Growing sunflowers is easy and inexpensive and, as most bird-lovers know, sunflower seeds make great bird food. With a bit of planning and some care while your sunflowers are ripening, you can easily harvest dozens of sunflower heads bulging with seeds that backyard birds will appreciate. Carefully saving the seeds can provide a rich supply of winter bird food that is ideal for all types of visiting birds, just when they need good nutrition the most. Plus, if you save a few individual seeds for the following spring, you can be sure of another great harvest and an ongoing supply of nutritious, attractive, inexpensive food for your birds.
Protecting Unripe Seeds
You've spent all summer watching your sunflowers grow to amazing heights crowned with stunning blooms, and those blooms are beginning to turn into heavy seed crops. However, even though the seeds may have already formed, they are not necessarily ripe for harvesting right away, despite the presence of eager birds that nibble as soon as the seeds appear. To make the most of your sunflower seed crop, it's necessary to protect the seeds from sharp and hungry bills until they are ready to harvest. Cover the seeds to prevent the birds from eating them prematurely, choosing a cover that permits air circulation so the seeds can continue to ripen. Try one of these options:
- Stretch a pantyhose stocking over the sunflower heads.
- Wrap the heads with cheesecloth, flour sacks, or netting.
- Tie paper bags loosely over the blooms with twine. Avoid tying the bags so tightly that air cannot freely circulate around the bloom. Punch several small holes in the bags to ensure good airflow around the flower heads.
Do not use plastic bags because moisture will condense inside them, causing rot on the seeds. This makes the seeds less appealing and increases the risk of mold or fungus that can be dangerous to birds.
If you have more space, you might consider positioning netting over the entire sunflower bed or patch, using hoops or stakes to support the cover. Keep in mind that this netting must be fine enough to keep birds away from the plants, and it can be difficult to manage over a large patch or in areas with severe summer weather.
When to Harvest the Seeds
While birds won't mind eating unripe sunflower seeds—and they may even try a bite or two before you're able to protect the flower heads—ripe seeds have larger kernels with more calories and better nutrition. Several clues can help you determine when your sunflower seeds are ready to harvest:
- The back of the flower heads turn pale yellow, and the edges begin to brown.
- The seeds themselves, which are white at first, darken considerably.
- The soft ends of the buds on each seed dry up and fall off, exposing the full seed.
Of course, if birds are giving your sunflowers even more attention than they give your feeders, it's a good bet that the sunflower seeds are ripe for harvesting. Harvesting seeds is as easy as cutting off the flower heads, leaving 2 to 4 inches of stalk on each one. Until you are ready to feed the birds, store the heads in a dry area, such as a shed or garage, in a secure container away from mice or other pests. The drier the flower heads are, the easier it will be to extract the seeds, whether you want to do this yourself or let the birds handle that task.
Feeding the Birds
Many birders struggle with the idea of prying out the hundreds or thousands of seeds from each flower head to feed the birds, but there is no need. Birds' bills are ideally suited for extracting their seeds. The easiest way to feed homegrown sunflower seeds to birds is to set out the whole, dried sunflower heads on a tray or platform feeder and let the birds enjoy it.
You can also use the end of the stalk to poke through a fence or trellis to hang the sunflower heads for the birds to feed on. For the very largest, broadest sunflower heads, consider wrapping string or twine around them and hanging them, seed side up, for an impromptu hanging platform feeder. After birds have eaten all the seeds, you can sprinkle mixed birdseed on the empty sunflower head, and the small seed pockets will hold the mixed seed securely, allowing birds to continue using the natural feeder.
If you want to loosen the seeds before putting flower heads out for the birds, rub your hand across the seeds in alternating circles (wearing heavy gloves will make this more comfortable). Some seeds may detach as you do this, but it is easy to save those seeds for replanting the next spring. Keep them in a small, labeled envelope or jar stored in a cool, dry place. If you replant the seeds, they may not have the exact qualities of your first crop, depending on the crossbreeding of the original seeds and any cross-pollination that took place to produce your first flowers.