Black oil sunflower seeds

Feeding Birds: a Quick Guide to Seed Types

Photo by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab.

The seed that attracts the widest variety of birds, and so the mainstay for most backyard bird feeders, is sunflower. Other varieties of seed can help attract different types of birds to round out your backyard visitors. In general, mixtures that contain red millet, oats, and other “fillers” are not attractive to most birds and can lead to a lot of waste as the birds sort through the mix.

Here’s our quick guide to seed types, including:

  • Sunflower
  • Safflower
  • Nyjer or thistle
  • White proso millet
  • Shelled and cracked corn
  • Peanuts
  • Milo or sorghum
  • Golden millet, red millet, flax, and others
  • Rapeseed and canary seed


There are two kinds of sunflower—black oil and striped. The black oil seeds (“oilers”) have very thin shells, easy for virtually all seed-eating birds to crack open, and the kernels within have a high fat content, extremely valuable for most winter birds. Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell, much harder for House Sparrows and blackbirds to crack open. So if you’re inundated with species you’d rather not subsidize at your black oil sunflower, before you do anything else, try switching to striped sunflower.

People living in apartments or who have trouble raking up seed shells under their feeders often offer shelled sunflower. Many birds love this, as of course do squirrels, and it’s expensive. Without the protection of the shell, sunflower hearts and chips quickly spoil, and can harbor dangerous bacteria, so it’s important to offer no more than can be eaten in a day or two.

Sunflower is very attractive to squirrels, a problem for people who don’t wish to subsidize them. Some kinds of squirrel baffles, and some specialized feeders, are fairly good at excluding them. Sunflower in the shell can be offered in a wide variety of feeders, including trays, tube feeders, hoppers, and acrylic window feeders. Sunflower hearts and chips shouldn’t be offered in tube feeders where moisture can collect.


Safflower has a thick shell, hard for some birds to crack open, but is a favorite among cardinals. Some grosbeaks, chickadees, doves, and native sparrows also eat it. According to some sources, House Sparrows, European Starlings, and squirrels don’t like safflower, but in some areas seem to have developed a taste for it.

Cardinals and grosbeaks tend to prefer tray and hopper feeders, which makes these feeders a good choice for offering safflower.

Goldfinches on thistle socks. Photo by Sarah Maclean/PFW.

Nyjer or thistle

Small finches including American Goldfinches, Lesser Goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, Pine Siskins, and Common Redpolls often devour these tiny, black, needle-like seeds. As invasive thistle plants became a recognized problem in North America, suppliers shifted to a daisy-like plant, known as Guizotia abyssinica, that produces a similar type of small, oily, rich seed. The plant is now known as niger or nyjer, and is imported from overseas. The seeds are heat-sterilized during importation to limit their chance of spreading while retaining their food value.

White proso millet

White millet is a favorite with ground-feeding birds including quails, native American sparrows, doves, towhees, juncos, and cardinals. Unfortunately it’s also a favorite with cowbirds and other blackbirds and House Sparrows, which are already subsidized by human activities and supported at unnaturally high population levels by current agricultural practices and habitat changes. When these species are present, it’s wisest to not use millet; virtually all the birds that like it are equally attracted to black oil sunflower.

Because white millet is so preferred by ground-feeding birds, it’s often scattered on the ground—an excellent practice as long as no more is set out than birds can eat in a day. Low-set tray feeders with excellent drainage can be a very good choice for white millet, too.

Shelled and cracked corn

Corn is eaten by grouse, pheasants, turkeys, quails, cardinals, grosbeaks, crows, ravens, jays, doves, ducks, cranes, and other species. Unfortunately, corn has two serious problems. First, it’s a favorite of House Sparrows, cowbirds, starlings, geese, bears, raccoons, and deer—none of which should be subsidized by us. Second, corn is the bird food most likely to be contaminated with aflatoxins, which are extremely toxic even at low levels. Never buy corn in plastic bags, never allow it to get wet, never offer it in amounts that can’t be consumed in a day during rainy or very humid weather, and be conscientious about raking up old corn.

Never offer corn covered in a red dye. Corn intended for planting is often treated with fungicides, marked with red dye as a warning. It is highly toxic to humans, livestock, and all birds.

Never offer buttered popcorn or any kind of microwave popcorn. Popped corn spoils quickly.

