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Some day, you may be able to offer hemp seed as bird food

A Black-capped Chickadee eats a hemp seed from a feeder. Photo by Carrol Henderson

Sunflower is the single seed best for bird feeding — at least, that’s what I’ve been telling people since I first started feeding backyard birds in 1981. It attracts a wide variety, from chickadees and sparrows to jays and grosbeaks. Sunflower’s high protein content is nutritious, and the 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 of virtually all crops.

One seed is just as nutritious as sunflower but much more resistant to insect pests. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison grew it for fiber. In 1942, the United States government promoted it as a necessary crop to win the war. And it’s listed among the best seeds for birds in older bird books. But I’ve never fed it to birds, and it’s not mentioned in any of my newer bird books. Why? Hemp has been illegal to grow in the U.S. for any reason without a special permit since 1970.

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


So far, most growers are focused on hemp fiber and hemp oil for human consumption, but one Canadian grower is marketing some for bird feeding.

‘Hemp, the Devil’s Birdseed’

In the chapter “Hemp, the Devil’s Birdseed” in their superb book, Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, 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 farming. [Read our review of the book.]

After discussing how popular hemp seed was for wild bird feeding for decades, they explain how federal laws have made it difficult to grow or import even strains with extremely low psychotropic value but why the tide may be turning:

“While it is illegal to raise industrial hemp in the U.S., numerous efforts are underway to return industrial hemp production to the position it once held. At least eight states have laws allowing for industrial hemp cultivation, despite a clash with federal law. The Drug Enforcement Agency still does not permit such production.”


Since the book’s 2015 publication, that is changing, at least a little. I live in Minnesota, where, starting in 2016, a handful of farmers have been growing industrial hemp as part of a pilot program by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture following strict federal guidelines. Following the 2017 growing season, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s website noted, “There are plenty of pilot participants that see much opportunity on the processing, value-added side, but acknowledge it will take time and plenty of money to get an industry established.”

Henderson is leading a hemp-seed testing program in Minnesota. Phase II begins on January 1 and runs through February 15. And you may have heard that the 2018 Farm Bill, which was just recently passed into law, legalizes hemp production. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Agriculture can create guidelines for the use and production of industrial hemp — including as bird food.

It will take years for hemp seed to be easily available and affordable. But as Carrol Henderson told me, “It’s nice to see a birdseed crop that would have zero anticipated pesticide use.” For those of us who love our backyard birds, hemp seed will be well worth waiting for.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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