Sunflower seeds and birds

How to Harvest Sunflower Seeds

Ranging in size from dwarf varieties—just a foot or two tall—to mammoth 15-footers with spectacular orange flowers the size of dinner plates, sunflowers are a common sight in the backyard landscape. These days sunflowers are generally planted at home for ornamental purposes. But the sunflower predates corn as a domesticated crop and was onceharvested for use in dyes and for its nutritious seeds, packed with vitamins A, B and E, calcium and folic acid. Although it may be a challenge to beat hungry birds to the task, harvesting sunflower seeds as a healthy, homegrown snack is a tasty and time-honored tradition.
Harvest sunflower seeds once the flower has begun to fade. This process is not difficult, but squirrels and birds know this all too well and may clean you out before you can get to them. Once the petals of the sunflower begin to lose their color and the head begins to droop from the weight of the copious seeds, it will take three to four days before the seeds can be easily extracted. To discourage pests, the head of the sunflower may be covered with cheesecloth or a paper bag secured with twine to dry in place. If aggressive birds are a problem, the head may be cut from the stem and brought indoors to dry. Leave about 12 inches of the stem attached to the head, storing it inside a paper bag in a warm, dry place. When the seeds are ready, you should be able to remove them simply by brushing your hand across the face of the flower.
Once harvested, remove any damaged or discolored seeds. Wash seeds thoroughly and allow to dry before eating.
Roasting sunflower seeds will enhance the flavor and make it easier to remove the hull when snacking. To prepare seeds for roasting, place them in a bowl and cover with water. Add 1/4 cup of kosher salt per quart of water used, stir, cover and allow to rest overnight. The next day, drain water and pat seeds dry with a cloth or paper towel.
To roast, spread seeds evenly on a baking tray and place in a 300 degree F oven for 35-40 minutes until seeds begin to brown and the shells start to crack.
Allow seeds to cool completely before serving. Seeds may be hulled before serving with a fair bit of effort, but the back porch tradition of cracking the shell with one’s teeth to extract the flavorful nut within is a pleasure in its own right. Sunflower seed spitting contests are optional, although they still occur at the odd county fair or expo.
Seasoning sunflower seeds can add a tasty spin to an old favorite. To add some spice to your sunflower seeds, place two cups of freshly-roasted seeds in a jar with a lid while still warm. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1-2 tablespoons of your favorite spices, such as garlic powder, cumin, cinnamon and sugar, cayenne pepper and paprika, or your favorite barbecue rub. Shake the jar, cool and serve.
Store roasted sunflower seeds for up to one month in an airtight container. If you have more seeds than you can eat in that time, raw seeds may be stored in an airtight container in a cool location for up to one year without significant loss of quality.

Growing sunflowers for bees, birds and other wildlife

They are fascinating things, sunflowers, and they are a great way to help bees.

They can grow to astounding heights – the world record for the tallest sunflower currently stands at a staggering 30 feet.

There are over 70 different varieties of sunflower including the giant, the smooth, the hairy and the swamp.

They have many uses. Sunflower seeds provide food for us, and wildlife – including under-threat British bees – and sunflower oil is extracted for cooking and for use in beauty products.

How many of these top tips for helping bees do you know?

Traditionally, native Americans used certain types of sunflower medicinally for respiratory ailments too.

Sunflowers are also easy to grow and many are brilliant for bees, birds and other wildlife.

Growing sunflowers makes a great children’s activity – why not give it a go this spring?

Growing sunflowers from seed

Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting, Sunflowers, is worth millions. Fortunately, you can get your own sunflowers for a more down-to-earth price.

Growing sunflowers from seed is great value and the wildlife will love you for it.

Early sowing in pots

  • Grow indoors in small pots of peat-free compost from early April onwards, to avoid frosts.
  • Sow 2 seeds together, push them into the compost and cover with about 1.5cm of compost. Water well and keep moist.
  • The seedlings should appear after 14-21 days.
  • If planting more than one sunflower in a larger container which they will stay in when you move them outside, leave about 45cm between each seed/seedling.
  • If planting in the ground, wait until the risk of frost is over – usually late May onwards. Acclimatise the plants by leaving them outside in their pots for a few days.
  • Choose a sunny spot and one that’s not exposed to high winds.
  • Prepare the soil where they will grow by removing weeds and adding peat-free compost.
  • Plant and water well.