Corn should be offered in fairly small amounts at a time on tray feeders. Don’t offer it in tube feeders that could harbor moisture.


Peanuts are very popular with jays, crows, chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, and many other species, but are also favored by squirrels, bears, raccoons, and other animals that should not be subsidized. Like corn, peanuts have a high likelihood of harboring aflatoxins, so must be kept dry and used up fairly quickly.

Peanuts in the shell can be set out on platform feeders or right on a deck railing or window feeder as a special treat for jays, if they reach them before the squirrels do. If peanuts or mixtures of peanuts and other seeds are offered in tube feeders, make sure to change the seed frequently, especially during rainy or humid weather, completely emptying out and cleaning the tube every time.

Milo or sorghum

Milo is a favorite with many Western ground-feeding birds. On Cornell Lab of Ornithology seed preference tests, Steller’s Jays, Curve-billed Thrashers, and Gambel’s Quails preferred milo to sunflower. In another study, House Sparrows did not eat milo, but cowbirds did.

Milo should be scattered on the ground or on low tray feeders. Stop offering it if you’re subsidizing cowbirds.

Golden millet, red millet, flax, and others

These seeds are often used as fillers in packaged birdseed mixes, but most birds shun them. Waste seed becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus, contaminating fresh seed more quickly. Make sure to read the ingredients list on birdseed mixtures, avoiding those with these seeds. In particular, if a seed mix has a lot of small, red seeds, make sure they’re milo or sorghum, not red millet.

Rapeseed and canary seed

These two seed types don’t offer much over the more widespread seeds. A few birds do eat rapeseed, including quails, doves, finches, and juncos. If you’re not getting these, the rapeseed will be left to spoil. Canary seed is very popular with House Sparrows and cowbirds—birds that many people would prefer not to attract. Other species that eat canary seed are equally happy with sunflower, so this is a better all-around choice.

Learn About Black Oil Sunflowers And Black Sunflower Seeds

By: Bonnie L. Grant

Sunflowers provide some of the cheeriest blooms. They come in a wide range of heights and bloom sizes as well as colors. The giant flower head is actually two separate parts. The inside is the cluster of flowers, while the larger colored “petals” on the outside are actually protective leaves. The flowers in the center turn into seed when the plant is almost done for the season. Black oil sunflower seeds are the favorite for feeding wild birds and for making sunflower oil.

Types of Sunflower Seeds

There are two kinds of sunflowers grown commercially: oil seed sunflowers and confection sunflowers.

Oil seed flowers are grown for oil production and bird seed. Sunflower oil is low in saturated fats and doesn’t have a strong taste. It is growing in popularity due to its heart healthy reputation.

Confection sunflowers produce seeds that are large gray and black striped seeds that are sold for snacks. They are sold either in the shell, roasted or salted, or shelled for salads and baking. Numerous varieties are used for confection seeds but primarily the Black Peredovic sunflower is grown for oil seed.

Black Peredovik Sunflowers

Usually sunflower seed is a mixture of colors and some are striped. The black sunflower seeds hold the most oil and the Russian cultivar, Black Peredovik sunflower, are oil seed sunflowers used the most. It was bred as a sunflower oil production crop. The Black Peredovik sunflower seeds are medium sized and deep black.

This black oil sunflower seed has more meat than a regular sunflower seed and the outer husk is softer so even smaller birds can crack into the seed. It is rated the number one food for wild birds by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The high oil content in Black Peredovik sunflower seeds is important to birds in winter as they will spread the oil on their feathers, increasing buoyancy and keeping them dry and warm.

Other Black Oil Sunflower Seeds

When the sunflower head matures, the flowers become seeds. These sunflower seeds can be a variety of shades but having all black ones is rare.

The Red Sun sunflower cultivar has predominantly black seeds as does Valentine sunflower. There are always a few brown or striped sunflower seeds and these cultivars are not grown for oil as is the Black Peredovic sunflower.

Even the common or native sunflowers can produce black seeds mixed in with the other colors. These will go first if you leave the sunflower head out for food. Squirrels, rodents and birds will eat the black sunflower seeds before anything else due to the higher calorie and fat content.

