Backyard Naturalist: Cheap Bird Feeds Often Contain Fillers That Are Worthless

Russ Mohney

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering.

His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Dec. 12, 2003.

On many occasions, we’ve talked about the wisdom of buying a quality seed mix for the backyard feeder. It is a matter of economy as much as nutrition, since all the “fillers” in the so-called economy mixes end up as waste on the ground that promote fungus growth and require lots of cleanup.

Most of the cheap blends contain as much as 50 percent milo, or grain sorghum, which few local birds would eat even if they were starving. I was quite disappointed to find out that one of the blends that was formerly a good choice — it comes from a local farm store chain — now includes more than half cracked corn, which appeals only to a few pigeons, doves and game birds. It is no longer a good buy, in my estimation.

Sometimes when I am examining a mix I just purchased, I find some seeds that I simply cannot identify. I put them out anyway, hoping that I haven’t started Kudzu or some other exotic non-native invader in my yard. The subject of bird seed contamination was broached in a recent note from Brian Thompson, who lives up Lincoln Creek. Thompson works at the Thurston

Conservation District and recently came back from an eye-opening conference on that subject. The presentation was at the Washington Weed Association conference, delivered by Arnie Grammon, the Baker County, Ore., weed supervisor.

Grammon started his investigation of the problem after receiving numerous reports of “strange looking plants” growing under bird feeders, confirmed sightings of Buffalo burr in his area, and other questions raised by those who help purchase more than $500 million in bird seed every year.

He concentrated his efforts on wild bird mixes that generally contain millet, milo, sunflower seed, corn and sometimes other fillers. He went to 10 different stores in Baker City and bought 14 different brands of seed.

Grammon then took samples from each for a thorough investigation, using a hand loupe and a shelf of reference books on weed seeds. The results were a little frightening. Among the usual contaminants such as buckwheat and pigweed that don’t cause much trouble, he found four species of noxious weeds and 20 different crop or agricultural weeds. Eleven of the 14 samples had seeds that were listed as Class A or B noxious weeds in Washington.

Grammon then notified Jed Colquhoun, the Oregon State University weed extension specialist, who immediately bought seed in Corvallis. He found 14 weed species in a 5-ounce sample, of which four were also listed noxious weeds in Washington and Oregon. The troublemakers included Buffalo burr, Puncturevine, wild proso millet, velvetleaf, Kochia, Canada thistle and ragweed.

Both states consider all forms of a noxious plant, including the seed, to be the plant, and transporting it away from the site of origin is a violation of state law. So far, they are not enforcing weed laws in wild bird seeds, but are “re-evaluating” the situation.

Further analysis of the problem seems to indicate that those seeds that are packed in the Pacific Northwest have the least amount of contaminants that could cause problems here. When we purchase “economy” seeds that are packed in Texas, Arkansas or someplace else far away, we are just buying into their problems.

I looked at a number of seeds available locally and found some serious problems with those sold at the big discount stores, but little contamination in either the bulk seeds at local feed stores or the “premium” seeds from garden centers and other outlets that deal with wild bird products.

Probably the best bet is to choose seeds that are packed in the Northwest for the local market. One exception is a popular brand that is packed in Salt Lake City and sold in Lewis County. The company only buys commodity seeds from certified seed farms that have been inspected by the USDA for excessive weed invasion.

Once again, you are better off buying a premium, local mix. You get more value for your money, a better variety of interesting songbirds at the feeder, and are less likely to find some unwelcome stranger growing in your yard!

Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $12.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.