BirdWatching Column: Bird Feeding on the Cheap
When a Bargain Isn’t a Bargain
Cheeps for Cheap
With this year’s record-setting drought and high temperatures, a great many
agricultural prices are expected to reach record-setting levels. Economizing on bird
feeding is becoming a higher priority than ever.
Sunflower seed prices are high, but switching to cheaper seed mixtures that include
a little sunflower seed mixed with more generic “bird seed” is an excellent example
of being penny wise but pound foolish. A lot of the seeds in mixes, especially
inexpensive ones, are ignored by most birds, and those filler seeds are not just a
waste of money—some attract nuisance wildlife such as mice and rats. Just as bad,
seed that doesn’t get eaten rots away, exposing your birds to disease-causing
bacteria and fungus.
Many of the smaller seeds in mixes are popular with birds that not only don’t need
subsidies from us but also cause problems for native birds. Although it’s counter-
intuitive, in the long run you’ll spend less by offering just sunflower seed. You’ll still
be providing food for the widest mixture of native birds, including chickadees and
nuthatches, finches, small woodpeckers, jays, and doves.
Black oil sunflower seed has more nutrition per kernel than striped sunflower, but
its thin shell is relatively easy to open. Striped sunflower has a harder, thicker shell,
so is not as easy to crack open. Most native birds don’t seem to have problems
opening striped sunflower, but some birds with softer bills, including House
Sparrows and starlings, are discouraged by it. Both species pose serious problems
for native cavity-nesters, and so it’s not good to subsidize them.
Rock Pigeons don’t seem to pose the kinds of ecological issues caused by other
invasive species, and provide a major food source for urban raptors, but their
droppings pose health hazards and they are also considered nuisances. Many cities,
including Duluth where I live, prohibit feeding pigeons. Pigeons swallow seeds
whole and don’t seem to discriminate between striped and black sunflower seeds.
To discourage pigeons, use tube feeders with relatively short perches, hopper
feeders, or platform feeders with low roofs. Also keep the ground below feeders
Never buy seed in plastic bags if you see condensation. Sunflower is cheaper per
pound when bought in quantity. If your neighbors also feed birds, you might go in
together to buy in quantity without exceeding your budget. Store seed in a metal or
plastic garbage container in an airtight, cool, dry place to protect it from moisture,
insects, and rodents. A few pest insects damage sunflower seeds. As larvae, they
reduce the food value and foster disease organisms. When they emerge as adult
moths or flies, they may become nuisances in our homes before starting the cycle all
All the caveats about bird feeding may seem daunting, and when our discretionary
income is low, we may decide it’s just not worth it. But these tips may help you
maximize the pleasure to you and value to the birds while reducing the expense.