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What Is In Bird Seed?

Take a look at what is in bird seed and how bird seed mixes are put together.

By Rebecca Sweat

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When you buy seed for your pet bird, usually it comes as a bird seed mix. Some of the most common seeds found in these mixes include safflower, sunflower, millet, canary seed, hemp, thistle seed, green split peas, yellow split peas, whole peas, corn, wheat and milo. These seeds are commonly found in the United States, but not necessarily in the natural habitats of pet bird species.

“Seeds such as millet and corn are often grown as food crops in many countries, but very few of the typical ‘bird seed’ seeds are endemic to most of the areas populated by parrots,” said Gayle Soucek, a pet trade consultant in Illinois and author of The Parrot Breeder’s Answer Book (Barron’s, 2001).

The macaws and Amazon parrots that live in  the Central and South American rain forests would never find  sunflower, millet or corn in the forest canopy, making it unlikely that an Amazon or a macaw would come in contact with these seeds. Nor would they encounter peanuts, which grow underground.

The African and Australian parrots that live in arid environments like grasslands, eucalyptus forests and savannahs are more likely to come in contact with some of the “bird seed” type seeds. Grains like wheat and millet, for example, grow in much of Australia, where parakeetscockatiels and cockatoos are sure to feed. Sunflowers and corn are common in much of southern Africa, where many Poicephalus parrot species live. Still, these birds are unlikely to come across many of the other treats we offer our pets, such as almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds and oats.

nanday conure eating seed
Some bird seed mixes can have more than 20 different bird seeds and other ingredients.

It’s worth noting that even if certain seeds are native to a particular parrots’ range country, that’s probably not the only food those birds eat. They may also eat grasses, tubers, fruits, flowers and insects.

“Wild birds are opportunistic feeders,” said Larry Nemetz, DVM, a birds-only veterinarian in Santa Ana, California. “They will eat seed and nuts because they are available, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best possible diet for them. They may just be eating seeds because that’s all they can find.”

Manufacturing Process For Bird Seed
Most of the seed and grains contained in seed mixes come from growers in the United States and Canada. Manufacturers usually do not have access to tropical seeds or foods that would be part of the foods a wild parrot would eat. They do try to come up with substitute seeds that are similar in taste or nutrition to what parrots might find in the wild. For instance, red proso and white foxtail are two types of millet found in seed mixes, but neither are indigenous to the home range of the pet birds and parrots that are eating these seed mixes. They’re very similar, however, to the type of grass seeds the birds would find in the wild.

Growers typically plant their seed crops in spring and harvest in fall. (If there’s a bad crop, bird seed manufacturers may go out of the country to procure staples such as sunflower and safflower seed.) As soon as they harvest the seed, they ship it to manufacturers. This big seed shipment in the fall is what manufacturers use in their seed mixes for the next year.

“The seed we package in the fall is probably as fresh as it’s going to be, because it’s probably only been out of the field a month or two,” said Jason Clinger, general manager of Topper Bird Ranch, a seed mix manufacturer in Lexington, North Carolina. You don’t want the seed to sit around for too long of a time, he added, because “over time, oxidation can cause the seeds to lose nutrients. That’s why we only use this year’s crop, which could mean some of the seed we’re using could be 11 months old by the end of the growing season. But we never use seed older than that.”

Once a shipment arrives, “the seeds and grains are quality inspected, screened and cleaned before they are mixed into products using computerized and automated processes for manufacturing,” said Kathy Schneider, technical services manager for Kaytee Products, Inc., in Chilton, Wisconsin. Not all the seed will be put into mixes right away. After the initial screening process, the bulk of the seed is put into climate-controlled storage bins.

Manufacturers have unique “recipes” for their various seed mixes. “A parrot food might have 20 different ingredients, and we might need to make 1,000 bags of that food a day, so our computer would then generate a recipe indicating how much of each type of seed needs to be mixed together,” explained Brent Weinman, president of Sun Seed located in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Once a particular recipe is put together, the seeds go through one more vacuum-cleaning process to suck up hulls or dust that might have broken away from the seeds during the mixing process. Then the seeds go through a series of pipes and conveyors to be packed into plastic bags. Once bagged, they are loaded into boxes and shipped to retailers.

Many manufacturers use nitrogen-flushed packaging to kill any insects and insect eggs inside the seed and to retain the vitamins. “When the seed is packed, it’s about 2 percent oxygen and 98 percent nitrogen inside that bag, so any eggs, larvae or insects, which might be inside the bag, suffocate and die,” Weinman said. Nitrogen is a completely safe gas, he stressed. In fact, the air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen and 22 percent oxygen. However, Weinman said, “If you increase the nitrogen to 98 percent and decrease the oxygen to 2 percent, you wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore, and the same thing happens with the insects or eggs.”

There’s another benefit of increasing the nitrogen and decreasing the oxygen in the seed bags. It slows down the oxidation process, which extends the nutritional life of the seeds and increases the bird seed's shelf life.

For information on wild bird seed mixes, click here.

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What Is In Bird Seed?

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Reader Comments
This is good info.
Dee, Sandy Valley, NV
Posted: 12/4/2010 10:20:44 PM
i never new all of this. it is really good information to have.
Kati, Beaver, PA
Posted: 1/24/2010 6:29:55 AM
After much research, I have found that certain companies purchase their bird seed from China. Not putting down the hard working chinese people, some American companies do not screen the seed properly. I have lost two parrots due to alledgedly tainted bird seed. Therefore, I have switched to American made pellets.
Joyce, Virginia Beach, VA
Posted: 4/24/2009 3:50:36 AM
this was a well informed article.
jamie, almont, MI
Posted: 6/23/2008 8:54:31 AM
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