Bless Those Birds
How much of the each year's U.S. sunflower crop is being devoured by
avian consumers such as our fine-feathered friend, the cardinal.
A big chunk. And that's just the "paying public." It does not take
into account the notorious criminal element (blackbirds) which pilfers
Wild bird feeding is the most popular wildlife-related recreational
activity in the nation, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
A 1996 survey reported that 52 million Americans feed wild birds around
their homes. This huge group spent an estimated $2.7 billion on feed
and an additional $832 million on bird-feeding accessories (feeders,
houses, water warmers) that year -figures which were up 16 percent from
the amount estimated to have been spent in 1991.
Those numbers don't surprise birdfood suppliers, who report a steady
increase in demand over the past several years. Terry Hall, president
of Hall Grain Company in Akron, Colo., reports that "usage is up
dramatically" - particularly in terms of the amount of sunflower
directed toward this particular end use.
Industry sources believe the bird-feeding public has become more
serious and educated about this avocation over the past several years.
They're not only buying more feed to fill multiple feeders, but also are
more familiar with the product that goes into those feeders.
Wayne Lindberg, president of Sunbird, Inc., which buys and sells seed
from its Huron, S.D., location, also is the newly elected president of
the Wild Bird Feeding Institute, an industry trade group. He says as of
the late '90s, buyers are "more conscientious, more knowledgeable about
what they want - and are demanding a higher-quality product" free of
items like small twigs or other foreign material. He says today's
average bird-feeding customer is more of a connoisseur, preferring a mix
that's tailored to the types of birds in one's own backyard.
What today's bird-feeding customer wants most often is sunflower - either
straight or in mixes. According to Lindberg, sunflower and millet are
the top two choices for birdfood ingredients, with sunflower probably
the leader. Sue Wells, executive director of the National Bird Feeding
Society, says that black oil-type sunflower seed is the "hands-down
favorite of most seed-eating birds."
To bolster her point, Wells draws the comparison between birds at a
feeder and children at the dinner table. Like children, birds will
search through the offered foods, looking for the preferred item -
which, in most cases, is sunflower.
Sunflower has another appeal - this time to the person who is doing the
feeding. Wells explains that beginning bird feeders tend to want quick
results: If they put up a feeder at noon on a Saturday, they hope to
enjoy a flock of winged visitors by Sunday morning. That's more likely
to occur if oil sunflower is on the menu, Wells suggests.
The National Bird Feeding Society for which Wells works is a
15,000-member consumer-based organization whose mission is to improve
bird feeding for the benefit of both people and birds. While the group
does not have specific demographic data, it views bird feeding as a
hobby that reaches across all segments of the population (e.g., income
level, geography, age). Hobbyists often start with a single feeder and
then expand, feeding tailored mixes to attract specific types of birds.
According to suppliers, the bird-feeding consumer is not - within
reason - particularly price-sensitive. Though the birds may view it
differently, bird feeding is not a "necessary" expense. The consumer is
enjoying a leisure-time pursuit and wants to keep his or her feathered
friends satisfied and coming back. Therefore, price does not
substantially impact purchases.
Major chains such as K-Mart, Wal-Mart and grocery stores like Winn
Dixie and Krogers are very large players in the bird feeding industry.
It is a high-end item for them, and these retailers respond by
allocating plenty of shelf space for the birdfood section.
Any number of special mixes are available - often packaged to appeal to
the buyer's desire to attract certain types of birds. Sunflower is a
major component of many mixes, or is sold separately for "straight"
feeding. Contrary to 20 years ago, oil sunflower is by far the leading
sunflower ingredient, accounting for 85 to 90 percent of total sunflower
entering the birdfood market. Confection (striped) sunflower is usually
directed toward birds with larger beaks (e.g., the grosbeak) or to add
visual appeal to a mix.
Sunflower chips (pieces of kernel) are the convenience food of the bird
feeding industry. Chips offer the consumers (birds) fast access, pure
energy and no waste. And because there's no hull, there's less mess
left on the ground below the feeder. That's a consideration for
"rooftop dwellers" in urban areas - so price is corresponding even less
a factor in such instances.
For the confection sunflower processor, chips sometimes are, in
essence, "free meats" - products that arrive from the farm already
hulled, be that during harvest or in transit. These kernel parts do not
meet human food-grade industry standards, points out Bob Majkrzak,
president of Red River Commodities, Fargo, N.D. But they can and do
become a premium food for the birds.
This growing market segment of the overall sunflower industry represents
good news for the sunflower producer, affirms Scott Smith, general
manager of Sidney, Neb.-based Penn Pak III, the nation's largest
wholesale supplier of wild birdfood. He points out that the birdfood
sector is one more important avenue for sunflower product, an additional
marketing channel for the producer.
Smith says the main determining factors in how much a given birdfood
processor/ packer is bidding for seed at a given time are (1) the
oil-type sunflower market price and (2) domestic competition from other
packers. Birdfood processors commonly base their price to producers off
the oil seed market and the oil premiums that market pays. "We compete
with the oil market," affirms Sunbird's Wayne Lindberg.
The birdfood market typically picks up in late summer or early fall, as
retail stores begin stocking their shelves in anticipation of cold
weather rising demand.
Traditionally, demand has intensified during winter months -
particularly in northern regions and during severe weather cycles. That
curve is becoming less pronounced, however, according to Terry Hall. He
says the birdfood market has been expanding in southerly states, such as
California and Arizona, where feeding occurs at quite consistent levels
Still, the birdfood market does some-times afford producers especially
attractive pricing opportunities. One such window is situational: times
when stocks of oil-type sunflower seed are tight and birdfood packers
must compete more aggressively for seed. Another is more chronological:
late August or early September, before the main sunflower harvest period
gets under way. Growers who are able to harvest their sunflower
exceptionally early may benefit from an already-hungry birdfood market
willing to pay a premium price.
For producers of confection sunflower seed, the birdfood market can
provide an alternative for product which does not meet human food
"Consumption in that [birdfood] market is definitely exciting,"
concludes Red River Commodities' Bob Majkrzak. This market, he notes,
provides an important additional product outlet for sunflower growers in
addition to the oilseed crusher and the confection in-shells and
kernels. Continued growth in the number of U.S. bird feeders is good
news for U.S. sunflower producers. - Ruth Isaak
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