Later sowing outside

  • When the risk of frost is over, you can sow seeds straight into the ground or into large pots and containers – follow the same guidance as above.
  • Dig 5cm deep. Sow two seeds together and cover over with 1.5cm of soil. Firm gently and water.
  • Leave 45cm between each seed position. Seedlings should show within 14-21 days.
  • Remove one of the seedlings, leaving one per position. Re-plant the ones you remove elsewhere leaving a 45cm gap.

Greenfinches fighting over sunflower seeds Credit: iStock

Plant sunflowers and attract wildlife

The brightly coloured petals shout “Oi! Over here!” to bees and other pollinators like hoverflies, directing them to the central spirals of the sunflower.

These are formed of many hundreds of small tubular flowers, packed with nectar and pollen.

The insects get covered in pollen as they feed. Pollination by wild bumblebees and bee species with longer tongues especially helps the plant produce more quality seed.

How many of these top tips for helping bees do you know?

7 top tips for growing sunflowers

  1. You don’t need a garden Sunflowers will grow in pots but need space, as well as – yep, you guessed it – plenty of sun.
  2. Try growing different varieties Different bees like certain types of sunflower, so it’s a good idea to try out a few different ones. Take a look at Alys Fowler’s favourite sunflowers. Red sunflowers aren’t thought to be as attractive to bees.
  3. Keep a sunflower diary with your children You could include notes, drawings, paintings and photos. How much has your sunflower grown this week? Which bees like your sunflower the best? This makes a fun activity at home or at school.
  4. Try pollinator-friendly varieties Two varieties recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Perfect for Pollinators plant list are Helianthus annuus (Common sunflower) and Helianthus debilis (Cucumber leaf sunflower).
  5. Consider flowering times Bees need food all year round. Early sunflowers, generally dwarf varieties, come out in late June. Others like the perennial sunflower bloom in September and October.
  6. Leave flowers to turn to seeds in autumn and winter Let the birds feast on them.
  7. Cut and dry the stems Use the stems to create a bee hotel once flowering is over. Leaving the roots in will return nutrients to the soil.

Goldfinch eating sunflower seeds Credit: iStock

How to Grow Some Sunshine in Your Yard and Feed the Birds in the Process

Tips for growing native sunflowers to attract wildlife

  • Thomas A. Lewis
  • Apr 01, 1998

LIKE PEOPLE, birds can be connoisseurs; they’re often fussy about what they eat. But one group of plants seems to have broad appeal for a wide range of feathered species: “Sunflowers are a great choice for planting to attract birds to your yard,” says Spencer Tomb, a botany professor at Kansas State University who has conducted considerable research on the bold blossoming plants. “The creatures like the seeds so much that they eat them all long before cold weather comes.”
A native to North America, the sunflower was taken to Europe (along with tobacco and corn) by the earliest New World explorers. As a result, the first European settlers who arrived in Massachusetts and Virginia in the early 1600s were already familiar with the big yellow flowers they saw Indians cultivating; by that time, sunflowers had become common ornamentals in some European gardens. It wasn’t until later that the settlers learned that sunflowers were a good source of food and oil.
These days, a number of ornamental sunflower varieties are available, ranging in size from 15-inch dwarfs to 12-foot giants and colored not only the traditional yellow but also primrose, white, mahogany red and bronze. Some are even bicolored. The ornamentals produce edible seeds, but they are very small.
The large sunflower varieties you are most likely to encounter today in seed catalogs or stores were developed in Russia. Apparently, the motivation behind such cultivation was the prohibition by the seventeenth-century Russian Orthodox Church of eating oily foods during Lent. When Spanish explorers brought the sunflower to Europe, Russian growers seized it as a source of food oil that did not violate church law.

