Depending on where you live, it was a summer of nearly constant rain or one of moderate to severe drought. The country seemed to be divided in half by the Mississippi River, with the states east of it dealing with too much water and states to the west with too little. Here in northern Minnesota we experienced substantial drought conditions. In total, we received less than 5” of rain in all of June, July and August; far below a normal summer season.
Berries that normally feed bears and birds failed to produce or shriveled up, causing the bears to seek out nourishment from bird seed at people’s feeders. The drier conditions also meant fewer insects, which is another important food resource for many birds.
Not wanting to put an extra pressure on our well meant we spent a great deal of time and energy hauling buckets of water to our apple trees and vegetable garden that we collected from a nearby lake. Our concerns and efforts were miniscule compared to the stress and impacts on farmers in the region. Cattle ranchers are already selling off stock as they faced dried up pastures and a winter with less hay.
As people who thoroughly enjoy the practice of feeding birds with a variety of bird food, we are going to be facing increased costs. The three major types of wild bird seed; sunflower, safflower and millet are for the most part grown in northwestern Minnesota, the Dakotas and Colorado, with Montana and Wyoming contributing some also. All of these states are expecting significantly lower harvests. While dry conditions and even drought are not uncommon to these states, this year, according to one source, says these are conditions that have not seen in the High Plains since the 1930s. Some farmers are not even going to attempt to harvest their crops.
North Dakota was the top sunflower growing state in 2020 and its harvest will be 40-50% lower this year. Sunflower seeds attract a greater variety of birds and they are often mixed in with other seeds, such as millet and safflower. About half of all sunflowers that are grown are used for bird seed. Even though sunflower plants have
a deep tap root making them somewhat drought resistant, there is only so much they can tolerate. To add to the deficit, farmers planted one-quarter fewer acres in sunflowers this year, choosing instead to grow more soybeans and other crops that had higher prices promised on return. Farmers could expect to be paid $31.40 per hundred pounds of oil seed sunflower. At the same time last year it was $16.60. Likewise the wholesale price for 50 pounds of white safflower bird seed rose nearly 60 percent, from $21.15 to $33.80, and for white proso millet it more than doubled, from $12.50 to $28.05.
In recent weeks there has been some rain in these drought struck areas, but it is too little too late for the crops at this point. To make matters even harder for the retailers and consumers, shipping companies like Fed Ex are raising their rates in October and again in January.
We can all hope for a return to more normal rain patterns next summer, but for the time being we who buy bird seed are going to have to adjust our budgets and expectations to the market. During the isolation of the pandemic, more people joined the ranks of bird feeders and have discovered the joy and entertainment it provides. Let us hope it continues.
By Kate Crowley