While caring for domestic creatures is still big business, a considerable segment of the U.S. population is interested in taking care of wild birds. Often viewed as symbols of natural beauty, grace and freedom, they’re still just animals with nutritional needs. Kind intentions are just the foundation; retailers must be prepared to guide customers through the best options and care methods.
There’s a big difference between caring for domestic pet birds and wild birds, due to the latter’s self-sufficiency. Bill Gleason, owner of Wildlife Sciences, located in Minnetonka, Minn., explains that domestic animals are dependent on their owners for diet, water, exercise and interaction, but wild birds choose where and how these needs are met.
"The primary goal is to attract desirable wild birds to one’s backyard," he says. "Wild birds will naturally continue searching for food until their need for proteins, fats and carbohydrates are generally satisfied. Backyard birders can increase the likelihood of attracting desirable songbirds by offering a variety of seeds, grains, nuts, fruit and suet."
Maintaining a consistent source of clean water for wild birds is important, according to Gleason, but the correct food formula is key. As with everything in the pet industry, the wild bird segment is leaning toward certain trends, particularly in the types of food available. Even at the most novice level of caring for wild birds, consumers begin to develop formula preference.
"One of the most common requests would be anything out of the shell—it doesn’t sprout," says Susie Warwick, store manager at Aloha, Ore.’s Aloha Feed, Garden & Pet, a single-store operation that has been in business more than 90 years. "The non-sprout food is important because a lot of people buy millet and it starts sprouting. Non-sprouting is usually hulled sunflower seeds, peanuts and hulled millet. None of it will sprout since the shells are taken off."
Among her customers, corn on the cob has been a popular feed option for wild birds, but Warwick has noticed increased demand for products that will deter other creatures from eating the food. While enthusiasts in her region want to attract birds such as chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, gross beaks and jays, they often want to create an environment that is not inviting to undesirable creatures, such as squirrels and rats. To safely accomplish this goal, her customers are seeking natural solutions.
"A lot of people are asking for bird seed with cayenne pepper in it to keep squirrels out of it. The birds don’t have a taste receptor for spicy and the squirrels do. It’s been requested more and more," says Warwick. "A lot of people also add it to their chicken feed to keep rats away."
Providing sources of nourishment is only one step in maintaining an inviting environment. When creating a place for wild birds to congregate, maintaining a clean space is important. When choosing a feeder, it is best to choose a product that will accommodate the types of birds that consumers want to attract in their yards. At Albany, Calif.’s Alpha Pet Supply & The Wild Bird’s Nest, co-owner Tina Harrison noted that while many customers of her brick-and-mortar location prefer to avoid attracting squirrels, others don’t mind providing a food source for an array of creatures.
"A lot of times they are looking for feeders that will not feed the squirrels," she says. "The squirrels and rats in the area can overrun a feeder and take too many seeds. Some people want to feed everything, so we give them the tray feeders or hopper feeders so everyone can have a spot—squirrels, birds and the crows can fit their beaks."
Whether customers want to attract a particular type of bird or are interested in providing food for different animals, maintaining a clean feeder is key to cultivating a healthy and safe place. Since 1997, Gleason has focused on providing nutritious food options for wild birds, but he advises retailers to emphasize the importance of cleaning a feeder regularly.
"During periods of wet, humid weather, mold and mildew can develop and this will quickly deter birds at the feeders," he says. "Either replace or thoroughly clean feeders as needed to keep the birds coming. A good scrubbing with dish soap and water will likely do the trick."
With the correct feeder that is well maintained, Harrison’s customers can expect to see doves, chickadees, nuthatches, house finches, gold finches, towhees, jays, titmice and sparrows in the region. With this array of different birds attempting to feed, she provides examples of how the risk of spreading disease between animals is higher if a feeder is not washed consistently and thoroughly.
"The finches in this area get a beak rot certain times a year because people don’t clean the feeder," she says. "It’s caused by bacteria on the feeder when the birds rub their beaks across the feeder each time—it’s a natural instinct to clear off bugs if they’re eating something off the ground."
While consumers are willing to spend money to create an inviting space for wild birds, they’re doing so on a budget. For nearly 16 years, Harrison has served her community’s needs for guidance, carrying brands from wholesale partners and her store’s own house formula, which is comprised of white proso millet, red proso millet, milo, cracked corn, sunflower and wheat. She’s noticed that her clientele has a sweet spot for supply-purchase pricing.
"Most people want to keep it under $100, so they want to spend $30-$40 on the feeder and up to $20 on feed, to cap it at $50 or $60," she explains. "Most people try to keep food to a monthly supply."
As popularity for bird watching at home continues to grow, consumers are willing to invest in long-term supplies. Once they notice a growing number of regular birds stopping to feed, enthusiasts will begin to recognize the products that work best for the creatures in their region.
"In the world of suet, an avid birder is not afraid to purchase a multi-pack of eight, 10 or even 20 pieces, especially if a discount is available," reveals Gleason. "More recently, adding variety to these multi-packs with mixed flavors has been eagerly received by consumers."
While he recognizes the potential for offering greater economical supply options to experienced bird enthusiasts, Gleason recommends retailers look for opportunities to educate customers through fresh product offerings.
"Starter kits offer value, convenience and work well for introducing a new product line, such as suet balls or suet plugs," he explains. "These kits are also excellent for promotions." PB