What is the best sunflower seed for birds?

Sunflower_Seeds by Kaldari

Last Updated on January 13, 2024 by Greg Gillson

The seeds of the sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus) attract more backyard birds to your feeder than any other kind of birdseed. No wonder, they are good for birds. They are full of nutrients including fats, protein, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B-6, and iron.

But at the store you see different kinds of sunflower seeds. You may wonder: Are all types of sunflower seeds the same? What’s the difference between black and striped sunflower seeds? And what is the difference between sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts?

This article answers those questions.

You will learn that there are three types of sunflower seeds to offer birds at the feeder: black oil sunflower seeds, striped sunflower seeds, and hulled sunflower seeds. There are different reasons to offer each type of these seeds.

  • Black oil sunflower seeds are best for attracting most seed-eating finches, sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches.
  • Striped sunflower seeds are best for attracting larger cardinals and grosbeaks while also discouraging starlings, house sparrows, and cowbirds.
  • Hulled sunflower seeds are best for attracting many types of birds while leaving no mess behind!
Photo of male Black-headed Grosbeak on bird feeder
Black-headed Grosbeak eating sunflower seeds
Photo by Greg Gillson

Black oil sunflower seeds for birds

At your backyard bird feed store you will no doubt see black oil sunflower seeds offered for sale as bird food. Is it any good? Yes it is! 

Birds love black oil sunflower seed!

What is black oil sunflower seed?

This sunflower seed is exactly as the name would suggest. The hull (also called the shell or husk) is colored solid black on the outside. 

The kernel contains nutritious fatty acids (linoleic acid) necessary for both human and bird health. The oil of this sunflower is used for cooking oil and as a base for some cosmetics.

These seeds are a bit smaller than the striped sunflower seeds used for human snacks.

Black oil sunflower seeds sold as bird food is not as “clean” as food for human consumption. Some people complain that these seeds sometimes contain dirt, stems, or stones. These non-edible items can sometimes block the feeding ports of tube feeders.

Some consumers feel that different brands of bird seed have less non-seed items than others. However, they probably have little control over quality as bird seed providers buy bulk seed from a limited number of growers.

Why feed birds black oil sunflower seeds?

Seed eating birds love black oil sunflower seeds! The hulls are rather thin compared to striped sunflower seeds. The seeds are a bit smaller. This makes it easier for small birds to extract the kernels from the hull.

Birds prefer black oil sunflower seeds so much that they will often pick through mixed bird seed to eat just the sunflower seeds. Many birds toss other kinds of seeds away looking for the sunflowers. This is wasteful. So many people switch to feeding only black oil sunflower seeds in tube or hopper feeders. 

Then they offer mixed birdseed in tray feeders where birds can pick through the seeds to find the ones they want.

Birds eat the internal hearts of the sunflower seed. They dispose of the shell. They open the shell either by chewing or by pounding them open with their bill.

               bird feeder by erin-minuskin

Which birds eat black oil sunflower seeds?

Nearly all birds that come to your feeder eat and prefer black oil sunflower seeds. All finches, goldfinches, sparrows, grosbeaks, towhees, cardinals and buntings love black oil sunflower seeds. 

They sit on your feeder and chew them open. They drop the shells out the sides of their mouth, but grab the kernel with their tongue and swallow them.

Chickadees and nuthatches and titmouses grab seeds one at a time and take them away. Because they can’t move their mouth sideways to chew, they pound open sunflower seeds on a branch to reach the edible seed hearts.

Mourning Doves, jays, starlings, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and English house sparrows (not related to native North American sparrows), gobble them up too. In fact, these birds may quickly eat up these sunflower seeds. But these birds don’t feed as well at tube feeders. Thus, offering black oil sunflower seeds in tube feeders often reduces the amount of seed these “less-desirable” birds eat.

Squirrels also love black oil sunflower seeds. Special squirrel-resistant bird feeders keep the squirrels from taking over the bird feeder and slow down consumption.

What birds eat black oil sunflower seeds?

Nearly all seed eating birds prefer black oil sunflower seeds over all other types of sunflower seeds.

Common feeder birds that love black oil sunflower seeds include:

  • House Finch
  • Purple Finch
  • American Goldfinch
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Pine Siskin
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Oak Titmouse
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Lazuli Bunting
  • Painted Bunting
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Eastern Towhee
  • California Towhee
  • Canyon Towhee
  • Mourning Dove
  • White-winged Dove
  • Band-tailed Pigeon
  • Eurasian Collared-Dove
  • Blue Jay
  • Steller’s Jay
  • California Scrub-Jay
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • European Starling
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Brewer’s Blackbird
  • Rusty Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • House Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Golden-crowned Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Brown Thrasher
              Bird Feeder by george-berberich

How much do black oil sunflower seeds cost?

