Cardinal bird on a bird feeder

Everyone in this industry knows that taking care of animals is a time- and money-consuming feat. For those who don’t have the resources for a traditional pet (or are spending more time at home thanks to a worldwide pandemic), there’s a certain appeal to attracting wild birds—they represent certain aspects of pet care without any of the responsibility.

Wild birds are unique in the sense that they don’t need to be taken care of—any feed scattered about or bird houses laid out in a backyard are simply for the viewer’s pleasure. Unlike domestic birds that have stringent care requirements and tend to be one of the higher maintenance pets, their untamed counterparts aren’t actually dependent on the food, treats and bird baths humans put out for them.

“With domestic birds, you’re completely responsible for their health; with wild birds, you’re simply supplementing,” says Claire Horvath, CFO of family-owned Mother Nature’s in Columbia, Md. “Wild birds very rarely depend on us, whereas our pet birds depend completely on us. With that in mind, it takes a little pressure off of outdoor bird feeding.”

Though it’s a relief for birders to know there’s no dependence on the food or other materials they’re providing, this supplementation can be a double-edged sword as the birds won’t come around if the provided products don’t appeal to the animals.

“Wild birds forage between wooded areas, backyards and the territories they have, and they’ll keep on going if a feeder’s empty until their needs are met,” explains Bill Gleason, co-owner of Minnetonka, Minn.-based Wildlife Sciences.

 

The Basics

While “all birds share the same unique physiology,”—wings, hollow beaks, warm-blood and the ability to build nests and lay eggs—“the major difference between wild birds [and] domesticated birds would be their diet,” explains Dave Titterington, co-owner and founder of family-owned Wild Bird Habitat Store based in Lincoln, Neb., with his wife, Linda, and his daughter, Katie.

He continues that birds in the wild burn thousands of calories per day, so they need to consume a diet that’s rich in fatty oils to keep warm in winter and provide the high energy required in spring for defending territories, building nests and raising families. Birds that migrate will need to consume high quantities of fats and carbohydrates to add as much as a quarter of their weight in preparation for their bi-annual journeys.

Horvath adds that many people forget about one of the most essential things—water. While most people associate supplying water with the warmer seasons, wild birds do seek it out during the winter months when their natural sources are too cold or frozen. 

“Finding a way to present water in winter months is tremendously helpful,” she explains. “It’s a fun way to attract birds that wouldn’t normally come for the bird seed—people have seen robins and even hawks.”

While there’s always the worry of mosquitoes invading stagnant water sources, Horvath recommends stocking bird-safe, mosquito-repelling additives that deter the pests from laying their eggs in the water supply.

Bird watchers who opt to put out various feeders and baths need to be aware of “the cleanliness of the feeders,” Gleason warns. “During the summer months, you get rain and humidity, so feeders will get moldy, there’ll be mold spores everywhere and, under the right conditions, mold will bloom.”

When mold is noticed, getting rid of the fungus goes beyond just replenishing/refreshing the stock of food. Instead, the feeders need to be completely cleaned or replaced to ensure that there’s no mold spores still hanging around.

 

The Feed Itself

When it comes to filling those feeders, retailers would be remiss to stock a bunch of economically friendly, generic feed mixes. Again, wild birds aren’t dependent on the generosity of humans—carrying an improper mix that doesn’t attract desirable birds and encourages visits from squirrels will result in unhappy customers. 

“Be mindful—birds can tell the difference,” Titterington says. “Purchasing quality wild bird feeds from a local bird feeding stores or reputable dealers will eliminate wasted dollars of uneaten seed on the ground, and will attract more birds.”

Though wild birds don’t appear to be in any position to be picky about food—after all, you’re saving the creatures the time they’d spend hunting and foraging—it doesn’t mean they’ll always accept what’s put out.

“In the wild, birds are very food selective,” says Titterington. “They identify seeds, nuts or grains that are high in fat, and fruits, berries and nectars that are high in carbohydrates. You should read the label on the wild bird feeds you purchase just as you would for the food you buy for the family pet or for yourself.”

To that end, all three experts recommend avoiding mixes that contain Milo, wheat, red-millet, barley and “assorted grain products” or “cereal grains”—filler seeds added to reduce cost but go uneaten by backyard birds. Additionally, Titterington adds that economy wild bird mixes often contain weed seeds, which can be problematic and invasive. 

Horvath adds that cheap mixes are deceiving because, “the feeder empties really quickly and people are like, ‘look, it’s emptying!’, but really the birds are just throwing it on the ground.”

In terms of ingredients that should be included, Gleason recommends black oil sun-flower seed, some form of suet and nuts, peanuts, mixed tree nuts or mixes that contain nuts. Though a good amount of people default to throwing chunks of stale bread in their yard, he advises against this because it attracts less desirable birds.

“You want to make certain if you purchase a general wild bird mix that the Proso millet is listed as ‘white Proso millet,’” adds Titterington. “There are numerous varieties of white millet, but most are not consumed by birds. White Proso millet is preferred by birds.”

And, as it is with every consumable, retailers need to research the products before stocking them to ensure that appropriate levels of the desired ingredients are included with the mix.

“Read the label and select products that show a high fat content,” says Titterington. “For example, premium or grade A black oil sunflower seeds may have a 12 to 20 per-cent fat content. Black oil sunflower seed that may have been damaged by frost, insects or disease may have a fat content as low as 4 percent. Most of this is ground up for the livestock industry, or purchased by economy packages to sell off as wild bird feed at a low cost.”

Customers who find themselves in touch with the wild bird community might feel a sense of ownership or responsibility for the frequent animals they attract to their backyard, often being wary of stopping the amount of feed they put out for various reasons. Retailers must assure customers that wild bird watching is simply a fun hobby, not a full-time job.

“People worry that wild birds will become dependent on them—don’t,” says Horvath. “If you stop, go on a vacation, you’re not harming them in any way. We’re helping a little bit, but mostly what we’re doing is bringing nature a little closer, and that can’t be bad for anybody.”  PB