The Mammoth Russian sunflower first listed in an American seed catalog in 1880 was the progenitor of the most popular edible-seed sunflowers now widely grown today in two major forms: the oil-seed type with a black, modestly sized seed that is ideal for pressing oil; and the confection, which has a large, striped seed ideal for snacking. Either type is fine for birds.
Growing sunflowers is easy as long as you remember that they were named for their love of sunshine. Choose a sheltered location that gets full sun all day long. You will enjoy success with just about any soil that does not retain standing water. (Poor drainage will stunt growth.) Of course, more fertile soil will promote vigorous growth and meatier seeds, so consider adding compost and manure when you prepare the seedbed.
Keep in mind that sunflowers will not produce seed if you have only one plant—there must be at least two for cross-pollination. Sow your seeds in a half-inch-deep furrow, placing them about six inches apart, then cover them with about one-eighth inch of fine soil. The remaining furrow will fill naturally as the seedlings grow. The seeds will germinate best when the soil temperature is about 70 degrees F.
Young seedlings can take a light frost but not a deep freeze. Sunflowers can withstand hot dry weather but benefit from periodic deep waterings. When the first true leaves appear, thin the plants so they are spaced about two feet apart.
When the second set of leaves appear, feed the plants weekly with fertilizer, which will encourage good root development. Stake all the plants with tall poles and secure them every six inches with soft ties. When sunflower heads first appear, do not overwater since the heads may deform.
While the Russian varieties are the most widely grown these days, experts suggest that backyard gardeners not overlook other types of sunflowers. “There are about 50 species native to North America that don’t occur naturally anywhere else,” says Charles Heiser, a retired Indiana University botanist who is known as “Mr. Sunflower” for his lifelong research on the plants. While most of these species are perennials, Heiser notes that about a dozen are annuals that require seed dispersal by birds and other creatures.
“In early summer when the sunflowers start budding out in my garden, the goldfinches will pull out the flowers’ ovaries even before they have a chance to mature,” says Heiser. “The birds just can’t seem to get enough of these plants.”
Writer Thomas A. Lewis has long cultivated sunflowers in his northern Virginia yard.
Learn more about gardening for wildlife and National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program.

How to Grow Sunflowers for Birds

Here’s how to grow sunflowers for your garden or yard.

Growing sunflowers at home is really quite easy. You just need warm, moist soil and a good collection of sunflower seeds.

Picture above: Sunflowers with visiting goldfinches

Sunflowers act as a bird magnet in autumn and look wonderful in the height of summer. If you can, grow sunflowers at home to help the birds as well as give yourself a wonderful display of colour.

You can buy all kinds of exotic varieties of sunflower in the gardening shops butif you don’t care about growing giants or creating a multi-coloured display, you can just sow sunflower seeds which have been grown for the birds. I’ve done this and they produced lots of medium sized sunflowers. Usually these seeds grown as bird food will germinate – but test out a few before you commit to this as you don’t want to be disappointed, especially if you are growing them with your children.

Growing sunflowers with children is usually very rewarding as the results are so dramatic. When children are involved it makes sense to include at least some of the giant varieties. It’s also great watching garden birds flock to the larger headed types – you can have a lot of fun watching them sway about on the seed heads. Giant sunflowers often carry on looking rather magnificent even after all the seeds have gone and the stalks have dried out.

The right soil for growing sunflowers

Growing sunflowers for the birds will result in a lot of flowers for you, too. Add to the variety by including a few of the more exotic colours now available. Heirloom varieties such as these can work well.

Prepare the ground in late March or April, when the soil has warmed some and frosts are finished. Exactly when this is will depend upon where you are. Moist rich soil is best.

Place your sunflower seeds in the earth and push them in to a depth of around a centimeter or two, depending on the size of seed. Give the sunflowers a little room by planting them a few inches apart. You can always thin them later if they all germinate.

Firm down the soil and give them a liberal amount of water. This helps the seed be in proper contact with the soil.

Plant plenty! You can always give spare plants away and there are sure to be some casualties. Some seeds won’t germinate and some will be eaten by birds or rodents.

Slugs can be a problem. One solution is to plant your sunflower seeds in tubes – old toilet roll inners are almost ideal. Slugs are rather good at slicing straight through the stems of young sunflower seedlings! You can also add tubes after transplanting if you start growing your sunflowers in pots.

If you can get away with growing sunflowers without surrounding protection, they do tend to grow faster, I believe. There is almost certain to be some restriction involved in being placed inside tubing. Copper wire can also act as a slug deterrent.

How to grow sunflowers:
Growing sunflowers on to maturity

As your sunflowers grow on, you might find it worth staking them to prevent wind damage. Another approach that minimizes staking is to grow sunflowers in blocks, so that they help protect each other from the wind.

Not surprisingly, they like full sun! Growing sunflowers in the shade will have limited success.

Once they start growing, there are usually few problems. As they are large, robust plants they can usually cope with a few weeds around them but it’s better to keep them reasonably clear, of course. Accidental damage is the main danger, as stems can snap quite easily.

How to grow sunflowers inside

Not really an option! Growing sunflowers inside might be possible if you have a large conservatory. I haven’t tried this so far.

But, you can start off sunflowers inside. This avoids the problems of sudden frosts and the predatory snail or slug.

Scatter seeds thinly in a deep seed tray filled with growing medium. Cover them with soil or potting compost and firm it down. The seeds should be 1-2cms below the soil surface.