As a farmer, you probably spend a good bit of time perusing the aisles of your local feed store. In fact, you may actually spend more time there than you want to, but during your visits you likely see all kind of fascinating items. One thing in particular of interest is black oil sunflower seeds. Although you may have seen the bag with wild birds on it, black oil sunflower seeds (also known as BOSS) are actually a versatile feed item that can benefit many types of livestock. As a matter of fact, sunflower seeds are a useful component in many animals’ diets and have multiple benefits.

Chickens in particular enjoy black oil sunflower seeds and there are many pros associated with their consumption. Whether fed as part of regular meals or given as treats, chickens will readily devour sunflower seeds, or even the whole sunflowers themselves if given the chance. Just remember that prior to introducing sunflower seeds to your flock that you purchase the variety marketed for wild birds; sunflower seeds with added seasonings intended for human consumption should not be given to chickens.

Once you introduce sunflower seeds to your chickens, there are many changes you will begin to see taking place. For starters, their outward physical appearance will begin to change. Since sunflower seeds contain oil, they are a great source of fat and will therefore add a little weight to birds. This is a good thing going into winter because this extra fat will translate into warmth when temperatures drop. Another physical change will come in the form of feathers. The very same oil that adds fat to their diet will make feathers glossy and shiny. This is important because the impact of this additional dietary item on feathers will help keep their bodies insulated against cold and dampness. Even if you do not wish to feed sunflower seeds all year, adding them to rations during fall and winter is quite helpful to birds living in cold climates.

It has also been said that black oil sunflower seeds play a large role in egg production. If you have hens that aren’t laying like they used to, try adding sunflower seeds to give them a productivity boost. You should not only see a boost in the number of eggs laid, but also the quality, making sunflower seeds a worthwhile addition to your chickens’ diet. Even if you don’t see a change in the egg production of older hens and ultimately decide to cull, you will see an increase in their weight beforehand.

If you do opt to add sunflowers to the diet of your laying hens, it is important to avoid going overboard. More is not necessarily better and sunflower seeds should not exceed 1/3 of a bird’s regular diet. That small amount truly is enough to make a world of difference, but not only to chickens. Cattle, horses, sheep, and other animals also both enjoy and benefit from sunflower seeds. You will notice things such as weight gain and shiny coats, but again, take care not to overfeed as sunflower seeds are rich in fiber and lignin which can amount to too much of a good thing.

In the event that you choose to add sunflower seeds to your farm animals’ diet, many feed retailers should have a bag readily available. The going price usually hovers around $20 for 20 pounds. This makes for a reasonably priced investment in healthy animals, not to mention delicious fresh eggs for your own breakfast as a tradeoff!

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There’s a big difference between growing sunflowers, and growing edible sunflower seeds. Most sunflowers you plant in the garden these days have been developed to produce stunning, long lasting flowers…but not much in the way of seeds.

Gardeners that want to harvest sunflower seeds need to be careful when selecting varieties, and you’ll need to beat the birds to your harvest.

A sunflower seedling just breaking through the soil. It’s easy enough to identify the seedlings, even without a label…

Growing Sunflowers from Seed

Generally, sunflower seeds are started directly in the garden. Sunflower seedlings can take a bit of frost, and it’s safe to plant them outdoors about 2 weeks before the last expected frost date. This can be handy if you have a short growing season like we do in here in Vermont. To germinate, sunflower seeds need soil temperatures of at least 55 degrees F, which is much colder than tender plants like tomatoes.

Sunflower seeds can also be started indoors, which is helpful for long season varieties. Some varieties of sunflower take 120 days to mature, which just won’t work in our 100-day growing season. To extend the season, start sunflowers indoors about 3-4 weeks early, and be sure to harden them off by taking them outside for during the day in a week or two before planting.

Sunflowers grow tap roots, and they can become stunted if they’re started indoors too early. Be very careful in handling the seedling if you start them indoors. Damaging the tap root means that your sunflower may never thrive. For best results, start them directly in the garden.

Growing Sunflower Plants

After successful germination, thin sunflower plants to at least a foot apart to give them room to thrive. Giant sunflower varieties, like you’ll find competing at your local fair, can reach 16 feet tall with the right conditions. At the Tunbridge Worlds Fair, I’ve seen 14-foot sunflower plants grown by kids here in Vermont, so you can grow them big even with a short growing season.

