Many people only choose to feed birds in winter with the idea that birds only need to be fed when it’s cold. That’s not necessarily true. Birds never truly need our help, since many birds spend the winter in Canada feeding on conifer seeds, beech, hackberry and hazelnut without the aid of a seed feeder. But birds are fun to watch and there’s nothing quite like that mug of warm coffee on a snowy morning watching cardinals and chickadees zip back and forth at the feeder. And this time of year you'll find all sorts of stores offering seed sales.
Some people like to purchase a big pile of seed in the fall and feed it all winter. This can be a risky proposition depending on where you purchase the seed. If you see a special for a big box store or garden store selling a 50-pound bag of black oil sunflower seed for $15.99, that seed is mostly likely over a year old. After a year, sunflower nutmeats shrivel up.
When you purchase seed from a business that specializes in wild birds and nature, that 50-pound bag could be over $30. That’s because the store purchases seed from the most recent crop. As soon as a new crop is available, the seed distributor must sell the old crop elsewhere and at a discount. Unless you personally know the farmer who grew the sunflower seed, a 50-pound bag that coasts under $20 could very well be over 2 years old. Birds know the difference!
Before my friend Dennis Donath retired, he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Seed Research Laboratory in Madison, Wis. He once tested some bargain basement seed after I told him about this. He purchased some deeply discounted sunflower seed and scientifically measured it against some old sunflower seed he had from a reliable source. He measured a given volume of both seeds and compared weights. He repeated the test three times and discovered that the sale price seed weighed 12.8 percent less than even the old seed he had on hand.
Dennis then visually examined both seeds. He wrote, "I noticed that the sale price seeds were generally a little smaller. I also observed about 1 percent of the sale-price seeds had tiny holes drilled in them, indicating insect damage. I did not observe any evidence of live insect infestation, frass or webbing. My guess is that the infestation occurred in the field, not in storage. I did not find any damaged seeds in my samples of old seeds."
Finally, he broke open several of the "drilled" seed and found the nut meats were damaged. He estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the kernel weight had been consumed before whatever insect larvae left the shell. I've included photos of two seeds. The upper is a damaged kernel from the sale seed; the lower is a whole kernel from old seed.
So if a flock of chickadees, nuthatches and cardinals is flitting through the neighborhood and your neighbor is offering fresh sunflower or if the surrounding trees have an abundance of wild seeds, the birds definitely will eat that before consuming old, dried-up sunflower.
My advice: purchase fresh, in small quantities and purchase often.