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Landmark Bird Feeding Study Underway

Thursday, December 15, 2005
filed under: Utilization/Trade

A landmark study that got under way this fall – “Project Wildbird” – intends to gather comprehensive information about seed and feeder preferences of wild birds throughout North America.

Wayne Lindberg, president of Sunbird Inc, Huron, S.D., says that bird feeding is estimated to be a $2 billion-plus annual industry in the U.S. alone, with consumer spending on the sunflower portion of birdseed around $200 million. What is the significance of the birdfood market to sunflower? “I feel that it brings a consistent, stabilizing factor into the sunflower marketplace,” says Lindberg.

While millet, milo, and corn can be interchangeable in the birdseed mix, this market segment will always represent a steady market for sunflower, with an annual growth rate of about 3 to 5%. “We’re not a market leader, but acreage needs continue to increase modestly,” says Lindberg.

About 600,000 acres of the annual U.S. sunflower crop is sold into the birdfood market, according to the National Sunflower Association. Birdfood processors commonly base their price to producers off the oilseed market and an average oil premium, with price that may fluctuate based on supply/demand factors and oil content by production area.

For producers of confection sunflower seed, the birdfood market can provide an alternative for product that doesn’t meet human food standards. A list of NSA member bird seed buyers can be found on the 'Seed Suppliers/Buyers' page within the Buyers section on the NSA web site,

Birdfeeding continues to be a growing hobby, with more baby boomers becoming involved and more people staying closer to their backyards. “But it’s estimated that 30% to 50% of feeders go unfilled,” says Lindberg, “so let’s do what we can to get them filled.”

He says that birdseed buyers are becoming more quality conscious, sensitive to chaff that may plug bird feeders. “Cleaning capability at the processor has improved, but it still helps to get product as clean as possible in the field, as there are buyers who pay premium for low dockage.” He notes that dehull sunflower is also becoming more of a factor in bird feeding. “People don’t like picking up the shells.”

Study to address key birdfeeding questions

While the public’s interest in bird feeding is substantial, the amount of scientific research that has been conducted on wild bird feeding is lagging, according to David Horn, assistant professor of biology at Millikin University, Decatur, Ill., and director of research for Wild Bird Centers of America, Inc.

Horn says knowledge of seed preferences is based primarily on unscientific observations and a handful of studies, each with short-comings. One study that dates back to 1980 found that two of the most attractive seeds to birds which use feeders were black oil sunflower and white proso millet. This study was limited, however, to a few locations, and the study’s conclusions were restricted to species that were primarily found on the East Coast. Another seed study by Cornell in the mid 1990’s involved thousands of participants, but did not examine seed preferences of birds in summer.

Thus, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI) trade association began plans for a first of its kind study on seed and feeder preferences of common backyard birds in the U.S. and Canada. Horn, who is principal investigator for WBFI’s seed and feeder preference study, says the continent-wide research will answer questions about seed and feeder preferences of wild birds and how they are influenced by geographic region and season of year.

Some of the key questions the study hopes to address:

•Are seed preferences of birds equivalent in different regions of the U.S. and Canada? For example, does a black-capped chickadee in Maine have a similar preference for black-oil sunflower as a black-capped chickadee in Oregon?

•Are seed preferences of birds equivalent at different times of the year? For example, does a northern cardinal switch to a higher fat content seed during the winter months to meet its increased metabolic demand?

•Do birds have a preference for platform, hopper, or tube feeders? and is there an interaction between seed preferences and feeder preferences?

•When a particular type of feeder is available, do birds eat seeds they would normally not feed on?

The study will also provide answers on how characteristics of one's yard (i.e., number and types of trees and shrubs) and neighborhood (i.e., urban vs. rural) influences the species and abundance of birds present.

The study will be conducted for three years beginning this fall, and continue through summer 2008. Results should help provide customers with the best birdfood recommendations and products, thereby potentially increasing birdseed and feeder sales.

WBFI is seeking financial contributions from the birdseed industry to help fund the study, as well as birdfeeding enthusiasts to be “citizen scientists” to help collect data for the study. Visit the project web site ( for more information – Tracy Sayler

Wild Bird Feeding Industry:

Avian flu not a danger for bird watchers or feeders in North America

Media reports about cases of avian flu overseas may result in undue fears about wild bird feeding. However, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry points out that the H5N1 strain has not been documented in North America, and there is no record of humans contracting avian influenza from wild birds. The cases of avian flu in other countries occurred in people who have been in close contact with infected poultry and waterfowl – there is a distinction between poultry and waterfowl, and the smaller wild birds that visit bird feeders.

Susan Hays, executive director of the WBFI, issued the following update for The Sunflower on how the organization is addressing the avian flu issue:

Leading human health experts including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advise people that they can continue to feed wild birds because as of November 2005, avian flu strain H5N1 is not an issue in North American poultry or migratory waterfowl. WBFI works closely with ornithologists and wildlife scientists at institutions including the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Izaac Walton League, American Birding Association, and National Wildlife Refuge Association to closely monitor the possible threat of avian flu to songbirds. To help consumers understand the true situation in North America, WBFI issued a press release in October 2005 to 2,500 daily and weekly newspapers across the U.S.

Because avian flu strain H5N1 is not an issue in North American poultry or migratory waterfowl, Project Wildbird will continue as planned. We will involve thousands of individuals as citizen scientists in this landmark study from the fall of 2005 until the fall of 2008. The media coverage that the WBFI Research Foundation will generate as a component of its promotion of this study will serve to increase consumer awareness of backyard bird feeding. Hundreds of citizen scientists committed to an experimental protocol will be using black oil sunflower seed as a constant in their feeder rotation.

The WBFI is encouraging consumers to continue to enjoy their bird feeding and watching activities, as well as other outdoor activities. The organization has information about avian flu and safe bird watching and feeding tips available on its web sites and

Ornithologists (bird scientists) point out that while the risk of avian flu is remote, it’s still a good practice to keep bird feed and feeding areas clean to help reduce the possibility of disease transmission in birds. And it’s good hygiene to wash your hands after filling or cleaning feeders.

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