Sunflower seeds for birds are generally sold in bags ranging from 5 to 50 pounds. The larger bulk you buy, the less expensive it is. 

Here are my research results:

Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $21.99 $23.56 $4.40 to $4.71
10 pounds $24.00 $32.69 $2.40 to $3.27
20 pounds $29.15 $34.99 $1.46 to $1.75
40 pounds $40.95 $63.50 $1.02 to $2.05

Walmart indicates there is a 40 pound bag available at my nearby store for $28.00. Now that’s a great deal!

Striped sunflower seeds for birds

Striped sunflower seeds are the same ones that people eat. But those offered to birds aren’t salted and aren’t as clean as those for human consumption. Birds like them, but not as much as black oil sunflower seeds.

What are striped sunflower seeds?

All sunflower seeds are from the same species of sunflower plant. But they have been bred for different purposes. 

Wild sunflowers have several heads. Domesticated varieties have a single head. Some are very tall. Some are grown for the beautiful flower itself. Others are grown for cooking oil and bird and animal feed. 

The striped variety is grown for human consumption, but also some bird seeds.

The striped sunflower seeds are larger than the black oil sunflower seeds. They are familiar as the gray and black striped snack food. They are also called confection sunflower seeds.

Why feed birds striped Sunflower seeds?

Not all seed eating birds like striped sunflower seeds. Not only are the seeds larger, they are thicker and harder to open. This presents some opportunity for this seed to discriminate against some birds.

The reason you would feed birds striped sunflower seeds is to keep pest birds from gobbling all the sunflower seeds down and taking over the feeders.

House Sparrows can be troublesome pests at some feeders. Switching to striped sunflower seeds can reduce their impact. Cowbirds can sometimes be a nuisance during certain seasons of the year, depending upon how far north or south you live. They have more trouble eating these seeds than the black oil type.

You still might want to feed black oil sunflower seeds at tube feeders for the smaller birds. Larger birds may have trouble perching on small tube feeders. Then feed the striped sunflowers at the platform or hopper feeders.

Which birds eat striped sunflower seeds?

Due to the larger size and thicker hull of striped sunflower seeds, many smaller birds have trouble opening and eating them. It’s just too much work.

In fact, these seeds are harder for starlings, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and English house sparrows to eat. Even squirrels may not eat as many striped sunflower seeds. These seeds slow them down and make them look for something easier. If you have trouble with these feeder “pests” you may want to switch to striped sunflowers.

Of course, this means that goldfinches, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and smaller sparrows and finches do not prefer these seeds. They will eat them, but will go for any black oil sunflower seeds first, if any are present.

The birds that like these striped sunflower seeds are the big-billed seed eaters: cardinals, grosbeaks, towhees.

What birds eat striped sunflower seeds?

Nearly all birds prefer black oil sunflower seeds over striped sunflower seeds. However, all the birds that eat black oil sunflower seeds will also eat the larger and more heavily-shelled striped sunflower seeds–after the black oil seeds are all gone.

The common birds that readily eat striped sunflower seeds are usually those with larger heavier bills:

  • Northern Cardinal
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Purple Finch
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Eastern Towhee
  • California Towhee
  • Blue Jay
  • California Scrub Jay
  • Steller’s Jay
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch

How much do striped sunflower seeds cost?

Striped sunflower seeds are priced about the same as black oil seeds. But there doesn’t seem to be as wide a variety of different sizes.

Here are my results from today:

Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $15.99 $18.25 $3.20 to $3.65
20 pounds   $43.14 $2.16
25 pounds $24.98 $55.00 $1.00 to $2.20
50 pounds   $79.99 $1.60

My local Walmart is out of stock on striped sunflower seeds today. However they do sell a 25 pound bag for $39.28 and a 50 pound bag for $57.67. Those aren’t exceptionally good prices.

Hulled sunflower seeds

Hulled, dehulled, shelled, or shell-less. How can these words all mean the same thing? But they do! Birds love these sunflower seeds, too.

What are hulled sunflower seeds?

Hulled sunflower seeds have had their husks mechanically removed. That leaves only the wholly-edible kernel of the seed.

The kernel is also called the heart or meat. If the kernels are broken, then the pieces of broken seeds may be called chips. Sometimes whole kernels are called coarse chips, kernel halves are graded as medium chips, and small broken pieces are called fine chips.

I haven’t seen anything directly on this, but I believe that hulled sunflower seeds are made from striped sunflowers and not black oil sunflowers. If I find out any different in the future I will update this paragraph.

