For the first 10 years, business was good. Armanini’s bread-and-butter customers have always been upper-middle-class people in their 50s, and there are plenty of them in the area, which has only one other specialty retailer offering high-quality seeds and mixes. “Every new homeowner eventually comes through here,” Armanini says.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Armanini closed his doors. He and his wife, Maria, who owns the store with him, are middle-aged, too, and they weren’t taking any chances with their health. At the time, Feed the Birds! didn’t have a website, so the Armaninis offered to take customer orders over the phone, which they’d fulfill and leave outside for pickup.
The phone rang off the hook.
“At some point we were debating hiring someone to answer the phones,” Armanini says, laughing. Feed the Birds! did very well during the pandemic, with sales spiking throughout 2020 and 2021. Much of that surge was due to new customers. “Most of them stayed,” Armanini says. “Sales have remained consistently up.” A good business had become a great business.
Similar economic success stories were repeated across the country. Take the chain All Seasons Wild Bird Stores, which began as a single shop in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota when, in 1991, Al Netten decided to purchase a feed store that he had frequented as a customer. Today the Netten family runs five locations, and their customer base also expanded during the pandemic, says Al’s son Dave: “Feedback from my different store managers was that they were seeing younger families and people that haven’t been a big part of our business coming through the door.”
This sharp uptick in interest goes beyond anecdotes. When the Wild Bird Feeding Institute, an industry trade group, conducted market research in July 2021, 11 percent of people who fed birds had started the hobby during the pandemic. With plenty of time to observe birds while staying home, about a third of people overall increased their purchases of feed and feeders. And notably, growth was strongest among young people, not typically the hobby’s audience, and women, who took up bird feeding at a higher rate than men.
To understand the current state of bird feeding, it helps to know the hobby’s roots. The practice certainly didn’t start with Henry David Thoreau, but his description of tossing corn to birds at his cabin in his 1854 classic, Walden, perfectly captured the experience of bird feeding at the time. The country was still largely rural, and people who explored attracting birds with food used grain from their own land and homemade feeders. But by the 1920s, ads for seed mixes and ready-made feeders could be found in the pages of catalogs and magazines such as this one, then named Bird-Lore. The consensus at the time— since disproven—that birds wouldn’t survive the winter without supplemental food spurred a growing public interest in feeding birds and a cottage industry to support it. Then the Great Depression hit, and from that calamity, in many ways, emerged both the modern practice and business of wild bird feeding.
During the Depression, the nation’s conservation ethos began to deepen, particularly as the federal government established outdoor work programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps. In a sign of the times, the first edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds came out in 1934, smack in the middle of the doldrums, and promptly sold out—despite costing nearly three times as much as the de facto standard bird guide at that point. Against that backdrop, the conviction that feeding birds helped them was incredibly compelling. According to Feeding Wild Birds in America, a popular history of the early years of the hobby, “bird feeding continued and even grew” throughout the Depression.
But the appeal of feeding birds ran even deeper. Watching birds was a tonic for isolation. As a result of the economic crisis, people who had fallen on hard times increasingly kept to their homes, social distancing for an entirely different reason than we would 90 years later. They found, much as we did, that their yards were their own slices of nature, free to observe and enjoy—along with any creatures they could coax in.
Today, a growing body of scientific inquiry has found that observing birds has positive impacts on mental health, which may help explain why millions upon millions of people have, in time, found bird feeding to be such a powerful draw. As of the last report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, nearly 57 million people aged 16 or older fed wild birds in 2016, spending an astonishing $4 billion on the hobby. And that was before the pandemic bump.
Four billion dollars buys a lot of seed, and yet it’s safe to assume that most folks know little about where their bird food comes from. Almost all of the grain that becomes birdseed sold in U.S. stores originates in the Midwest and Canada, and the bag someone picks up at their local shop, home-improvement warehouse, garden center, or big-box store has traveled a long supply chain to get there. And the funny thing is that most of that grain wasn’t grown for birds in the first place.
There are two important truths about the birdseed business. The first is that birds never get the first-rate grain. Thoreau threw out corn he planned to eat that had failed to ripen. In the Depression, birds got free, unsold, low-quality grain from local farmers; times were hard, and anything better went to people. Today, birds still generally get the lowest-quality portion of a crop, what’s left after growers sell their best seed—that with the highest oil content, for example—for human uses like making sunflower or safflower oil. The second truth is that the grains in most popular mixes are commodities. Sunflower and safflower, millet and milo—they’re all grown at massive scale and bought and sold for a wide variety of uses in global markets. Both of these factors help keep prices low and customers happy. Market research consistently shows that cost is one of the top criteria for birdseed buyers and a key reason that people abandon the hobby.
Events over the past few years, however, have upended business as usual. Take, for example, the extreme drought that wiped out sunflower and safflower crops in the western United States in 2021. Or the sharp rise of fuel prices that sent the cost of transporting grain by truck through the roof. Or the ban on palm oil exports in Indonesia in April 2022, which routed sunflower seeds into a market hungry for other vegetable oils. Or the galloping inflation that has impacted virtually every part of the supply chain from farm to feeder. Add to all that a rising demand for birdseed products, and you’ve got a lesson in basic economics.