Water reasonably well and cover the tray with paper until germination occurs.

Thin them out and pot on into 3 inch pots as soon as they are big enough to handle.

Alternatively, you can start them off in three inch pots – or larger. Put either one or two seeds in each pot.

How to grow sunflowers:
Avoiding “leggy” sunflower seedlings

Keep a good look out for them becoming too “leggy” through lack of light. Even if you think your windowsill is quite a sunny spot, it can never compare with outside conditions, where plants obtain light from all around. Light bounces off other surrounding objects and this makes photosynthesis much more efficient in outdoor conditions.

Light through a window is far more one-sided. You will need to turn the developing seedlings around every day or two to stop them bending themselves towards the light and so becoming lop-sided.

If your sunflowers are becoming too tall and weak, put them outside for at least the warmest part of the day. If conditions are too cold, you could try surrounding them on the north side with tin foil; this will help them to collect more light. Get them out into a cold frame or greenhouse as soon as conditions allow.

Harden them off* before planting them outside. Watch out for late frosts. It’s better to wait until all danger of frost has passed and the weather is mild and not windy. Water them well and firm them gently into the hole when planting out, making sure that the roots have enough room.

*Hardening off is the process of accustoming plants to cooler outdoor conditions. It’s generally good to do this gradually.

Picture: Growing sunflowers is very rewarding because they looks so great. Later in the year they feed the birds and you can enjoy their acrobatic displays! The tit in this photo was practically hovering beneath the sunflower head.

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Sunflower Seed Heads And Kids: How To Use Sunflower Heads To Feed Birds

There’s really nothing so entertaining and, yet, relaxing as watching and feeding birds, especially with children. Hanging a sunflower bird feeder in the garden is an inexpensive, sustainable option that will have many types of birds visiting the yard in droves. Read on for more information on using sunflower heads with kids.

Sunflower Seed Heads

There are a myriad of sunflower varieties to choose from that are suitable for growing either as ornamentals or for edible seed harvest. Traditional sunflowers grow to a height of about 5 plus feet and are typically a sunny yellow, but modern hybrids come in dwarf varieties (1-2 feet) and a wide range of yellows, burgundies, reds, bronzes and browns.

All of these sunflower seed heads are enticing to birds, from chickadees to siskins, redpolls, nuthatches and goldfinches.

Using Sunflower Heads with Kids

Using sunflower heads to feed birds is a fun, educational activity to engage in with your children. Not only are sunflowers easy to grow in almost any type of garden soil and climate, but creating a hanging sunflower bird feeder is a simple “hands on” process suitable for even the smallest child to take on…with a little assistance from you.

Natural bird feeders made from sunflowers teach children about nature and its cycle from seed to plant to food as new seeds are formed.

Sunflower Bird Feeding Activity

Easy to grow, sunflowers are a boon not only to the birds as seasons end, but during the growing season, they attract valuable pollinators. Once that use is over, the drying heads can be recycled into a winter feeding station for not only the above mentioned birds but also:

  • jays
  • grosbeaks
  • juncos
  • buntings
  • titmice
  • bluebirds
  • blackbirds
  • cardinals

Sunflower seeds are packed with minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron along with Vitamin B complex. High in protein, fiber and polyunsaturated fat, using sunflower heads to feed the birds will keep these little warblers chubby and active.

Ideally, you want the largest sunflower heads possible for creating sunflower bird feeder. Some varieties that are apropos include:

  • ‘Sunzilla’
  • ‘Giant Gray Stripe’
  • ‘Russian Mammoth’

Big heads last longer as a feeder and are easier to work with, although birds aren’t picky and will gladly snack on any variety of sunflower seed. If you haven’t grown these large flowers in your garden for space reasons or what have you, ask around. Perhaps, friends, neighbors or even a local farmers’ market has spent flower heads they will gladly part with.

When the sunflowers are well-formed and the heads begin to dry, cut the top ¼ off at the stalk and let the flower and stalk dry in a cool, well aerated spot for a few weeks. They are dry when the front of the head is a crispy brown hue and the back of the head is yellow. You may need to cover the maturing sunflower heads with cheesecloth, netting or a paper bag to thwart your bird friends from sampling too early. Don’t put them in a bag or container which may retain moisture and cause the sunflower to mildew.

