Sep 2, 2015

Is Hemp The Birdseed of the Future?

(Special to The Birding Wire)>
Perhaps. But, actually it's also the birdseed of the past.

In the winter of 1895-96, bird-feeding pioneer, Elizabeth B. Davenport of Brattleboro, Vermont, fed the birds at her window a unique high-oil seed: hemp. Full of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, hemp seed was widely available at the time at feed and grain stores. It was quickly adopted by early wild bird feeding proponents, and it became a main ingredient in their birdseed mixes.

Yes, hemp, Cannabis sativa, is also used as a recreational of medical drug, marijuana. Of course, there are huge differences between "industrial hemp" or "psychoactive hemp."

Still, by the 'teens of the last century, hemp had become a standard of bird feeding. "Hemp seed and Japanese millet are among the best seeds to offer the birds in winter," wrote Ernest Harold Baynes in Wild Bird Guests (1915). In The Bird Study Book (1917), T. Gilbert Pearson, president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, advocated using hemp seed, as well as cracked corn, wheat, rice, and sunflower seeds since they all could be "purchased readily in any town."

Of high nutritional value and easily acquired, hemp was simple to grow, too. A "Plant for the Birds" campaign by the Massachusetts Audubon Society in May 1917 included this advice: "Hemp is... easily raised in the ordinary backyard garden. It grows five or six feet tall in good soil, its fern-like foliage and graceful shape making it rather ornamental. The flowers are greenish plumy tufts at the branch tips. The seeds are numerous and much loved by birds."

And the praise went on for years. Discussing "satisfactory foods" for wild birds in the 1941 book, Audubon Guide to Attracting Birds, Roger Tory Peterson called hemp, a favorite with seed-eaters: "In a mixture of cracked corn and smaller seeds, hemp always goes first."

The problem was that a variety of hemp could be psychoactive, and that form was easily confused with industrial hemp. The passage of the federal Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 complicated things. And except for the short-lived USDA-promoted Hemp for Victory campaign of WWII - to provide cordage, rope, and cloth for the war effort - hemp slipped away as a birdseed of consequence in the U.S. The Controlled Substances Ace of 1970 didn't make things any easier.

Currently it is popular to categorize hemp as either "industrial hemp" or "psychoactive hemp," (the popular marijuana of today's media). Some strains of the plant can have almost none of the psychoactive chemical; others may possess an abundance of it. Industrial hemp usually has less than 0.3 to 1.0 percent THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol).

Organized business groups and even state and federal agencies and lawmakers are considering ways to revive industrial hemp production in the U.S. There are also some sections of the most recent Farm Bill that make hemp exploration - even including bird seed use - possible. But the use of hemp as birdseed still has a way to go.

Today, Canada is the main supplier of hemp products to this country, with China and eastern European countries also in the mix.

The whole story is told in Wild Bird Feeding in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation.

Frankly, it's not that hemp fell out of favor with birds or with the bird-feeding public, but confusion and misunderstanding in the 20th century made it scarce in the marketplace. In his mid-1970s book, A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding, John Dennis mourned that hemp was no longer easy to find: "This is too bad, for hemp had all the virtues of sunflower and far less of the seed was taken up by hull."

Of course, the plant can still be found growing wild in ditches and odd corners of farms, surviving from World War II-era plantings. Hemp might still be destined to become the birdseed of the future, and millions of Americans who feed wild birds may once again be able to visit local stores to pick up bags of hemp seed marked "grown in the USA."


- Paul J. Baicich, writer, book author, consultant and seminar speaker from Maryland, is a co-author of Wild Bird Feeding in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation, available from Texas A&M University Press.