“The cost has just continued to climb over the past two and a half years,” says Rob Brunes, the director of bird food supply for Wild Birds Unlimited, a retail store with locations across the United States and Canada. But most consumers may not have even noticed. Brunes, who has nearly 30 years of experience in the business, says that when prices go up, major birdseed producers—knowing sales will plummet if the price of a bag of seed rises—will typically reduce stock or adjust the ratios of their mixes toward lower-quality ingredients, like milo or even oats.
Yet as price-sensitive as traditional seed buyers have always been, something curious has happened amid the tumultuous conditions of the past few years: A segment of consumers—new and old—has shown a growing willingness to pay more for premium products that may not just be better for the birds at their feeder, but also better for birds everywhere.
A couple of years before COVID-19 struck, Ken Dallmier was trying to persuade a bunch of farmers to convert their land for organic production. Dallmier is chief operating officer of Clarkson Grain, an Illinois supplier that specializes in organic corn and soy for human use, and Clarkson needed to recruit more growers. The problem is that there’s an expensive three-year transition period for any farmer making the change. During that time, you must use organic practices but you’re not yet certified, so you can’t charge organic’s high premium to help cover the associated costs. Dallmier hit on an idea: If the farmers grew sunflowers—a crop known to produce well in the region—he could market their seeds as pesticide-free, eco-friendly birdseed. He figured people who feed birds and care about the environment would jump at a product that aligned their hobby with their values.
So Dallmier started a birdseed company, and by early 2019, Prairie Melody birdseed was available on Amazon. The product cost more than a bag of conventionally grown seed. Sales grew anyway. And when the pandemic hit, Prairie Melody flew off the shelves. In the summer of 2022, orders overtook the capacity of the transitioning farmers, and the seed briefly sold out. Dallmier’s hunch seemed to be right. There was demand for a new kind of product, one that’s good for birds in a larger, more ecologically minded sense. “It may not be for everybody, and that’s fine,” he says. “But there’s a significant number of people who care about the environment.”
Some birdseed buyers worry that the seeds they are feeding birds are laden with pesticides. While pesticides are used on many of the crops commonly found in birdseed products—either before or after they are planted—there’s currently no indication that the harvested ingredients used for bird food contain enough chemicals, if any, to pose a risk to feeder birds. But concerns about pesticides and birds are not unfounded. As studies on a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids have shown, birds can be exposed to harmful chemicals in fields where treated seeds are used, and pesticides have indirect effects, too: damaging insect populations and the ecosystem that birds rely on. Organic farming helps mitigate these threats and the industrial-scale practices that can knock ecosystems out of balance—for example, by flushing excess nutrients from synthetic fertilizers into rivers, creating ecological dead zones.
David Horn, a biologist at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, is perhaps the foremost scientific expert on birdseed products. He has spent his career answering the big questions of bird feeding: Which species most frequently visit feeders? Who likes what? Does anyone like milo? Because of his expertise, Horn has also long been a consultant to birdseed manufacturers. He believes that, as the hobby has matured and consumers have the opportunity to become more aware of product quality, higher-oil seeds and organic or eco-friendly options have lots of sales potential. “I definitely think there is a market for more premium seed,” he says, “whether that is premium in terms of their nutritional value to birds, or whether that is in terms of being grown in an environmentally friendly manner.”
For his part, Brunes of Wild Birds Unlimited says that customers “absolutely” ask about organic products and have for some time. The company tried selling organic seed 20 years ago and again 10 years ago, but never managed to do it profitably. Brunes thinks that after the grain industry shakes off the effects of the pandemic on supply chains and seed reserves, Wild Birds Unlimited might try again.
Some people are trying now. Matthew Brimer, his fiancée, Whitney Frances Falk, and their friend Stetson Hundgen cofounded the organic birdseed company Flying Colors in 2020 when they struggled to find organic seed options. The trio created their product, which comes in a recyclable carton, with their friends and peers in mind—millennials who reached adulthood amid the climate crisis and now have homes and disposable income. But as they quickly discovered, their product appealed to people of all ages. Brimer says their goal was to provide a “premium, thoughtfully created, scientifically backed product,” but he calls it, more simply, a “modern-day birdseed brand.” It, too, seems to have struck a chord; website sales for the cartons have grown, on average, 30 percent a month since last May.
These are early days, but the enthusiasm that Prairie Melody and Flying Colors have seen is promising. Considering how large the birdseed industry is, though, organic and eco-friendly products will likely always be a sliver, one of a variety of offerings meant to serve all types of consumers. For the industry, that’s just smart business. And for birds, the more folks involved in the hobby, the better: People invested in seeing wild birds thrive are also likely to advocate for their protection. Indeed, the bond we develop with the birds that visit our feeders is deep and powerful. Reflecting on the lessons of three years of supercharged growth in a time of human calamity, Dallmier believes the lesson is simple. “We don’t feed birds because they need us,” he says. “We feed birds because we need them.”
This piece originally ran in the Spring 2023 issue as "Business Is Blooming." To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.