Once the sunflower has cured, cut off the remaining stem from the flower. Then make a couple of holes near the top of the head and thread florist wire through them. You can now hang the head on a fence or tree branch for the birds to munch on. You can hang sprays of millet from the flower head as an additional snack for the birds and/or adorn the sunflower with a bit of raffia tied into a natural bow.

Of course, you can also leave the sunflower heads on the plants and allow the birds to feast from there, but it is nice to bring the flower closer to the house where the birds can be viewed from a cozy window during the chilly fall and winter months.

19 Apr How to Store and Harvest Sunflower Seeds

Steps to Harvest and Store:

Cardboard box
Paper towels
Storage containers: airtight glass jars or plastic containers with lids
Labels & marker


  1. Cut. Using your sharp pruners, cut the stalks of each flower head about one foot below the bloom. Wear gloves — the stalks can be a bit prickly! Place them in a large container that catches any seeds that fall out in the process. Some may be ready to harvest right now — if so, go to Step #3. If not, continue to Step #2. Are you sunflowers ready to harvest, but you’re not? Tie paper bags around the seedheads in the garden to keep the birds from harvesting for you.
  2. Dry. Bundle your sunflowers together with twine in bunches, then hang them upside down in a warm and dry area for 4-5 days. To keep pesky birds from eating your seeds before you have a chance to harvest them, hang them to dry indoors.
  3. Remove Seeds. Grab a 5-gallon bucket and your sunflower heads, and rub the surface of the seedhead over the bucket. The seeds will fall right out. You’ll also get other bits and pieces like petals and dried plant bits, but you’ll take care of that in Step #5.
  4. Store. Place the seeds in a colander and rinse. Remove any unwanted plant parts or debris and discard. Now line a cardboard box with paper towels or newspaper, and spread the seeds evenly in a single layer, leaving space between each seed. Allow to dry out overnight before storing in an airtight container with proper labeling (sunflower variety, date harvested).

  • Those fabulous sunflowers you planted in the spring are likely hanging their heads by now. The Asteracae family, which boasts more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 different species, lets you know when seeds are ready by dropping its head and turning brown on its backside. I prefer the nonnative Mammoth Sunflower for my butterfly garden.

    Mammoth Sunflower seed head provides dozens of nectaring possibilities for a Monarch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

    What’s so great about these easy-to-grow stunners is their amazing generosity. Depending on the species you choose, one tiny seed begets hundreds of tiny florets on the head, or capitulum, of the plant. Yes, that’s correct. EACH of those fluffy yellow growths that appear on the flower above are individual flowers.
    For butterflies, this represents a nectar cafeteria. They can land in one spot and conveniently slurp on serial nectar straws without even changing position. But wait, this flower just keeps on giving. Each flower later turns into a seed that birds and people seek and crave.

    Mammoth Sunflower head florets turn into seeds. Birds–and people–love them as snacks. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

    I like to start Mammoth Sunflower seeds inside in January and transplant them to the butterfly garden in March. By May, the stalky giants can reach 12 feet tall, their broad, foot-wide faces perching in the front yard like soldiers offering a welcome salute. They lose their perky dispositions in June, as their heads drop and seeds form in place of the flowers. All this for a $1.29 a pack and a regular drink of water.

    Dried sunflower head ready for harvest. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

    If their massive heads, ample flowers and prodigious seeds don’t convince you of their worth, how about heliotropism? Sunflowers exhibit the endearing botanical trait of tracking the sun. Their happy flowers faces literally turn toward the sun as it moves across the sky. They drop their heads at the end of the day as the sun sets, and aptly, at the end of their life.

    Scrape sunflower seeds from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

    Once the flowers go to seed, you can leave them in place on the hung heads and birds will perch on the stalks and help themselves. As the seeds dry, they disburse to the ground, where fowl, squirrels and other critter friends gather them for a handy protein pop. One tablespoon of sunflower seeds has 4.5 grams of protein.
    It’s also fun to harvest the seeds yourself for your own trail mix, to fill your bird feeder, or to plant next year. Seven Mammoth Sunflowers I planted in my front yard this spring yielded 1.25 pounds of seed.

    Common sunflowers on the San Antonio Mission Reach were prolific this year. Photo by Robert Rivard

    The Mammoth Sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, but Texas has its own wonderful natives. The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annus, may be the most common and provides prime habitat for dove and quail. Their gangly growth habit often doesn’t fit into our home garden landscape plans, but the San Antonio Mission Reach has given the hardy, brown-centered bloomer a worthy showcase this year with well-timed rains. Birds and butterflies have noticed and abound. Also present: Maximilian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianis, which has a more vertical growth habit and yellow centers.