Why feed birds hulled sunflowers?

The largest benefit of hulled sunflowers is that they are entirely edible. 

When the birds eat them there is no mess made by the shells. There are no shells. [At the end of this article I link to an article I wrote on how to feed birds without the mess. You may like to learn of other no-mess foods to feed birds.]

The shells, or hulls, of sunflowers can be quite messy as birds drop these in or below the feeder. 

These shells have a natural biochemical substance that inhibits growth of most plants (if interested, see Wikipedia explanation of allelopathy). So the area below the feeder often turns to mud or moldy shells in winter, with any former lawn killed. Spilled sunflower seeds often sprout, too.

Which birds eat hulled sunflower seeds?

Seed eating birds that like eating other seeds are also likely to eat hulled sunflower seeds. In addition, smaller-billed sparrows like Dark-eyed Juncos as well as small goldfinches may have trouble with sunflower seeds in the shell. They will appreciate these easier-to-eat sunflower seed kernels or chips.

From what I’ve seen, though, House Finches prefer black oil sunflower seeds in the shell over hulled sunflower seeds (which may be from striped sunflowers). This may be true of some other birds, too.

Wrens, winter warblers, chickadees, nuthatches, as well as sparrows, grosbeaks, finches, towhees and other seed-eating birds will eat hulled sunflowers.

This winter a Black Phoebe regularly ate from my hulled sunflower feeder! These flycatchers are only supposed to eat insects. American Robins and other thrushes may eat the small sunflower chips.

Of course, since it is so easy for birds to eat these seeds, some birds could really eat a lot! This would include mourning doves, jays, starlings, blackbirds, house sparrows and other big eaters. If you do offer hulled sunflower seeds you may have to ration it out each day!

One problem with hulled sunflower seeds, especially the broken chips, is that they mush up when wet or damp. So you will need to clean out your feeder more often than whole sunflower seeds in the shell. This is another reason to limit the amount of seed you put out at one time.

                        Bird Feeder by Frank Cone

What birds eat hulled sunflower seeds?

All birds that eat either of the other sunflower seeds will also eat hulled sunflower seeds, whether chips or whole kernels.

Also, many other birds (including those not normally found at bird feeders) will eat hulled sunflower seeds, especially the small chips. 

Common yard birds that may prefer hulled sunflower seeds over those in the shell include:

  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • American Goldfinch
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Pine Siskin
  • Common Redpoll
  • Carolina Wren
  • Bewick’s Wren
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Pine Warbler
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee
  • Song Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Field Sparrow
  • Fox Sparrow
  • Common Ground-Dove
  • European Starling
  • Brewer’s Blackbird
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • House Sparrow
  • Gray Catbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • California Quail
  • Gambel’s Quail

How much do hulled sunflower seeds cost?

Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive than sunflower seeds in the shell. Or are they?

Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $15.99 $20.26 $3.20 to $4.05
10 pounds $24.94 $25.49 $2.49 to $2.55
25 pounds $35.69 $58.44 $1.43 to $2.34
50 pounds $72.99 $94.99 $1.46 to $1.90

My local Walmart only carries a couple of options for hulled sunflower seeds (“sunflower hearts and chips”). The best price is an 8 pound bag for $16.93, or $2.12 per pound. Not a great deal.

Hulled sunflower seeds are less expensive than they may first appear. Why?

Up to 30% of the weight of sunflower seeds is the inedible shell (source). 

The best price for sunflower seeds in the shell (black oil or striped) is about $1.00 per pound. The best price for hulled sunflower seeds is $1.43 per pound. That’s about 40% more. 

So, really, after removing the shell, it’s only about 15% more by weight to have the no mess, no waste, hulled sunflower seeds.

How do they get the hulls off the sunflower seeds? With this noisy shaking machine!

Now you know that not all sunflower seeds are the same. Birds really love sunflower seeds, but different types. 

There is one best sunflower seed for the birds you want to attract to your yard. Make sure you have the proper kind of sunflower seeds at your bird feeder!

Wrapping Up

Feeding wild birds can bring joy and a sense of connection to nature, but it’s important to consider both the benefits and drawbacks before setting up feeders. Here are some reasons why people might choose to feed wild birds:


  • Supplemental food: During harsh weather conditions or food shortages, feeders can provide essential nutrients to birds, aiding their survival and reproduction.
  • Conservation efforts: Attracting birds to your yard can help maintain or even increase local bird populations, especially of species facing habitat loss or other threats.
  • Education and observation: Feeding birds provides a wonderful opportunity to learn about different species, their behaviors, and ecological roles. Observing them at feeders can be a source of entertainment and relaxation.
  • Building connections to nature: Interacting with birds through feeding fosters a sense of appreciation for the natural world and encourages environmental stewardship.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to roast sunflower seeds for birds?

