since without their shells these seeds can spoil more quickly than other types of sunflower seeds. Tube feeders with large feeding ports can also accommodate hulled sunflower seeds and may be a better option for yards with squirrels, as the tube feeders are more difficult for these pesky critters to access. Additional baffles and other techniques to make feeders squirrel-resistant can be useful when offering hulled sunflower seeds to ensure the seeds go to the birds rather than to other hungry wildlife.
Hulled sunflower seeds naturally have an oilier surface than seeds in the shell, and can begin to spoil more quickly in very hot temperatures. The oil can also accumulate on feeders, necessitating regular checks to ensure the seed is flowing freely to feeding ports and has not become clumped or sticky. More frequent cleanings may also be necessary for feeders where hulled seeds are offered exclusively.
Sunflower Seeds for Humans
Sunflower seeds that are incorporated into trail mixes or offered for humans may be great, high energy snacks for birders, but they are not typically appropriate to feed to birds. Seeds treated for human consumption are often heavily salted or coated with other flavors or seasonings that are unhealthy for birds but could be carefully rinsed in clean water to remove the seasonings and allowed to dry in a thin layer, then fed to birds. This is not recommended for long-term feeding, however, since the seeds for humans are even more expensive than raw, hulled sunflower seeds intended for birds and even with diligent rinsing all the seasonings cannot be fully removed. Under no circumstances should candy-coated or chocolate-coated sunflower seeds be fed to birds.
Hulled sunflower seeds are a nutritious, convenient food to offer birds, and can make bird feeding easier for birders who prefer low-maintenance foods for birds that do not leave piles of discarded hulls behind. Just as hulled sunflower seeds are preferred by dozens of bird species, birders who discover the ease of feeding sunflower hearts will also soon come to prefer these seeds.