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Bringing Back the Magic: A Transformational Memior

Are Sunflower Seeds for the Birds?
By Alicia McWatters, Ph.D.
The sunflower (Helianthus annus) is a member of the Asteraceae family (sunflower family), also known as the Compositae family. Many other useful plants belong to the sunflower family, such as echinacea, lettuce, marigolds, dandelion, chicory, thistle, endive and chrysanthemums. The sunflower plant is tall (5-20'), hearty, and it produces large brilliant yellow flowers and edible seeds, which are technically fruits. The sunflower is thought to be native to North America. However, some researchers think that the sunflower’s origin is Peru. Sunflower seeds are cultivated in Bulgarian Hungary, Romania, Russia, Argentina, the US and parts of Africa.


Sunflower plants are easy to grow and will brighten up your garden with their bold coloration and dramatic size. Locked inside each sunflower seed is the potential for the growth of an entire plant, which can provide more seeds/fruits and offer a nourishing food for you and your birds. In early spring, sow sunflower seeds ½ inch deep. Be sure to use a rich organic soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8. Soil should remain average to dry; keep well-drained. This plant requires a lot of room for growth, so the spacing required between plants should be 1-2' with a row spacing of 3'. Sunflower plants require full sun to very light shade.

To protect them from wild birds, cover the flower heads with cheesecloth or a fine netting and fasten it securely. Harvest time (depending on the species) is 70-90 days after planting. When seeds or flower heads turn downwards, cut heads leaving a 2" stem; hang upside down to dry. Use a wire brush or your fingers to extract the seeds. Seeds should be stored carefully in a dry, cool environment. If they are placed in a dark air-tight container they will stay fresh for several weeks. Never feed your bird moldy nuts and seeds. Keeping them in the refrigerator or freezer will extend their lifespan and prevent rancidity.

Sunflowers are more than just pretty plants, and their seeds are more than just a high energy snack food for your birds. They are a rich treasure of vitamins, minerals, protein, polyunsaturated fat and fiber. Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of the essential fatty acid linoleic acid, which is converted to other biologically active fatty acids that are required for optimum health. These seeds also provide an excellent amino acid profile. Sunflower seeds contain appreciable amounts of vitamin E, B complex, and are packed with minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and calcium. They also supply quick energy by releasing glycogen (a form of sugar) from the liver; and at the same time, they act as a calmative because they contain a high level of the amino acid tryptophan which has a calming effect on the brain.

The levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which regulate our behavior, are controlled by what we eat, and neurotransmitters are closely linked to mood. A poor diet will increase the likelihood of depression and stress. Stress and nutritional deficiencies are both common precursors to many illnesses and disorders (both mental and physical), and they can alter our birds’ brain chemistries, as it would our own.

The neurotransmitters most commonly associated with mood are dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. When the brain produces enough serotonin, tension is alleviated. At the neurochemical and physiological level, neurotransmitters are very important. These substances carry impulses between nerve cells. The substance that processes the neurotransmitter called serotonin is the amino acid tryptophan. Eating a quality-protein, complex carbohydrate-rich diet raise the level of tryptophan in the brain, therebv increasing serotonin production which has a relaxing effect on our emotions. Niacin (B3) is converted from tryptophan, under the influence of pyridoxine (B6). B6 is essential for the conversion of tryptophan. Vitamin C increases uptake of tryptophan. Some food sources of tryptophan are soybeans, lentils, peas, brown rice, peanuts, pumpkins, sunflower and sesame seeds, kelp and algae.

Tyrosine is needed for brain function. This amino acid is directly involved in the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, two vital neurotransmitters that are synthesized in the brain and the adrenal medulla (norepinephrine). The consumption of protein-rich foods promotes the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, which promotes alertness. (A diet too high in protein, however, can cause stress and anxiety.) A lack of tyrosine can result in a deficiency of norepinephrine in certain sites of the brain, causing mood disorders, such as depression, stress and anxiety. The effects of stress may be prevented or reduced if tyrosine is obtained in sufficient amounts in the foods we consume or (if a tyrosine deficiency exists) by means of supplementation in a high complex carbohydrate diet. Some food sources of tyrosine are soybeans, sunflower, almonds, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds.

An amino acid deficiency is frequently caused by protein malnutrition. Such deficiency states may be associated with improper diet, failure to digest and absorb properly, stress, infection or trauma, drug use, imbalances or deficiencies involving other nutrients and so forth. Psychotropic drugs are sometimes used experimentally when a bird is experiencing psychological or behavioral problems. Personally, I would rather see dietary measures be implemented before resorting to artificial means with mood-altering drugs, which attempt to regulate our birds’ neurochemistry and carry potentially dangerous side-effects.

While depression may be caused by an amino acid imbalance, be aware that depression can also be caused by the use of any of the following prescription drugs: many types of antibiotics, including tetracyclines, neomycin, metronidazole; some antihistamines, including those containing Benadryl; steroids and other hormones; tranquilizers including valium; some seizure medications; and some psychosis medications including haldol.

Sunflower seeds are available both raw and roasted, hulled and unhulled. Salted sunflower seeds should NOT be used. Raw sunflower seeds are more nutritional and have lower fat content. Sprouted sunflower seeds may also be offered to your Greys and these supply them with the addition of vitamin C, little to no fat, and a highly digestible complex carbohydrate source.

Now I bet you didn’t realize there were so many good reasons for feeding sunflower seeds to your companion Grey. Seeds and nuts are highly nutritious foods and should be served in small amounts in a varied, low-fat, high carbohydrate avian diet. As with all things, moderation is the key to optimum health for our companion Greys.

Further reading: Farner, S. Donald, King, R. James, and Parkes, C. Kenneth Avian Biology. Volume IX, San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1993.

Note: A few individuals may be allergic to members of the sunflower family and therefore should avoid their consumption.

Editor’s Note: If your Grey is primarily eating an all nut and seed diet, it is not getting proper nutrition. However, if added as a portion to daily vegetables, fruits and pellets, nuts and seeds may add nutritional benefit. As stated by Alicia, moderation is the key to optimum health.

All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means, without permission of the author.

This article was first published in the Summer 1997 issue of The Grey Play Round Table Magazine.

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