BirdWatching Column: Bird Feeding on the Cheap

Published on Dec. 15, 2012 by BirdWatching

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

over again.

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.