Animals & Money: Can we cut back on the $3.3 billion we spend on birdfeed?

Cash-strapped people are cutting back on foods for themselves, so I expect that our budgets for wild birds and animals will be pinched, too. And what a budget it is! According to the Fish and Wildlife Service's 2006 survey of outdoor recreation, we spent $3.3 billion on birdseed and $642 million on food for other wildlife (mainly squirrels, I'm guessing, since I do that to amuse both me and my dog). That's $84 for each of the 49 million bird-feeders and $56 million for each of us feeding squirrels or deer. (And other researchers, like the Census Bureau, say there are 65 million bird-feeders among us.)

But what can you do to make sure you don't let your birds down? Or the squirrels don't start getting pushy (like this guy in the picture). The good news for bird and squirrel lovers is that there are plenty of ways to help your outdoor friends without blowing a lot of money.

The biggest help to birds isn't food, it's water. Especially in the winter. The National Wildlife Federation's guide for a bird-friendly yard recommends keeping water out year-round. You just have to replace the water every few days. You don't have to get a special birdbath, either. Look in the hardware store for a giant planting container, then find the giant saucer that goes under it to hold water.


Instead of buying processed seed, you can just grow the plants that produce the seeds that the birds and animals want. For this year, think of sunflowers and corn. For the long term, consider berry bushes or fruit and nut trees. Most garden centers will know what will grow in your area and many now carry plants specifically to serve wildlife. You can also go to some of the specialty edible landscaping plant catalogs, like my favorite Oikos Tree Crops in Michigan, which sells crazy, forgotten native fruit trees like the Paw Paw. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center recommends plants by your region.


If all of that sounds like too much planning and work, just let a section of your yard go wild and see what comes up naturally. Of course, it will look better and accomplish more if you take out the invasives and weeds. (Everyone in our family saw through it when my mom declared the former garden a "wildflower patch.") Or you can even plant your birdseed and see what comes up. (It's not that big of a mystery: it's probably going to be corn, millet or sunflowers.)


The Pennsylvania Game Commission says that lots of the grocery store birdseed we buy goes to waste because it's filled with junky seeds the birds don't want. They'll just throw the milo, oats and wheat on the ground in disgust. They recommend black sunflower seeds and suet.


Like everything else, birdseed or squirrel food is cheaper in bulk. The big catch here is that you've got to keep it both vermin and mold free. If you live near a Chinatown, try shopping there for animal feed bargains. The Blue Jays come to my window sill for the raw peanuts from Chinatown. If you're a squirrel feeder, look on eBay for people selling acorns, hazelnuts, hickories from their backyard. Even with shipping, it's cheaper by the pound. You might pick some up yourself--as long as it's not from a natural area or botanical garden that would mind.


The animals might not mind your leftovers. Next to seed, suet is the big item to have on hand to attract a variety of birds. If you've got leftover grease you can make your own. Check out which birds near you might like some fruit, which is sometimes cheaper than seed feeding. Squirrels like apples, even apple cores. Squirrels need extra calcium and will actually gnaw on bones. Birds may like some leftover cooked rice. By the way, Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that even though people stopped throwing uncooked rice at weddings to save birds, plenty of birds eat uncooked rice in the wild. Finally peanut butter can be a crowd pleaser. And with squirrels it can be fun because they stay there to eat it.

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