Black Oil Sunflower Seeds vs. Striped

Black oil sunflower seeds are a staple of bird feeders around the world, but humans mainly snack on striped seeds. Find out why here.

Farmers grow more than 50 million tons of sunflower seeds every year. The black ones end up in our bird feeders, as well as on our grocery store shelves as cooking oil. The striped ones mostly go in our lunch sacks, though some land in our bird feeders.

“All sunflower seeds are edible and delicious,” says Randel Agrella, senior horticulturalist with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Humans mainly eat the striped ones, probably because the black ones are too small for us to crack open peaceably.

What Are the Differences Between Black Oil Sunflower Seeds and Regular Sunflower Seeds?

Black oil sunflower seed is the preferred seed for birds because it has:

  • A higher oil content, which means more nutrition;
  • More calories per bite;
  • A thinner shell that’s easier to crack open, so birds expend less energy eating.

“Almost all seed-eating birds prefer black oil to striped sunflower,” says Brian Cunningham, product and hobby education manager for Wild Birds Unlimited. “This is the best of all seeds in the shell, attracting the greatest variety of small and large birds.”

People generally stick with striped sunflower seeds because they’re larger and easier for human hands to shell. But it’s OK to eat black oil sunflower seeds. They’re safe for human consumption.

Are Black Oil Sunflower Seeds and Regular Sunflower Seeds Grown on the Same Plant?

No. While all sunflower seeds originate from the common sunflower plant, Helianthus annuus, there are many sunflower varieties produced by selective breeding. A few include striped, black oil, ring of fire and mammoth. Some kinds of sunflowers produce a lot of seeds. Others don’t.

Are These Seeds Prepared and Processed Differently?

No. They’re all grown and processed the same way.

“The main thing to think about when buying black oil sunflower seeds or any [oily] mix is that you want to get it while it’s fresh, because those seeds can go rancid,” says Emma Greig, project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch.

“Don’t go to some store that rarely sells bird seed and find a clearance bag in the back. You can tell [if it’s rancid] by smelling it.”

Why Do Black Oil Sunflower Seeds Cost More?

A bag of black oil sunflower seeds generally costs more than a bag of mixed feed because the market price of sunflower seeds is higher than other ingredients, like millet.

This winter, the price of all bird seed is expected to be higher than normal because drought in the West and Great Plains affected crop yields. Higher demand for bird seed, coupled with today’s generally high shipping costs, also affect the price.

Why Are Black Oil Sunflower Seeds Considered Better for Birds?

They are easier for birds to crack open and contain more fat and calories than striped sunflower seeds, which means more reward with less effort. That’s especially important in winter, when other food sources require more energy to find.

Which Birds Prefer Each Type of Seeds?

Most seed-eating birds will eat any kind of sunflower seed. They’re likely go for black oil first because, as we mentioned above, it’s easier to crack open.

Birds That Eat Black Oil Sunflower Seeds

  • Finches (house, purple, gold, rosy, Cassin’s);
  • Chickadees;
  • Nuthatches;
  • Northern cardinals;
  • Mourning doves;
  • Tufted titmice;
  • Towhees;
  • Blackbirds;
  • Woodpeckers;
  • Evening grosbeaks;
  • Redpolls;
  • Pine siskins;
  • Indigo buntings;
  • Gray catbirds;
  • Bushtits;
  • Grackles (house and common);
  • Black-billed magpies;
  • Sparrows;
  • Jays.

Birds That Eat Regular (Striped) Sunflower Seeds

Most birds that eat black oil sunflower seeds will also eat striped ones, except birds with weak beaks such as mourning doves and sparrows.

“Birds might eat a single seed type when it is the only thing offered,” says Cunningham. “But they won’t touch it if their preferred food is also available. For example, Pine siskins will eat black oil sunflower, nyjer and sunflower chips. But when all three are offered, they take the nyjer and chips and hardly touch the black oil sunflower.”

Should I Buy Sunflower Seeds With or Without the Shell?

Seeds that have been shelled, known as chips, kernels, hulled seeds or hearts, cost more than seeds with the shells on. But they’re worth the price in some situations.

“Chips are highly preferred by the birds since they don’t have to take the time to remove the shell,” says Cunningham. “Sunflower shells contain a chemical that kills or stunts the growth of many species of plants. You may notice a bare spot below your feeder area where shells accumulate.”

Also, shells can be messy.

“If you’re feeding birds in a small town home or condo patio, you don’t want a lot of hulls kicking around,” says Maricopa County master gardener Pam Perry. “But [if you use the more expensive hulled seeds] dole them out in batches, like a scoop in the morning. Otherwise, they’ll eat all day long if you keep feeding them.”

However, seeds without shells are not always ideal.

Shells keep seeds moist, dry and protected from the elements. And Cunningham says some birds, such as jays, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and nutcrackers, prefer to hide a cache of seeds in the fall to eat later. “Often times they prefer seeds that still have their shell on them so they stay fresh longer,” he says.

Also, shell-less seeds are not always black oil seeds.

“Most sunflower chips are produced as by-products when striped sunflowers are processed for food-grade products, which use only the best whole kernels,” says Cunningham. “The smaller pieces are screened out and these finer chips are often used to feed the birds.”

Karuna Eberl
A freelance writer and indie film producer, Karuna Eberl covers the outdoors and nature side of DIY, exploring wildlife, green living, travel and gardening for Family Handyman. She also writes FH’s Eleven Percent column, about dynamic women in the construction workforce. Some of her other credits include the March cover of Readers Digest, National Parks, National Geographic Channel and Atlas Obscura. Karuna and her husband are also on the final stretch of renovating an abandoned house in a near-ghost town in rural Colorado. When they’re not working, you can find them hiking and traveling the backroads, camping in their self-converted van.