Roasting sunflower seeds for birds is not necessary and can actually have some drawbacks:

Nutrition: While roasting retains some of the seeds’ nutritional value, it can degrade certain vitamins and beneficial oils present in the raw seeds.

Mess: Roasted sunflower seeds tend to be more brittle and break apart easily, leading to more mess around feeders and attracting unwanted visitors like squirrels and rodents.

Cost: Roasting adds an extra step, increasing the time and energy involved in preparing bird food.

Natural Choice: Birds are perfectly adapted to cracking open and eating raw sunflower seeds. This natural foraging activity provides them with exercise and mental stimulation.

Do birds prefer shelled or unshelled sunflower seeds?

Birds have varying preferences for shelled and unshelled sunflower seeds, depending on species, age, and even individual habits. Here’s a breakdown:

Shelled Sunflower Seeds:

  • Pros:
    • Easy to eat: Ideal for smaller birds with weaker beaks, like chickadees and finches, who have difficulty cracking open the shells.
    • Less mess: No discarded shells cluttering up the ground or attracting unwanted visitors like squirrels.
    • Higher accessibility: May attract a wider variety of bird species due to ease of access.
  • Cons:
    • Lower nutritional value: The shell contains valuable nutrients like fiber and minerals, so birds miss out on these benefits.
    • Higher cost: Generally more expensive per pound than unshelled seeds.
    • May dry out faster: Hulled seeds can lose moisture quicker, requiring more frequent feeder refilling.

Unshelled Sunflower Seeds:

  • Pros:
    • Higher nutritional value: Birds consume the entire seed, benefiting from all its nutrients.
    • Natural foraging: Cracking open the shells provides birds with exercise and mental stimulation, mimicking their natural foraging behavior.
    • Cost-effective: Unshelled seeds are generally cheaper than hulled options.
  • Cons:
    • Challenging for some birds: Smaller species might struggle to open the shells, leading to wasted food.
    • Attracts more mess: Discarded shells can build up around feeders and attract other animals.
    • May not attract all species: Larger birds who excel at cracking shells might prefer unshelled options.

Is too much sunflower seeds bad for birds?

Yes, too much sunflower seed can be bad for birds for several reasons:

Excess fat: While sunflower seeds are nutritious, they are high in fat content. Eating too much can lead to obesity, especially in smaller birds that are not burning enough calories through foraging. This can decrease their lifespan and make them more vulnerable to predators.

Nutritional imbalance: Sunflower seeds are not a complete diet for birds. They lack essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in other food sources like fruits, insects, and nuts. Overreliance on sunflower seeds can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health problems.

Competition and exclusion: When feeders are dominated by sunflower seeds, it can discourage other birds that seek different food sources. This can lead to reduced biodiversity and competition among bird species for limited resources.

Attracting other animals: Large amounts of sunflower seeds can attract unwanted visitors like squirrels, raccoons, and even rats. These animals can consume the seeds themselves, displace birds from feeders, and introduce potential diseases.

Discarded shells: Unshelled sunflower seeds can create a mess under feeders, attracting pests and making the area less aesthetically pleasing. This can also contribute to hygiene concerns if droppings and discarded shells accumulate.

Related Articles:

Kinds of bird seeds that attract the most birds

End the mess of feeding birds!

What kind of birds eat cracked corn?

What birds eat peanuts?

Wagner’s Songbird Supreme mixed bird seed


Comments 7
  1. I have a tube feeder and give them royal black sunflower seeds . I get a few small birds but not that many . My neighbor that feeds mixed seed seems to get a lot more birds then me. I don't get hardly any . I don't understand? Is it the name of the brand of food ? What am I doing wrong to not attract that many birds ? Thank you

  2. Oh Lynnbob, that is so frustrating!

    Of course, make sure your food is fresh. And you may consider a variety to bring in more species.

    And think about water.

    What are the priorities of need? Food. Water. Shelter.

    Birds need to feel safe. They need cover to fly into. It may be a matter of vegetation and trees. That's harder to fix right away. But something to think about.

    I wrote an article addressing why birds don't come to a feeder and how to get more birds. Read it here:
    maybe it will have additional ideas to help.

  3. This is a very informative article! Thank you for your help! Jerald. 😊👍👍

  4. do you suggest hulled organic sunflower seeds, any brand recommendations, if organic are better

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