Red feeders have local guano harvesters seeing green

By Shawn Cunningham

As April 1st arrives, the advent of spring makes many think ahead to a season of rebirth and growth. Gardeners are starting plants indoors and planning vegetable beds, while sugarhouses steam and farmers prepare their manure spreaders.

Mike Erskine and Hummingbird1

Feed store owner Mike Erskine shows off one type of hummingbird feeder./Photos by Shawn Cunningham

At the same time, one little known part of Vermont’s agricultural economy prepares for the arrival of its flocks from their wintering grounds. Guano harvesters watch the skies for the return of the hummingbirds. There have long been rumors that an underground exotic fertilizer market existed in Southern Vermont, but inquiries at feed stores, farmers markets and diners usually are meet with a shrug or a shake of the head. Everyone professes to know nothing.

Chester feed store owner Mike Erskine had heard rumors of hummingbird guano harvesters in southern Vermont but he didn’t give much credit to them until a guy stopped by a few years back and bought every feeder in the store.

“He said his wife loved hummingbirds or something like that, but when he opened the trunk of his car, it was packed with feeders,” said Erskine, who pretended that he hadn’t seen them, but his suspicions were aroused. “I knew he was a guano guy,” said Erskine. “Who else would have 50 pound bags of sugar in the back seat?”

feeder with pie plate

Hummingbird feeder rigged with guano-catching pie plate.

Then, late one recent night, the phone rang and the caller I.D. showed “unknown.” The voice on the other end asked if I was interested in hummingbirds. I said I was and he said we should meet. After agreeing on the place and time. I asked his name.

“Call me Buzz” was the reply.

The next day at a convenience store off I-91, Buzz explained the business. It seems that the tiny specs of poop that hummingbirds leave behind are prized by growers of small exotic plants in Asia, Southern California and Portland, Oregon. These horticulturalists swear by the effects of the guano –  especially prizing the product from the eastern slopes of the Green Mountains.  And they are willing to pay plenty for it. It’s a cash business, so it stays underground.

But first you have to get it, and according to Buzz, that’s not easy. The most effective place to gather guano is at artificial feeders and everyone has his own method. Spreading white plastic under a feeder is popular, but Buzz favors a pie tin attached to the bottom. “Then the wind can’t take ’em.” he said.

And will a hummingbird spend more time (and more guano) at a feeder with a perch or does the exertion of hovering produce better results? Buzz says he gets more guano with perches, and shows a feeder that he’s fashioned.

The greatest difficulty is that hummingbirds are territorial about their food, fighting off other hummingbirds to dominate a food source like a feeder. So, to have a lot of hummingbirds, you need a lot of feeders over a large area. “In the season, before flowers bloom, you can spend all day ranging from feeder to feeder collecting,” Buzz sighs.

While Buzz is chatty about most of his work, the subject of money finds him bright red and tight lipped. Pressed on the question, he says that an ounce of guano has a street value of more than $1,000, but he’s quick to note that he doesn’t even get half that. “The brokers are in Portland, and they take their cut,” he says, finishing his coffee. The idea of a Vermont Guano cooperative has been considered, but has never been successful. According to Buzz, “hummingbird wranglers are an independent breed.”

Still Buzz admits he’s been putting  jars aside in his refrigerator every season for years. “I got a kid going to college soon,” he says.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Filed Under: Featured

About the Author:

RSSComments (1)

Leave a Reply | Trackback URL

  1. Amanda Bourque says:

    Shawn – Thanks so much for increasing public awareness about this issue; by the way, if anyone’s interested, we’ve collected 3 5-gallon pails full of Andover Gold and are running out of room to store it (it’s primo guano)! It’s so potent, we may have to cut it; this #$%@ is that good! Not sure what the street value is here in the PDunge, but… Happy April Fool’s Day – amanda