Sunflowers are relatively forgiving, and they are heat and drought tolerant. The one thing they cant take is waterlogged soils, so be sure you have good drainage. Ideally, they want 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day, and they love heat.

The soil for growing sunflowers isn’t too particular, but it needs to be deep. They send down long tap roots, so the soil should be loose at least 2 feet down. We have shallow soils, only about a foot deep in places, so we grow them in raised beds to give them a bit more growing space.

Sunflowers are also a bit sensitive to wind. With a tall growing stalk, high winds can break them and destroy their seed head. The stalk is resilient, but it can only take so much. If you live in a windy area, try growing them against a south-facing wall or fence for protection.

As far as pests go, birds, squirrels and deer are the biggest problems. Be sure they’re in a fenced area if you want to keep the animals away from them, or plant plenty, and feed the animals and yourself. Sunflowers are resistant to most diseases, but they’ll occasionally get worms in the blossoms. If you see any, just pick them out by hand.

Sunflower Varieties with Edible Seeds

These days, most sunflower varieties have been hybridized to produce showy flowers rather than seeds. There are even some pollen free sunflower varieties that are hybridized for use in wedding cut flowers so no one has an allergy attack.

That’s nice and all, but I think the seed producing varieties of sunflowers are beautiful and they also produce tasty seeds.

What kinds of sunflowers are best for eating?

  • Mammoth Grey Stripe – (Heirloom) Grows about 12 feet tall and produces seed heads up to 20 inches across. This is the most common backyard variety. (Seeds Here)
  • Mammoth Russian – (Heirloom) 12 to 15 feet tall with thin-shelled seeds. (Seeds Here)
  • Titan – (heirloom) I cant find any reference to exactly how tall this one gets, but it’s famous for particularly large flowers that grow up to 2 feet across. (Seeds Here)
  • Hopi Black Dye – (heirloom) an old heirloom. It has edible seeds, and the seed shells were used as a black dye by the Hopi Indians. The center of these sunflowers is particularly striking due to the very dark seeds. (Seeds Here)
  • Paul Bunyan – (Hybrid) Known for very tall plants. (Seeds Here)
  • Sunzilla – (Hybrid) This hybrid is one of the tallest varieties available, growing 16 feet tall and producing seed heads up to 2 feet across. (Seeds Here)

Short Sunflowers with Edible Seeds

Most of the traditional varieties are tall. Really tall. For more practical backyard sunflower seed growing, new short hybrids have been developed.

  • Royal – (Hybrid) 7 feet tall with impressive 8-inch flowers and high seed production. (Seeds Here)
  • Super Snack – (Hybrid) This plant produces one large 10-inch flower on a 5-foot tall plant. The seeds are especially easy to crack. (Seeds Here)

Harvesting Sunflower Seeds

Determining when sunflower seeds are ready for harvest can be tricky. Once the flower opens, it’ll be a long time before everything has been pollinated and seeds fully develop. The seeds are usually ready for harvest 30 to 45 days after the flower opens, but that depends a lot on the weather.

Sunflower seeds are ripe when the flower head turns from green to yellow and the seed head begins to brown. To test for ripeness, gently pry out a seed or two and give them a taste. If the sunflower seeds are ready for harvest, cut the flower stem a few inches below the seed head.

At this point, the seeds need to dry in a place where they’re protected from birds. Try wrapping the whole flower in a loose layer of cheesecloth and hanging it in a sheltered space with good air flow. Alternately, you can just hang them indoors. Once the seed heads are dry after a few weeks, gently pry the seeds out with your fingers or a fork.

Growing Sunflower Sprouts

Beyond just seeds, sunflower sprouts are a tasty sandwich topper. Organic markets sell small bags of them, with about a cup of sprouts, for around $4. They grow best in the soil, so start a handful of seeds in a small pot and then cut them off about 2 to 3 weeks later.

Maybe it is not an exaggeration to say that people all over the world are familiar with sunflower seeds and like to eat the inside of the seeds kernel as food, because these shelled sunflower seeds are a nutritious snack that is a good source of nutrients. Thus shelled sunflower seeds are widely used in making sunflower oil, cooking and seasoning, cosmetic products and also medical industry. On the other side, the sunflower seeds are used for preparing pet food for dogs and birds or once the oil has been extracted from the seed, a rich paste rich in proteins can be mixed with regular feed and given to all types of livestock.