    Here’s how to harvest sunflower seeds:

    1. Wait for the heads to drop, all the sunflower petals have fallen off, and the backside of the sunflower has turned yellow or even brown.
    2. Cut about a foot of stalk off the top.
    3. Scrape the seeds out with a spoon or butter knife, as shown in the video above, OR if you’re more patient,
    Put a net or brown paper bag over the flower head and wait for the seeds to drop on their own.
    4. Air dry for future use.

    Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

    • BURPEE

      Mammoth grey stripe sunflower

      STEVE AND DAVE MASLOWSKI American Goldfinch

      Pick the Right Variety
      You can find many sunflower options on the market today, but not all of them are suitable food sources for birds. When selecting sunflowers, make sure they produce a good supply of seeds. Some of our top picks include Mammoth Grey Stripe, Paul Bunyan and Aztec Gold.

      Growing Tips
      Sunflowers are truly one of the easiest plants to grow, but they do have a few requirements. They need at least six hours of sunlight per day and well-drained soil. They benefit from organic matter, and also keep the area under sunflowers mulched for better results.

      Ready for Seeds
      Sunflowers have the best seed buffet in late summer to early fall. For longer harvest time, stagger your planting, early spring to midsummer. This way, you can attract birds for months.

      Harvest Tip
      Gather your sunflower heads, and put them in a dry place to dehydrate. You can then hang them out by your feeders, extending the sunflower season all the way into fall.

      Here are some species you may attract by planting sunflowers.

      • Cardinals
      • Chickadees
      • House finches
      • Titmice
      • Grosbeaks
      • Nuthatches
      • Goldfinches
      • Red-bellied woodpeckers
      • Pine siskins

      DIY sunflower seed buffet

      This seed buffet is bound to attract lots of birds to your garden. You need the following:

      • – Two large sunflowers (e.g. Russian Giants or Russian Mammoth)
      • – A Phillips screwdriver
      • – Approximately 1 metre of floral wire

      How to make this sunflower seed buffet

      Step 1: Allow the sunflowers to dry out thoroughly. Place them in a cool, well-ventilated room; that will prevent them from going mouldy. Leave them to dry until the heads turn brown and the backs turn yellow.

      Step 2: Once your sunflowers are well-dried and discoloured, remove the heads. Make two small holes in the heart of each sunflower head using the screwdriver, some 2 to 3 cm apart.

      Step 3: Place the sunflower heads back to back so that the seeds face outwards. Insert the floral wire through the two left-hand holes and bring back through the two right-hand holes. Twist the wires together and make a loop at the end of the wire so that you can hang the sunflowers up. Find a good spot – for example in a tree or on a fence – and treat the birds to a delicious meal!

      The Birds Are Eating My Sunflowers, but I Don’t Mind

      Romanians like to eat sunflower seeds, same as Americans like to eat popcorn. We particularly like to eat them by cracking the shells (the dehulled kernels from the store don’t have fun!), while watching a game (in the stadium, if possible) or while watching a movie. It is a good remedy against stress and sometimes can even replace smoking. I’ve always enjoyed eating sunflower seeds, but I rarely had the opportunity to see a real sunflower head – or hat, as we call them in Romania – before I had my own garden and could sow sunflower seeds. Many years ago, I was lucky to see how the ripe sunflower seeds were scattered out from their hats, at one of our relative’s house, in the countryside. It was harvest time and they brought the sunflower heads from the field, while I was there. They dropped them in the yard, arranging them in huge piles, according to the seeds’ size. They gave each of us a stick and showed us how to hit the back of the sunflower hat to make the seeds fall out, on some large cloths, laid down on the ground. It was a wonderful, exciting experience for me, as a city girl, and I remembered it the first time I ever harvested a sunflower hat from my own garden.

      A field of sunflowers blooming is the most beautiful sight! Their yellow heads standing up, against the blue sky, is always such a treat. And since I now live in the countryside, I’m lucky to have this treat every summer. But the gardener in me had always wanted to see a sunflower grow from seed, blooming and making seeds in my garden. This was, at first, a wish come true, then I thought it would be good to have a few sunflower heads from which I could collect seeds for me and the birds, for all winter long. I have some sparrows nesting under my house roof and a few magpies coming over for food. Each month I buy a few pounds of sunflower seeds from the market. I roast some for me when I’m watching a movie, and feed the rest to birds. I fill their bird feeder with sunflower seeds every morning and watch them quarrel while they are eating the seeds. When we first moved into the countryside, I felt sorry for the little sparrows who were so thin and tiny, compaired to those living in the city – or so I thought. Now they are “the fattest sparrows in the country”, as my daughter would say, although I’m reducing their ration during summer, when they have lots of bugs, worms and other seeds on the field to eat. Do you think they are leaving the sunflower seeds untouched in the bird feeder? No! One of them (maybe the oldest and the bravest!) is always waiting for me every morning, in front of the door, sitting on the fence and chirping anxiously, if I don’t come out soon. Which is why I thought that a nice sunflower crop would be perfect for both the birds’ and my needs!

