Sunflower hearts are one of the most popular foods offered at backyard feeding stations and are loved by a wide variety of species, from robins, cardinals and nuthatches, to doves, woodpeckers and thrushes.
A high-energy food source, sunflower hearts are simply the inside of a striped or black sunflower seed with the outer husk removed. This means that as well as being enjoyed by hard-billed species, including finches, they are also a firm favorite with soft-billed birds as they can be eaten easily, without the need to strip off the tough outer sunflower seed casing.
To learn more about feeder types and the nutritional value of the much-loved “fast food” of the bird world, please read on.
Sunflower hearts are a healthy, high-energy food, loved by a diverse range of bird species.
Simply put, they are the insides of sunflower seeds – or dehulled kernels – removed from their hard outer casing. This makes them an ideal mess-free food on bird tables and in feeders, as any spillage will quickly be eaten by birds foraging on the ground and no leftover inedible husks are dropped.
After sunflower seeds are harvested, they are dried and then cleaned and screened before being graded by size. While the larger seeds are mainly used for human consumption, the smaller ones are most suitable for the wild bird market.
Sunflower hearts are mechanically extracted from their shells using machinery that first cracks the husk and then discards this outer shell, leaving only the edible internal ‘heart’.
A European Robin - Sunflower hearts are one of the most popular foods offered at backyard feeding stations and are loved by a wide variety of species
Sunflower hearts are said to have the highest calorie-to-weight ratio per 100g of all bird seeds, making them a premium choice for birds with high metabolisms. This high-calorie content is beneficial for birds, as less energy is spent foraging for or digesting food as their daily needs are met by a smaller amount of food.
The essential oil content of sunflower hearts is vital for healthy feathers that remain effectively waterproof when exposed to poor weather. The high protein count is also important for the generation of new feathers when molting, while the rich vitamin content helps strengthen beaks and feather shafts.
Goldfinches and Tits are particularly partial to these high-energy seeds, and even birds that primarily exist on a diet of insects or invertebrates, for example, blackbirds, are increasingly turning to sunflower hearts as a significant part of their food intake
Due to the absence of a hard outer shell, sunflower hearts are easier for soft-billed birds to eat, as they do not need to crack open the husk to get to the goodness inside. This rules them out from enjoying whole sunflower seeds, which birds such as finches and sparrows can eat with no problems.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker - Sunflower hearts are a favorite food of many wild birds
The densely packed shot of calories contained in each sunflower heart supplies birds with an instant boost, without draining their energy levels by grappling with the task or shelling a whole seed. The minimal effort in eating and digesting sunflower hearts is a huge plus.
The essential oils and protein content of sunflower hearts help birds to maintain healthy skin, feathers and beaks. The high Vitamin B6 content, of up to 65 percent of a bird’s daily recommended amount in 100g of sunflower hearts, contributes towards brain function and their immune system.
A high concentration of magnesium is also present in sunflower hearts which is needed for muscle function and energy production.
These valuable minerals, essential fats and oils and vital dietary components work together to give any bird that regularly feasts on sunflower hearts an improved chance of survival in winter months.
If you’d prefer your backyard feasts to be an avian-only affair, you may want to consider a squirrel-proof feeder as squirrels also find sunflower hearts irresistible.
Sunflower hearts can be offered in a variety of feeders to suit many different feeding styles. Platform, tray and hopper feeders are popular, and hanging feeders are also suitable. Sprinkling sunflower hearts directly onto the ground will also be keenly pecked up by birds such as thrushes, doves and pigeons who forage directly on lawns and patios. They are also a great mess-free option, with the absence of outer husks meaning that there is no waste left behind in feeders or on the ground.
Sunflower hearts can be expensive compared to mixed seed feeds. If both options are offered, you may find that your sunflower heart feeders need restocking a lot sooner than the alternative choices provided because they are a favorite of so many species.
Mixing in a handful of sunflower hearts with other seeds or suet pellets will help your supplies last a bit longer!
A Nuthatch - Sunflower hearts can be offered in a variety of feeders to suit many different feeding styles
Compared to whole sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts are a slightly more expensive food to offer your backyard birds, although the benefits and quality are arguably more than worth the extra cost.
It’s also worth remembering that with sunflower hearts, there is no wastage, as the entire seed will be eaten, whereas, with the cheaper sunflower seeds, the inedible husks will be stripped off and dropped on the floor.
Sunflower hearts have a shelf life of around five months and should be stored in a cool, dry place to avoid becoming moldy or dried out. In reality, and if offered regularly, it’s doubtful that a bag will last for anywhere near five months!
As well as the whole ‘heart’, sunflower kernels may also be sold in the form of smaller chips or as crushed seeds. Smaller pieces are easier to digest for juvenile birds or smaller bird species, although entire sunflower hearts are soft and small enough to be relatively risk-free for even the youngest nestlings.
Sunflowers are excellent pollinators and can make an important contribution to local biodiversity where they are grown. They can also improve soil conditions and prevent erosion.
However, growing sunflowers commercially requires a substantial amount of water resources and irrigation can put pressure on water supplies for nearby communities. Irrigation schemes that collect and reuse rainwater are one way of ensuring that sunflower cultivation is as sustainable as possible.
Sunflower seed production is a relatively sustainable process that causes no known significant damage to air, water, land, soil or forests, where pesticide-free farming methods are used. Organic methods of pest and weed control are recommended to leave as minimal an environmental footprint as possible.
Sunflower hearts have a relatively low carbon footprint compared to other seeds, and Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s leading exporters of sunflower seeds.
A European Goldfinch feeding on sunflower hearts
Despite sometimes being known as ‘fast food’ for birds, sunflower hearts are in fact a far healthier food than fried chicken or French fries, and can provide much of a bird’s daily nutritional needs, as well as being a vital source of quick calories, which can be key to survival in winter months particularly.
Sunflower hearts are small enough to be suitable for even the smallest beaks and digestive systems. As well as whole kernels, they are also available for sale as smaller ‘chips’ or in crushed form, which is safe and does not pose a choking hazard for even the tiniest bird species and their offspring.
Sunflower seeds may spoil if exposed to air or moisture, so it’s recommended to store them in an airtight container. It’s also a good idea to put them somewhere that mice or rats are unable to access, and strong outer packaging should be used to ensure that no nibbling through a bag or box can happen.
Start by offering just a few days’ supply of sunflower hearts in your feeders. You’ll probably notice they empty fairly quickly once birds realize they are there.
It’s important to regularly clean feeders out and throw away any uneaten seeds around every two weeks, and it’s definitely not advised to leave the same food in a feeder for more than a month. Cleaning feeders before refilling them helps to avoid the spread of disease among your avian visitors.
A European Siskin - It’s important to regularly clean feeders out and throw away any uneaten seeds
Of all the foods offered at bird feeders the world over, it’d be hard to find a more popular and nutritional option than sunflower hearts.
Preferred to the hard-shelled sunflower seeds as they are easier and quicker to swallow, sunflower hearts are packed with calories needed for energy, particularly in winter, and are full of vital proteins and oils birds need for strong feathers and healthy skin.
When choosing a stockist, it’s a sensible idea to check out their sustainable credentials, to ensure that your sunflower hearts are from an ethical and environmentally friendly supplier. Backyard birds can, and will, devour any sunflower hearts available to them, so with such a high rate of consumption, the environmental impact of these seeds has the potential to be huge.
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