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Bless Those Birds

Monday, March 1, 1999
filed under: Utilization/Trade

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

growers' fields.

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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