      “Home count doesn’t fit the fair count”, says an old Romanian saying; so was my plan with the sunflower seeds. First year I sowed a lot of seeds around my vegetable garden, which I thought would look beautiful when the sunflowers will be in full bloom. I watered them thoroughly and they grew very tall and strong, with large hats. I was happy to have such a great sunflower crop and I could almost see the seeds in large sacks in my paintry. However, the sunflowers proved to be more like brave guardians for my tomatoes, against the birds’ attack, than my crop. The birds, who at first were eating every ripe tomato in my garden, moved their “attack” towards the ripe sunflowers. They prefered the sunflower seeds to the ripe tomatoes, which saved part of my tomato crop.

      The birds are smart and know what’s good for them. It seems that sunflower seeds have all the necessary nutrients for the birds. However, I managed to harvest a few full sunflower heads that summer, but I had to do that before they even had a chance to dry off, otherwise the birds would have eaten them all. I didn’t mind sharing with the birds, but hey, let me get some seeds too! After letting them dry for a few days, I tried to hit the sunflower hats with a stick, just as I remembered doing it at my relative’s house. The seeds wouldn’t come out so easily because they should’ve been well dried. But I managed to get them out of the hats anyway and spread them on paper sheets to dry off. I had hoped I would have enough seeds for at least a month or two. No way! The hats were huge and seemed to have lots of seeds, but after scattering them out there weren’t that many after all. Yet, they were organic seeds, from my garden, the fruit of my work, so we all ate them with great pleasure. The smaller seeds I fed to the birds and then I started buying from the market again. I was beginning to wonder what would be the use of growing sunflowers again in my garden, except for fun, for their beauty and for feeding the birds. I was resigned to the idea that my birds were my masters (read “spoiled brats”!) and they could have all the sunflower seeds from my garden – which weren’t all that many, since I still needed to buy from the market. If I had a whole field of sunflowers, it would have been a whole different matter, but since I don’t have enough, better to let the birds have them. They sow lots of sunflower seeds every summer, by scattering them everywhere in my garden. Sunflowers are popping out, here and there, especially around the bird feeder. It’s only fair that my birds should have the right to feed on their seeds! I don’t mind because I love them and I want them to be happy. To see the sunflowers blooming and the birds eating their seeds will always be a joy, for which I was willing to give up my rights on the sunflower seeds. But as much as a good, birds loving person I’d be, I don’t like them pecking at my ripe tomatoes; not after working so hard to grow them. My husband blames me for pampering the birds too much and for interfering in nature’s course, by feeding them sunflower seeds – of course, it’s his frustration talking! This way I sort of adopted them and made them feel at home, so they feel like they can eat everything they want in my garden, like any other member of my family.
      I like this, but at some point they are just too invasive. They eat the few cherries my small cherry tree produces every year and the raspberries – as soon as they ripen; then some of the apricots and, later, they’re all over my tomatoes. They don’t damage too many, but I feel frustrated not being able to have the first ripe tomato from my garden because the birds have already started to eat it. How could I ever change this without harming the birds? My husband suggested we get rid of them by covering the holes under the roof, through where the sparrows are entering and building their nest. I couldn’t agree to such a cruel decision, so I kept on searching for a more humane solution. And then it hit me : the sunflowers were the key! I told my husband to stay calm and don’t worry because I now have a hidden agenda. I’m not just going to let the birds eat all the sunflowers in my garden for nothing. I’ve decided to make this compromise, sunflowers for tomatoes – they get the seeds, I get the tomatoes! I just need to be patient and sacrifice a few tomatoes, until the sunflowers ripen, then the birds will be lured away from my tomatoes, by their craving for the sunflowers seeds. Imagine they can eat about a large sunflower hat every day, which leads me to a new count, considering how many and how large the sunflowers in my garden should be. Luckily, they don’t eat another tomato until they’ve finished the last one, so I just leave the tomato they’ve been pecking at on the plant. Anything to save my tomatoes, even if I have to be bad and have a hidden agenda. Don’t tell the birds, they wouldn’t care anyway! Funny thing, the birds don’t seem to be interested in flying away and find new sources of food, although a field full of sunflowers is right accross the street. I’m wondering if they can still fly long distances, say, longer than my yard’s fence?

