Outside the Cage


The most common reason a pet store does not sell wild bird feed and products is lack of space. Certainly in my father’s store, with a full line of products plus fish and other animals in 2,000 square feet, the reality of space limitations was apparent. Yet, when he really wanted to bring something in, he would find room. By dismissing wild bird products because of space, retailers are basically throwing money away.


According to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association, approximately 40 to 50 percent of pet owners feed wild birds. Fittingly, 65 percent of pet bird owners feed wild birds, but perhaps surprisingly, the second largest group of wild bird feeders (at 63 percent) was saltwater fish owners. If a store carries all pet categories, approximately half of its customers feed wild birds. Even if a store just sells dog and cat products, which is the most common type of pet supply store in the U.S., more than 40 percent of its customers feed wild birds—that’s a lot of potential add-on sales.


The second argument pet stores use against carrying wild bird products is because it’s thought that customers buy these items from big-box stores and not from pet stores. According to the Wild Bird Feeding Industry Research Foundation, half of customers did buy bird feed from big box stores, but 25 percent, the next biggest cohort, said they bought feed from pet stores. That’s a significant number of customers and makes it well worth having at least one small section with wild bird food and products in any pet store.


Pet stores can outshine competitors by selling high-quality wild bird feed that will attract more desirable bird species and leave less waste than products sold in big-box stores, which often include ingredients that most birds will not eat. How much money is wasted buying cheap seed mixes with lots of fillers when half of it ends up on the ground? A pet store can show the value of buying better quality food. It may have a higher price tag, but without any fillers, it has the same or even better value than those cheap mixes. Plus, customers will see a big difference in the number of species of birds coming to their feeders, and that alone can bring them back to buy more of that quality food.


Pet stores need to first tell customers why their wild bird food is better, however, which can be done with an informative sign. For example, a large sign that says something like, "Want Wild Bird Food That Attracts More Birds With Little Waste? Check Out Our High Quality Products!" If a sign makes customers say "yes" to themselves, it can make a huge impact on sales. Companies offering high-quality wild bird seed often have signs, shelf talkers and brochures to back up why their product is the best, which pet stores can display. Employees can also learn from this information, equipping them to sell more wild bird products.


Besides high-quality seed and seed mixes, there are a number of other food products retailers should offer, as they will attract even more species of birds outside the usual seedeaters. The second largest category of wild bird food is suet, and just like seed mixes, suet can vary in quality. The best have great ingredients added and flavors that wild birds love. Low-quality suet usually comes with lots of fillers—often the same ones used in cheap seed mixes—that the birds will not touch. Pet stores should offer only high-quality suet.


The third largest category of wild birds that people like to feed is hummingbirds. Although usually only one species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, can be seen east of the Mississippi River, people love to feed these jewels of the bird world all over the U.S. Retailers should avoid carrying any hummingbird food with added dyes. Red dye, often seen in low-quality mixes, can cause terrible health problems for hummingbirds. Let the red color that attracts these lovely birds be in the feeder, not the feed.


One last item to offer, in terms of wild bird food, seems to be tailor-made for pet specialty retailers—insects. Many species of wild birds, even those known primarily as seedeaters, eat insects, and some species are only attracted to feeders if insects are offered.


Mealworms, waxworms and crickets are favorites for many birds. Mealworms and waxworms are already sold packaged for wild birds, and pet stores that already sell crickets for reptiles can make a great additional sale by marketing them for birds as well. Customers can put the crickets in a plastic bag in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes and then offer to their avian visitors.


Insects given to wild birds should be dusted with a calcium/phosphorus powder, just like with reptiles. This is especially important in the spring and summer, when female birds need to produce eggs and young birds are growing, as these insects do not have much calcium in them. However, if the insects are part of a mix or in suet, then dusting is not necessary.


Another great reason to feed insects to wild birds—the more insect-eating birds that come to the feeders, the more insects they will eat around the feeders as well. This can get rid of the need to use potentially harmful insecticides in the yard.


Besides offering a mix of wild bird feed, stores should offer some feeders, perhaps hung above the food for efficient use of space. They should be strong and durable and preferably squirrel-proof, although baffles and other discs can help keep these furry pests away. Admittedly, squirrels are extremely intelligent when it comes to getting into feeders, so many people have found having both a baffle and a squirrel-proof feeder is the best way to be sure they are feeding only the birds.  PB


Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.