Locally, sustainably grown birdseed? Why It’s Not an Effete Idea

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Getting locally, sustainably grown birdseed may seem like a bridge too far on the road to becoming a tiresome epicure. But New Jersey Audubon Society started a local seed program (Support Agricultural Viability and the Environment)  I hope others copy. Audubon works with local farmers to grow birdseed in a way that sets aside some habitat for local birds. As a bonus, it doesn’t require culling hundreds of thousands of blackbirds and starlings, the country’s big birdseed farmers in the Dakotas do.

Troy Ettel, director of conservation and stewardship, said group used to just sell regular birdseed under their name. “We kind of woke up one morning and thought: ‘We’re an environmental organization and we sell birdseed that we truck in from 1,500 miles away. And we have agricultural community thats struggling.”

For every five acres of sunflower, they put aside one acre of habitat.

“In some places where we restore habitat right alongside gorgeous  field of sunflowers, we’ll have all these threatened and endangered species right there,” Ettel says. He’s seen grasshopper sparrow,  eastern medowlark, boblink, Savannah sparrows and American kestrel. He’s also seen a fury of goldfinches fly out of the field.
They grow the sunflowers birds find most delicious, so they can expect customers arriving in the field. “Black oil sunflower is the number one preferred seed,” Ettel says. “If you have fields of it, you’re going to attract birds.”
In 2008 (the last year the USDA bothered to publish statistics) the federal Wildlife Services program killed 4,210,411 birds of seven species (European starlings, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and 3 kinds of grackles), including  207,000 starlings for South Dakota farmers. I talked with Michael Robinson, who wrote Predatory Bureaucracy, the most complete book on the subject of Wildlife Services, and he said he could never crack the mystery of which birdseed companies bought from farmers that killed so many birds. So, it’s impossible to tell if you are supporting people who kill wild birds by buying birdseed to feed your personal wild birds.
The beauty of the New Jersey Audubon is that you know you’re helping local, environmentally conscious farmers and not somebody who wants to shoot 100,000 blackbirds.
New Jersey farmers have a few natural advantages over their Dakota counterparts. The Dakotas’ vast birdseed prairies are now on many flocks’ food map, a regular migration stop. New Jersey’s small, scattered acres aren’t a destination yet. New Jersey farmers can plant and harvest earlier–before the crowds fly by. So, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing the last couple weeks.
The local birds haven’t been a problem so far, Ettel says, but the deer have. They ate 75% of the first crop and almost ruined the program. A few changes to the field fixed much of the problem. Audubon removed the deer-friendly habitat next to the fields and replaced it with bird-friendly grass plantings. Since deer like to nibble on the edges of the field, the farmers started planting much bigger fields. With a minimum of 30 acres, the fields have much less edge and more deep field.
The birdseed costs about the same as the standard fare, so I can’t see why a bird lover wouldn’t buy it.
NJ Audubon is selling the seed at 7 of its centers on Oct. 2,   Dec. 4, and Jan. 11 at 13 retail stores including a few of the farms that grow the seed.

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