      Transcript: ​
      This is BirdNote.
      Birds like finches and cardinals love sunflower seeds, which they take into their stout, triangular beaks one after the other. In the blink of an eye, they extract the nutritious contents, and they do it so fast, it looks like a magician’s sleight of hand. But if we magnify the process and slow it down, we can see how it works.
      First, if we look inside a finch’s beak, we see a groove that runs the length of the beak on the cutting edge of the upper half. The lower half of the beak slides into it perfectly.
      When a finch plucks a sunflower seed from the feeder, its uses its tongue to maneuver the seed lengthwise into that groove. As it closes its beak, a slight back and forth action slices open the hull, and a small sideways movement husks the seed, while the tongue may help extract the kernel. Now it’s quickly on to the next seed: maneuver, slice, husk and extract, swallow.
      Chickadees lack the heavy duty, seed-slicing beak of a finch. But they still partake of countless sunflower seeds. A chickadee takes one sunflower seed at a time from the feeder, flies to a nearby perch where it can hold the seed atop a branch, then hammers and chips the hull open with the tip of the bill to extract the goods.
      For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.

      Sunflower heart feeders have larger ports making it easy for birds to get at the food but bigger birds will find it difficult to perch on them. Choose a squirrel proof feeder or invest in a baffle or protector. We have more advice about preventing squirrels getting at your bird food.

      If you are offering sunflower hearts to ground feeding birds then a ground feeder sanctuary or cage will stop bigger birds accessing the food. As with any bird food ensure you only put out enough for birds to eat in a day to prevent rats and other vermin.

      Because sunflower hearts have a high oil content they can go rancid fairly quickly in hot weather. Make sure you store them in a cool, dry place particularly if you are buying them in bulk. The oil can accumulate on the feeders so ensure you clean them regularly.

      Sunflower hearts will attract most species of birds to your garden but they are particularly loved by goldfinches and tits. Unlike the straight seeds, softbills such as robins and blackbirds will also be able to eat them. You can also buy sunflower heart chips which are broken into bite size pieces and are ideal for feeding during fledgling season so parent birds can feed their chicks.

      Is it okay to feed the birds? It depends on the food and the bird. Our handy wild bird food chart lists the types of seeds, nuts, and other foods that are liked most by different types of wild birds in your backyard.

      Is It Good or Bad to Feed the Birds?

      When it comes to general backyard birds, it’s fine to offer these supplements. During times of extreme weather, studies show that extra bird food can provide a nutritional boost and provide a helping hand.

      That said, the best way to feed the birds is to create a bird-friendly habitat with natural food; this means native trees and shrubs.

      Beyond the natural habitat, it’s important to:

      1. Feed safe, appropriate food for birds. See our chart below. NEVER feed bread which not only provides little nutrition but also may cause an unhealthy condition referred to as “angel wing.”
      2. Clean bird feeders. Owning a bird feeder is a responsibility. Properly clean to avoid the spread of viruses and parasites.
      3. Do not feed birds if it significantly changes their behavior (example, aggressive birds such as seagulls, endangered birds such as snow owls, etc.).

      Your reward is the opportunity to attract some feathered friends to your backyard and garden—and enjoy watching wild birds from your window!

      What little food that is available can get buried under deep snow. The bird feeder that you place in your backyard aides the survival of birds in harsh winters.

      Wild Bird Food Preferences

      For most wild birds, seeds are the best source of high energy food for wild birds. (Do not feed birds bread.)

      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.

      Click here for a larger PDF of the below Wild Bird Food Chart.

      Sunflower Seeds

      When it comes to sunflower seeds, note that 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.

      Suet Cake

      Birds love a simple suet cake, especially chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and bug-eating birds. Note that a lot commercial suet cakes have too much filler (oatmeal, cornmeal, millet) and very little of the peanuts and high-quality ingredients that birds actually need when temperatures become severe. See how to make suet here. Even better is straight suet though it’s expensive. You can generally get chunks of suet at the butcher’s or supermarket.

      Read more about gardening for the birds.

      Learn about choosing the right bird feeders.

      See our video demonstrating how to feed the birds in winter.

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