SUNFLOWERS

Sunflower varieties range from short to tall and from pale yellow to orange, burgandy and red. This is a bronze sunflower (Photo/Terry Johnson)

Everyone who feeds seeds to backyard birds is familiar with sunflower seeds. In fact, sunflower seeds are the staple of practically all bird feeding efforts. Traditionally bird feeding is a hobby folks participated in strictly during the colder months of the year. 

However, during the past several decades, bird feeding is practiced throughout the year. As is the case in winter, sunflower seeds are the seeds most often served to our feathered backyard residents. 

We offer them in a variety of feeders ranging from feeding tables to hoppers. Recently, though, feeding sunflower seeds has taken on a new twist. It seems some innovative wildlife enthusiasts are offering birds seeds grown in a living sunflower feeder.

As the name of this new form of bird feeding suggests, practitioners of backyard feeding are planting stands of sunflowers in various spots around their yards. The sunflower plants and blossoms add color and texture to a yard as well as food for a variety of birds.

Most of us that feed birds sunflower seeds have seen sunflowers sprout beneath our feeders. However, in most cases the plants are cut down long before they bloom and produce seeds.  However, if you have ever permitted one of these plants to bloom, you realize it produces a beautiful yellow blossom worthy of inclusion in our flower gardens.

Last year when my wife suggested we plant sunflowers in our backyard flower gardens, before we planted the first seed she researched what varieties of sunflowers would grow in our neighborhood. 

When she told me what her research revealed I was astounded.  She found you can purchase the seeds for both annual and perennial varieties. The colors of these plants range from pale yellow to a rich gold, charcoal, white, and copper. Some varieties are so short you can step over them. Others soar far above your head. Why, it is even possible to obtain seeds for native sunflowers, some of which were once eaten by Native Americans. 

The five varieties we chose provided us with large, showy blossoms painted a kaleidoscope of colors ranging from pale yellow to orange, burgundy to red.

We intended to let the seed heads dry after they finished blooming.  It was our hope that during the winter each seed head would serve as a mini bird feeder. 

As it turned out, the birds had another agenda in mind. Before the seeds (technically called fruit) dried, they began plucking the green seeds from the plants’ plate-like seed heads. Consequently our sunflower patch indeed became a living sunflower feeder.

By far American goldfinches ate more seeds than any other birds. However, house finches and northern cardinals also consumed their fair share. While we did not spot Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice joining the feast, I suspect they took advantage of the available seeds.

Although our sunflower seeds did not last until winter, we were not disappointed. This is because we had a front row seat watching birds methodically strip the sunflower seed heads of their seeds. Male American goldfinches proved to be the showstoppers. Although during most winters we see far more American goldfinches at our traditional feeders, they are always bedecked in their drab winter plumage.  Believe me, their jet black and bright yellow plumage made it next to impossible to gaze upon them as the same variety of birds feeding on the seeds.

One thing we learned from our initial experience of planting sunflowers in a traditional flower garden is  that it’s important to pay attention to the maximum height of each plant. If you don’t, you may plant a tall variety at the front of your garden and by the time they bloom, they will shroud out the plants blooming behind them.

It is not too late to plant your own living sunflower feeder. If you want to try this technique without delving into the wide variety of sunflowers available to you, scratch up a spot in one of your gardens and scatter a handful of the sunflower seeds. If you don’t want to invest in some of the more unusual varieties on the market, plant some of the seeds you purchased as bird food. This will give you some idea what to expect should you decide you want to expand your sunflower plantings next year. 

Here is one final suggestion:  plant a patch of sunflowers where you can watch them from the comfort of your house. This will enable you to watch the gyrations the birds go through pulling seeds from the plants’ seed heads while at the same time hanging on as the wind tosses the heavy seed heads back and forth.  Believe me: watching wild birds feed from a seed head growing in a living sunflower feeder adds a new dimension to backyard wildlife watching.

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.