However, when you eat sunflower seeds, have you ever noticed that typically you eat the sunflower seeds whole without discarding the hard shells or hulls? Is it safe to eat sunflower seed shells? The answer is No. You should avoid eating the shells. Firstly, eating sunflower seed shells can be sharp if not chewed properly. If swallowed, these jagged edges can damage your intestines or cut other parts of your digestive tract. Secondly, since the shells are made out of fiber, eating large amounts of them may also have a laxative effect. People who eat too much fiber may experience diarrhea and nausea. In some severe cases, the shells may even block the rectum.
Therefore the shelled sunflower seeds are a better choice for people who like to eat the sunflower seeds whole. And in this way these people let sunflower shells have their place. Once sunflower seeds are shelled by the sunflower seeds hulling machine in large quantity, the shells can be used in the construction and agriculture industries. The shells can be used to make a natural-fiber wood panel, which presents an environmentally friendly alternative to other wood products because the shells are renewable, recycled waste products; sunflower seed shells are allelopathic, which means that they produce the chemical that inhibits the growth of other plants.

This property makes sunflower seed shells well-suited for use as mulch in gardens and flower beds because of their ability to suppress weeds. Furthermore, sunflower seed shells can be used as animal feed and fuel. The hulls are comprised of ash, crude protein, lipid material, reducing sugars and carbohydrates, and they can be made into feed pellets by the feed pellet mill and be fed animal mixed with ingredients with higher nutritional value; with a heat value of 19.2 megajoules per kilogram, sunflower seed hulls are commonly used as a fuel source. Bum the hulls themselves or they can be processed into fuel pellets with other wood waste products. This renewable resource has less impact on the environment than burning wood logs and is generally more affordable than heating with fossil fuel.

Tags: sunflower seeds kernels, sunflower seeds hull, sunflower seeds hulling machine, sunflower seeds processing, sunflower seeds application, sunflower seed hulls pellets

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds

Black oil sunflower seeds are a favorite among most seed-eating songbirds and will attract a wide variety of species.

What is the difference between black oil and ordinary striped sunflowers seeds?

Black oil sunflower seeds have a high energy return to expense ratio, having twice the calories per pound than striped.

Because of its smaller size and thin shell, it is easier to open for a wider variety of birds than the larger, thicker-shelled striped sunflower.

So less energy is spent to reap the rewards of a high-fat, energy-packed morsel. An excellent wild bird food choice.

Morning Song Black Oil Sunflower Seed comes in 5lb, 10lb, 20lb, 25lb and 50lb bags.

Black oil is a little more expensive than your average wild bird seed mix, but it lasts longer because instead of birds kicking out all the seed they don’t like (i.e., millet and/or milo) they eat each seed, one-by-one, by cracking them open.

Prices have been fluctuating on bird seed, especially black oil sunflower seed, but Morning Song seems to have a good bargain going on now.

Black Oil Sunflower Seed Feeder

We also like the Stokes Select Sunflower Seed Screen Feeder.

It can hold 6 quarts of black oil or hulled sunflower seeds.

It’s easy-to-clean, has drainage holes to help pull moisture away and keep seeds dry and fresh, and has a powder coated weather resistant finish.

View the Sunflower Feeder Here

Black Oil Sunflower Seed Harvest

Where do black oil sunflowers grow and how are they harvested?

Here’s a quick look at one farm that produces seed for Brodhecker Birdseed in conjuction with the New Jersey Audubon S.A.V.E (Support Agricultural Viability and the Environment) program.

Types of Birds Attracted to Black Oil Sunflower Seed

The birds listed below prefer black oil sunflower seeds over a regular wild bird seed mix or even regular striped sunflower seeds because the black oil seeds are easy to open and very high in calories as well as being nutrient rich:

Related Bird Feeding Pages:

Return to Wild Bird Food

Nyjer Seed

Safflower Seed

Wild Bird Seed Mixes

Bird Suet Recipes

Feeding Birds Fruit

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Peanut Bird Feeder

Hummingbird Nectar

Winter Bird Feeding

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Free Bird Feeder Plans

Black Oil Sunflower Seed vs Striped

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