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Friday, October 10, 2008

Birdseed by no means immune to economic uncertainty

Yikes! I bought two 40-pound bags of sunflower seeds last week, and each was $30 — on sale — $10 more than last year's price. My reaction to the cost was similar to how I feel when I go food shopping. Talk about sticker shock.

I don't know how that's going to affect you, but for those like me, who use at least 200 pounds a year at several feeders, it's going to lead to menu alterations.

The skyrocketing cost is not limited to the much-desired sunflower seeds; even the lowly wild-bird mix prices are rising.

Customers at Wild Birds Unlimited in Olympia are noticing the difference, and their questions have prompted the business to create a handout offering reasons for the cost increases (a 20-pound bag of black-oil sunflower at WBU is $18.99), according to sales associate Kathy Boston.

The increase is the result of several variables, including:

• Birdseed such as sunflower, safflower and millet are sold on the commodity markets just like corn and soybeans and are just as vulnerable to real and perceived factors that drive that market.

• Prices often fluctuate depending on good or bad harvests. There has been major crop damage in various regions around the world.

• Higher fuel prices have driven up the cost of shipping.

• The anti-trans-fat trend means that more foods are cooked in sunflower oil (example: Frito Lay potato chips) because the seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids.

• Because of the demand for biofuels, more acres of corn and other grains are being planted, squeezing out thousands of acres previously used for sunflowers.

All of this while birdwatchers' demand for birdseed is increasing.

Those hardest hit by these large increases will be older people on fixed incomes, people whose lives are enhanced by the world of birds at nearby feeders.

If you're looking for alternatives to seed feed, forget bread crumbs. It's not nutritional and will not supply the high-energy calories the birds need to stay warm.

Suet (high-energy animal fat) may be a cheaper alternative, depending on what happens to the suet prices.

Cheaper seeds usually mean mixtures, and much of that goes on the ground. Changing seed types also may mean a shift in species; sunflower seeds draw the greatest variety of birds to your feeder, in part because of its oil content, in part because the thin shells are easy to crack.

And there's no help from the Internet on this issue. I found a 50-pound bag for $23.67 but the shipping cost was $33.45.

So for birders, this is the season of our indecision on avian menus. A diet may be in the offing. It won't hurt the birds, but it might lessen our joy.

On the bookshelf

For the kids, consider Jim Arnosky's "Wild Tracks" ($15, Sterling, ages 4-8), a guide to nature's footprints with fold-out life-size prints of many animals. It's an excellent way for children to compare their feet or hands with the prints, and animal prints in relationship to other animals. The written information is in short blocks.

Susan Mitchell's "Kersplatypus" ($17, Sylvan Dell, ages 4-8) is an excellent introduction to Australia's platypus. One young one is lost; the other creatures try to help it find its niche — land, tree, water, sea — and in the process teach readers about animals' adaptations. The book comes with helpful information, pictures and activities in the back.

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