For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Birds when the Economy Sucks
Bird feeding on a budget Last week I got an email from my dear friend Tim Winker, who titled it, “Feed the birds? Who can afford it?” He wrote, As you probably know, the price of black sunflower seeds tripled over the summer, from about $8 to $22 for the large bag (50 lbs? Can’t recall right now). As a result, we have quit filling our bird feeders because it has gotten too darn expensive. I doubt we are the only ones who feel the same way. Do you have any idea how much sales of bird seed have dropped? Most importantly, how does this affect the birds?” Jerry Davis at the Wisconsin State Journal was wondering the same thing in an article he put together for the State Journal on January 11. He quoted Jean Ruhser, a retired UW-La Crosse ornithologist in west central Wisconsin, who said some simple choices could keep us from having to make a concession. She said, “I’d rather cut out something else on the entertainment budget than reduce feeding and watching birds,” but she does find herself cutting back these days. To get more avian bang for the buck, she suggests that, “Cost-free efforts, such as providing water in addition to food, can bring in more birds than spending bucks on seed.” She also stresses that “The single most important thing is to select the right feeder. A high-quality tube feeder with a cage around it to keep out squirrels and even marauding blue jays will help cut feed costs.” Bob Ross, owner and manager of a Wild Birds Unlimited store down there, also figures squirrel-proof feeders are the way to save money, and warns that saving money by buying cheap seed mixtures wastes money in the long run, saying, “Birds will not eat old seed, and don’t put out feed with a lot of fillers in it, such as milo and sorghum.” I personally would rather buy bird seed than movie theater tickets or dinner out, but when you’re out of a job, that’s a false choice—for many people right now, the choice is between feeding birds or feeding their family. And Meena Haribal at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology pointed out that, “if [bird feeding] costs $25 per week, even if one does not feed birds for 12 months a year, it still costs around $700 to $800 a year. If that money was used to create real habitat for birds instead of converting habitats to grow those seeds, how that would change the world.” Meena concluded, “Wow! Human beings are strange!” Yes, we’re strange. Without our continued support in the form of bird seed, winter birds would surely survive, though they’d disperse more and not be as easy to watch. But when the economy is hurting, it’s not just our backyard birds that lose out in terms of our feeders. It’s ALL the birds—the warblers, tanagers, wading and diving birds and all the rest, most of whom never visit feeders. They lose out when we start considering habitat protection a luxury that we can no longer afford to protect. As with other hard choices we’re facing right now, feeding birds and donating for conservation are issues we’re each going to have to consider as we budget for these times. If you can’t bear to lose all your birds, keep a few tiny window feeders filled with sunflower seeds for your chickadees. It will be a sad day indeed when we have to turn our backs on them.