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Affirming Sunflower’s Importance to Bird Feeding

Monday, September 1, 2008
filed under: Utilization/Trade

By Sue Hays

In the winter of 2005, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI) Research Foundation initiated “Project Wildbird,” a $1 million study of feed and feeder preferences of wild birds in the United States and Canada. The study was launched in part with the generous donation of a three-year, $10,000 grant from the National Sunflower Association. The goal of Project Wildbird is to provide scientifically substantiated recommendations for a hobby in which more than 55 million Americans participate.

Year two ended on September 21, 2007, with data being collected by 129 citizen scientists from 33 states and two Canadian provinces. Each participant in Project Wildbird uses feed and four feeders provided by contributors to the WBFI Research Foundation. (For a current list of contributors, please visit our website — In the first two years, the black oil sunflower, and medium and fine sunflower chips have been contributed by Anderson Seed of Mentor, Minn. The striped sunflower has been contributed by D&D Commodities of Stephen, Minn. All feed used in Project Wildbird meets the WBFI Quality Standards Program definitions (found on the WBFI website).

In two years, participants in the study have recorded 411,617 bird visits of 94 species during 5,587 45-minute observations. The 10 most-abundant species visiting feeders, in order of greatest to least abundance, were: House Sparrow, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Brown-Headed Cowbird, Northern Cardinal, Black-Capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, Pine Siskin, Common Grackle and Purple Finch.

The results of Project Wildbird are important to sunflower producers. Dr. David Horn, principal investigator for Project Wildbird and an assistant professor of biology at Millikin University, states, “The importance of sunflower seed as a critical component of a successful bird feeding experience is being well established. After two years of data, three of the top four seeds selected by birds are sunflower products — including black-oil sunflower, fine sunflower chips and medium sunflower chips.

“Black-oil sunflower is the most popular seed of the 10 seed types offered in the study, and it is the top seed choice of six of the 20 most-abundant birds to visit feeders.” Horn adds that “the popularity of fine and medium sunflower chips to birds has the potential to serve as an effective substitute to Nyjer (thistle).”

Another important finding from the first two years of data collection is that after winter, summer is the season with the greatest abundance of birds at feeders. “The large number of birds at feeders during the summer time suggests that people who feed birds can feed year-round. An increase in summer feeding could in turn increase the demand for more sunflower acres in the future,” Horn observes.

Now in its third year, Project Wildbird is examining why birds prefer the seeds that they do. Results summarizing the three-year study will be presented at the WBFI annual meeting in November. The National Sunflower Association will also receive the final report from the study.
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