One day you may be able to offer hemp seeds as bird food.


Sunflower is the perfect seed to feed birds – or so I’ve been telling people since I started feeding backyard birds in 1981. It attracts a wide variety, from chickadees and sparrows jays and grosbeaks. Sunflower’s high protein content is nutritious and its high oil content is extremely valuable in winter.

Unfortunately, insects take a heavy toll on sunflower crops unless farmers apply pesticides, but this is true for virtually any crop.

A seed is just as nutritious as sunflower but much more resistant to insect pests. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison cultivated it for its fibers. In 1942, the United States government promoted it as a culture necessary to win the war. And it ranks among the best birdseed in older bird books. But I’ve never fed it to birds, and it’s not mentioned in any of my new bird books. For what? Hemp cultivation has been illegal in the United States, for whatever reason, without a special permit since 1970.

Now, in 2018, as a number of states legalize the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions and even recreational use, farmers are increasingly interested in growing hemp, both cultivars used to supply the marijuana market and varieties of “industrial hemp” which have a psychotropic content too low to be used as a drug.

So far, most growers have focused on hemp fiber and hemp oil for human consumption, but one Canadian grower is marketing it for bird feed.

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“Hemp, the bird seed of the devil”

In the chapter “Hemp, the Devil’s Birdseed” of their superb book, Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Trade, and Conservation (Texas A&M University Press, 2015) Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson write about the history of industrial hemp cultivation. [Read our review of the book.]

After discussing the popularity of hemp seeds for wild bird feed for decades, they explain how federal laws have made it difficult to grow or import even strains of extremely low psychotropic value, but why the wind could turn:

“Although it is illegal to grow industrial hemp in the United States, many efforts are underway to return industrial hemp production to the position it once held. At least eight states have laws allowing the industrial cultivation of hemp, despite a conflict with federal law. The Drug Enforcement Agency still does not authorize such production.

Since the publication of the book in 2015, that has changed, at least a little. I live in Minnesota, where since 2016 a handful of farmers have been growing industrial hemp under a Minnesota Department of Agriculture pilot program, following strict federal guidelines. Following the 2017 growing season, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture website noted, “Many pilot project participants see many opportunities on the processing and value-added side, but recognize that it will take time. time and a lot of money to establish an industry. »

Henderson runs a hemp seed testing program in Minnesota. Phase II begins on January 1 and ends on February 15. And you may have heard that the just-passed 2018 Farm Bill legalizes hemp production. Eventually, the US Department of Agriculture may create guidelines for the use and production of industrial hemp, including for bird feed.

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It will take years for hemp seeds to become readily available and affordable. But as Carrol Henderson told me, “It’s nice to see a bird seed crop that doesn’t require the use of pesticides. For those of us who love our backyard birds, hemp seeds are worth the wait.