Refuge notebook: Are bird feeders for the rich?

The other day I was down at my favorite bulk food store back in the livestock area. Standing there with a blank stare, I must have been motionless for awhile as my daughter finally says, “Daddy are you OK?”. I snap to and realize that my dismay at the price of bird seed has caused me to drift into another place. I grumble something about how it costs more to feed birds than it does to feed my own family, and we move on to another aisle. I could not justify the expense of the seed when I was making choices about what goodies I could afford to feed us!


As I later drove around scouting my area for the Christmas Bird Count, it was evident that others were experiencing the same heartburn. I often drive the neighborhoods looking for active feeders, so when the day comes to do the count I can drive right to active ones, count the birds and move on. House after house it was the same story. There were nice feeders, hanging in good spots, devoid of any seed, and covered in snow. I have to assume there were a lot of other people who evaluated the situation like me and decided the doubling in price for sunflower seeds was just not worth it.

It was also a good way of assessing the affluence of the neighborhood. “Well to do” neighborhoods were still stocked with birdseed, but residences in other areas held empty feeders. How long will it be until realtors dismiss proximity to stores or schools and just list the number of active feeders in an area?

I know this is a little tongue-and-cheek, but count the number of active feeders in neighborhoods you think of as richer or poorer. You will be amazed at how this simple metric delineates the relative wealth of where we live.

There are several causes of the rapid increase in price over the last few years. I am not an economist, but I can understand the basics of the world commodity market. I also understand supply and demand. After bumper crops in 2008, floods in the upper Midwest reduced farmed land, cold spells reduced yield, and sunflower crops were converted to more profitable corn and soybean.

Combine the poor supply of sunflowers with more demand for birdseed and cooking oil, and the net result is much higher prices. The reality is this is not likely to change soon. Bird feeding is becoming a rich person’s hobby.

All is not lost though. I am rethinking how to attract birds to my area so I can watch them. There are several other attractants which have proven successful and probably should have been considered a long time ago as an alternative to simply more seed.

Birds in Alaska are quite attracted to water and specifically to dripping water. So a well-positioned bird bath with a bucket and small tubing can produce a wonderful dripping sound that brings them in during summer months.

Poke a pinhole in a hanging milk jug over a pie tin to get a low-budget watering drip every 5 to 10 seconds.

For winter attractants, I am already planning a sunflower forest next summer. I have a little flower garden area that is ringed with rosebushes. All I need to do is make one end of it thicker with roses, alders, or other bushy plants that moose will ignore.

This provides cover and protection from aerial predators.

In April, I will germinate a bunch of sunflower seeds inside to get them growing sooner. Transplanting these seedlings later to the center of my bird garden area, adjacent to my dense thicket, will ensure a nice stand of sunflowers that can attract birds all winter.

If I get really adventurous I may even buy an inexpensive heater to maintain open water through most of the winter.

With these few simple modifications, I should be able to go from three active feeders to a small one, and still have plenty of fun bird watching activity in my yard.

These attractants may not be suitable for your house, but I bet there is something out there that will work for you.

It takes just a little extra effort to pour bacon grease in a pie plate, mash some birch seed and berries into it, and freeze it.

These make wonderful hanging feeders and made from materials you were ready to discard.

As food prices continue to rise, we’ll have to be a little more creative and resourceful in our efforts to enjoy bird watching close to home.


Todd Eskelin, a Biological Technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, specializes in birds and has conducted research on songbirds in many areas of Alaska. You can find more information about the refuge at or


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