Although the keeping of birds as pets and the feeding of wild birds has a long history, bird keeping and outdoor feeding have seen a tremendous increase in the past decade. The interest in keeping birds as pets is in line with the general increase in the number of households that keep pet animals, and birds rank fourth after dogs, cats and fish. This increase can partly be explained by the increase in leisure time and disposable income, and a shift in demographics (rising proportion of elderly and retired people in the total population and an increase in single-person households) in industrialized countries. At the same time, over the past two decades, people have become more conscious of nature and wildlife in general, which explains the explosive growth in outdoor feeding, wildlife habitat creation and wildlife observation.
Although statistics for birds as a group are hard to come by, some data are illustrative. In the United States of America 4.6 million households keep 12.6 million companion birds, an 8 percent increase over the number in 1996 (AMVA, 2001). In addition, in the United States of America, 52 million people regularly feed wild birds, spending US$2.7 billion on food plus an estimated US$800 million on feeding accessories. In Australia, 1.2 million households (19 percent of all households) own 8 million pet birds, spending US$300 million on food and accessories. The United Kingdom market for companion bird food amounts to 1600 tonnes with a retail value of US$2.6 million. At the same time, the United Kingdom is one of the leading countries in outdoor feeding with an estimated expenditure of US$200 million. The French Pet Food Manufacturers Association estimates that one in six households in France own companion birds.
The global bird food market can roughly be divided into the following sectors:
Caged birds and companion birds. These are predominantly budgerigars (budgies), canaries, finches, parrots, parakeets, cockatoos, cockatiels, etc, that are kept indoors or in outdoor cages or aviaries.
Pigeons. This is a separate sector due to the nutritional needs of pigeons, especially if they are used for racing.
A related segment, which is growing in importance, is cover crops for hunting or wildlife habitat creation. It is included here because many of the small grains that are commonly used in bird food are also used in cover crops mixes and, in addition, contain other seed species of tropical and subtropical origin.
Bird food for companion birds and wild birds consists largely of mixes of small whole or broken grain. In addition to grains, bird food may contain dehydrated fruits and berries, peanuts, rice, dried egg, honey, dried insects, grits, and mineral and vitamin supplements. Mixes can be relatively simple and consist of one or two different grains. An example is standard budgerigar mix, which will typically contain canary seed and white millet seed (proso millet). Some mixes, especially those for exotic birds like parrots, may contain 20 to 25 different ingredients. The most complex mixes are found in so-called treats.
The most common small grains in bird food are:
Cereals: crushed maize (Zea mays); barley (Hordeum vulgare); proso millet (white millet) (Panicum miliaceum); red millet (Japanese millet) (Echinochloa frumentacea); sorghum (Sorghum bicolor); oats (Avena sativa); canary grass seed (Phalaris canariensis); rice (Oryza sativa); wheat (Triticum aestivum); spray millet (foxtail millet) (Setaria italica); finger millet (Eleusine coracana); buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum).
Oil seeds: Niger seed (Guizotia abyssinica); black (oil), striped (confection) and white sunflower seed (Helianthus annus); safflower (Carthamus tinctorius); groundnut (Arachis hypogaea); rapeseed (Brassica napus); linseed (Linum usitatissimum); hempseed (Cannabis sativus).
Other seeds: pine seeds (Pinus edulis); (flaked) peas (Pisum sativa); mung beans (Phaseolus aureus); lettuce seeds (Lactuca sativa); anise seeds (Pimpinella anisum).
Grits (crushed shells).
Typical caged bird food contains between 12 and 16 percent protein, 12 percent fat, 6 to 10 percent fibre, and has a maximum moisture content of 11 percent. In addition to dry mixes, birds may be offered sprouted seeds, which are rich in vitamins and also are easily digested. Seeds for sprouting are sometimes sold in mixtures and may contain any of the following: mung beans, safflower, quinoa, sorghum, millet, lettuce seeds, Niger seed, proso millet and other cereal seeds. Seeds are soaked for several hours and then germinated for 24 to 48 hours.
Although many of the ingredients are of tropical and subtropical origin, most of them are also cultivated as large-scale agricultural crops in North America. Sorghum (known in the United States of America as milo), millets, maize, safflower, sunflower and groundnut are readily available commodities. The only major birdseed species that is predominantly grown in the tropics is Niger seed, which is produced in India, Nepal, Ethiopia and Myanmar. Niger seed has recently been introduced into the United States of America as an alternative crop for grain growers.
