Bird Watcher's General Store

Buggy Seed
08/21/20


Summer Reruns:

Recently (today) I received two questions that I’ve written about several times in the past. But due to the heat (and my laziness), I’ve decided that instead of writing entirely new columns on these topics, I’ll just resubmit my previously published answers. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to plagiarize myself, but I’ll find out if I receive a complaint…from me.

I got this first question again today. I was coming out of a bank, when a man in a mask approached me (really). Ordinarily, that would have been scary, but in the year 2020, it’s actually a good thing. The masked man wanted to know why he has so few goldfinches on his thistle feeder. A few years ago I explained it this way:

Just about everything has an expiration date on it, including beer, dog food and Crisco (Crisco?). But for some reason no one talks about birdseed becoming too old. How old is too old? Kept cool, most seeds last a fairly long time, but not thistle. It seems to have a short shelf life. Why so short? It’s the government’s fault…of course. What we call “thistle” is, in fact, niger seed (sometime stylized as “Nyjer” by companies that don’t think Americans can read English). Niger is imported from Africa and Asia. Back in 1982, long before I was born, this popular birdseed was almost kept out of the U.S. A ship loaded with niger was found to also have “dodder” seeds mixed in. Dodder is a parasitic plant that the USDA doesn’t want coming into the country. But instead of sending the ship back, they heated the entire load to 212 degrees, which sterilized all the seeds and satisfied the USDA. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the intense heat appears to have an effect on thistle. Now if thistle is allowed to sit around for too long, a month or so, it dries out. It then is unappetizing…just like Crisco. 

How can we tell if thistle is bad? It’s easy; the birds won’t eat it. This is why I encourage folks to buy only small amounts at a time. And for goodness sake, don’t stock up on seed just because some store has it on sale. (There’s a reason why it’s been marked down.) Also, thistle tends to be expensive, so people hate to waste it. As a result, they top off their feeders instead of dumping out the old seed. This is a big mistake. Old seed left at the bottom of a feeder will gather moisture, turn moldy and eventually infect the fresh seed. Always remove old seed. Or, at least rotate the old seed to the front, just like they do with the milk at Stop & Shop.

Is thistle worth using? Yes, of course it is. (What would you expect me to say?) But a little thistle goes a long way. A five-pound bag will probably last you a few weeks. Plus, thistle is just for small birds. It’s the perfect alternative for all the bird bigots who have issues with grackles, crows and jays. Here’s a little known fact: The all-time favorite food of the American Goldfinch isn’t thistle - it’s hulled sunflower. Goldfinches love it, plus it’s not imported and thus, no dreaded dodder. In recent years, hulled sunflower has become super-popular in area feeders, which could be another reason why finches are spending less time on your thistle feeder. The downside of hulled sunflower, besides the price, is that all the larger birds like it, too, which doesn’t sit well with the bird bigots. You know who you are.

Speaking of sunflower:

Folks are starting to complain about finding moths in their birdseed. Yup, moths are another headache we have to deal with each summer. Here’s part of what I wrote about moths a few years ago:

Let me explain a little about these moths; aka, "meal moths." These are moths that seem to enjoy our food as much as we do. They eat grains, crackers, cereal, and in this case, birdseed. They are not the same moths that eat our clothes, so your silk underwear is totally safe. Actually, the moths don't eat anything; it is those little nasty worms (the larva) that do all the eating. The moths just fly around looking for unprotected food to lay their eggs in. How did we end up with these lovely moths? They can come into our homes in just about any food, especially untreated foods like health food or pet foods, and, of course, birdseed.

What to do about it? Prevention is important. It takes at least 30 days for meal moths to go through their life cycle and much longer if kept cool. In the summer, buy smaller amounts of seed and use it up right away. Never store birdseed in your house, as the heat in your house will cause the eggs to hatch and grow more quickly. A shed or garage is the best place to store seeds. The moths will still hatch in the shed, but who cares? It's a shed. Getting rid of the moths is tough. You will need to put all of your grains, cereals, pastas, etc. in airtight containers. Inspect any opened packages for webs, the telltale sign of the larvae. There are also moth traps. The traps have no pesticides; they use a pheromone sex scent as bait that is great at attracting moths…and the occasional teenage boy.

We still sell lots of thistle seed, but not nearly as much as we did before the feds started “cooking” it. The alternative is hulled sunflower, which finches love, but so do a lot of other birds. You make the call on that. As far as meal moths go, buy smaller amounts of seed in the summer, don’t store it in the house and hope for cooler weather. There you have it, answers to two common summer questions. You are now prepared to handle any masked man who approaches you at the bank. Just tell him about dodder seeds and meal moths, and he’ll never bother you again.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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