March 15, 2009 in Business, Outdoors

Seeds of change

Rising cost of high-end bird feed has bird lovers cutting back
Eric Olson Associated Press
 
Associated Press photos photo

A female junco bird eats nyjer seed in Omaha, Neb. Birdseed prices have been fluctuating for months, and the cost of a premium seed imported from India is at an unprecedented high. Associated Press photos
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

OMAHA, Neb. — People who feed birds have been getting their pockets pecked.

Birdseed prices have been fluctuating for months, and the cost of a premium seed imported from India is at an unprecedented high. All this has made the estimated one in six Americans who feed wild birds rethink their backyard buffets.

Dolly Lara’s bird-feeding hobby goes back 35 years, and she couldn’t imagine not feeding her feathered friends. But with nyjer seed costing $80 for a 50-pound bag, she said with a laugh, she might have to reconsider how often she puts out the good stuff.

“Maybe only on a good holiday,” said Lara, from Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Sunflower-based black-oil seed, the most popular variety, retailed for about $30 per 50-pound bag in September. The supply tightened because restaurants and snack chip makers used sunflower oil to counter high prices of corn and soy cooking oils, said Sue Hays, executive director of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry trade association.

Sunflower birdseed is down to about $20 a bag now, the high end of its usual price range. But the price of nyjer seed — known as “black gold” in the feed industry — is expected to stay abnormally high through the prime bird-feeding season that lasts until the middle of spring.

Two factors tightened the supply and drove prices up, said Gordy Kribs, senior trader who specializes in birdseed imports for North Pacific Ag Products in Portland, Ore.

Some 30 to 50 percent of the Indian nyjer crop was wiped out by rainstorms in January. In turn, Ethiopian contractors, seeing an opportunity to capitalize, withheld shipments of their nyjer in hopes to securing higher prices, Kribs said.

Nyjer, known to attract colorful finches, has typically traded at 50 to 60 cents a pound on the wholesale market. It is now trading above $1 a pound, Kribs said. Retail prices, meanwhile, jumped from about $60 per 50-pound bag in December to the current $80 level.

India has begun shipping some of its surviving crop, and Kribs said he expects prices to moderate in the next month or so.

About 50,000 tons of nyjer, valued at $64 million, were imported from India and Ethiopia in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nyjer is used as a cooking oil overseas, but almost all of it is used as bird feed in the United States.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 53.4 million Americans feed wild birds and spend an average of $84 a year on the hobby. Ardent bird feeders spend much more.

Regulars at the Backyard Birds store in Omaha have made comments about needing to put their birds on a diet because of the high prices, owner Sandy Seibert said.

Few, she said, plan to stop feeding them altogether.

“People love to be able to look out in their backyard and see nature,” Seibert said.

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