Most of the grain crops that are used as ingredients in bird food have their main market in human or animal nutrition. Only canary seed and Niger seed are used exclusively for bird food in the industrialized world. One implication of this is that components of bird food are often rejects for human or animal consumption, or rejects from the seed industry. For instance, sub-standard grain for the milling industry can still find an outlet as bird food. The same applies to undersized striped sunflower or sunflower kernels that become de-hulled during transport, or seed crops that do not meet germination standards. Depending on the price of commodities, formulators of bird food can easily switch between crops, which makes the market volatile. However, at the same time, in order to make an attractive product presentation, packers will include a certain percentage of seeds like canary seed, Niger seed and sunflower seed, irrespective of the price of the commodity.
The bird food market is currently growing at a rate of 4 percent per year, in line with changing demographics and increased disposable income and an increase in outdoor activities and environmental awareness. Within the packing and distribution sectors, it is likely that there will be further segmentation and brand creation to target niche markets. Appearance of the seed mix and packaging of the product will become more important as marketing tools. In wild bird feeding, which was traditionally a winter occupation, there is a trend towards promoting outside bird feeding during spring and summertime.
At the same time, since the 1990s, consumers have become more discerning of bird food composition and more knowledgeable about which seeds are preferred by certain bird species. For instance Niger seed is attractive to finches while black sunflower is particularly attractive to larger beaked birds. In order to attract certain species and discourage others into their gardens or balconies, consumers make more and more demanding choices.
In caged and companion bird feeding there is debate over the merits of seed mixes versus extruded formulated balanced diets in pellet form. The nutritional requirements for caged birds are still poorly understood, but research conducted since the 1990s indicates that the traditional grain mixes (supplemented with minerals and vitamins) may lead to unbalanced protein intake, shortage of essential amino acids, or lack of vitamins or trace minerals. The new forms of food have a consistent and balanced dietary composition, which should overcome these imbalances. During the production of pelleted extruded bird foods, alternative raw materials that are not traditionally used for bird feeding, such as soybeans, can be used. The use of these alternative grains allows processors more flexibility in their choice of raw materials, but competes with the traditional grains. The growing acceptance of, and shift towards, these formulated diets could in the long term reflect negatively on the use of small grains in grain mix bird foods.
Breeding of exotic birds has, since the 1990s, become an important hobby in the industrialized countries and large sums of money are being paid for breeding pairs of exotic species. To keep breeding birds in optimum condition and to ensure high breeding rates and longevity, high demands are made on quality bird food that provides a balanced diet. With the breeding of exotic birds comes a new class of food, which can be used for hand rearing chicks. This specialised food is high in proteins, calcium and vitamins and is marketed as "egg-food".
The growing trend to treat companion animals as members of the family who deserve the best possible care and the longest possible life expectancy leads to the demand for premium pet foods with perceived health benefits. It is therefore to be expected that the market for organically grown food, GMO-free food, special treats and food containing exotic ingredients will expand in the coming years.
Commodity brokers are the link between the producer of commodities and packers or wholesalers. There are a number of brokers who have departments that specialize in bird food commodities. In the United States of America, commodity brokers specializing in bird food tend to be concentrated in the High Plains (especially in Nebraska and the Dakotas), which is the main sunflower and millet growing area of that country. Appendix 2 lists the major brokers, wholesalers and packers of bird food.
Packers and wholesalers buy bird food ingredients from brokers or import independently. They may pack own-brands or supply packing and formulation services for third party brands. In keeping with other industries, the pet food industry has seen a large degree of consolidation. Many of the smaller national companies have merged or been taken over in recent years. Large players in the pet food industry include the multi-national companies Nestlé (Ralston Purina, Friskies), Proctor & Gamble (bird food brand Iams), Mars (bird food brand Trill), Heinz and Colgate-Palmolive.
In the United States of America, the large supermarket chains such as Walmart, Winn Dixie and Kroger retail large volumes of bird food. For these supermarkets, bird food is a high value/margin product and considerable space is devoted to it, especially towards the autumn and winter seasons. Supermarkets account for about 50 percent of all bird food sales in the United States of America. In addition, there are two large chains, PetSmart and Petco, which each have about 500 stores in the United States of America.
The situation in Europe is different in that more bird food is retailed through garden centres and specialised pet shops, rather than through large supermarket chains. The last five years have seen a proliferation of Internet-based bird food retailers. Typing the words "bird food" into an Internet search engine such as Google will generate thousands of Internet references to websites offering this product.
 Source: Personal communication from a leading United Kingdom producer.
 Source: FACCO (http://www.facco.fr)
 Kaytee Cockatiel Exotic Nut Treat stick, for example, contains 55 different ingredients including mineral and vitamin supplements.
 Spring and summer feeding of wild birds is officially endorsed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) of the United Kingdom.
 There is not always a clear distinction between brokers and packer/wholesalers, and several companies combine these functions.