Feeding Wild Birds In America: Culture, Commerce & Conservation. Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson. 2015. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press.
“Feed the birds, tuppence a bag” (Song lyric from Mary Poppins (1964))
“Feed me!” (Audrey Jr., the ravenous plant in Little Shop of Horrors (1960))
Today birdfeeding is a popular pastime and for some an obsession. It is often a person’s first introduction to watching wildlife, which can then evolve into the slightly more neurotic obsession called birding. Some of the most common questions asked about birds by the non-birding public are what to feed them and what kinds of feeders to use. Some of the “best” birds on many life lists have been ticked at feeders. My “life” Gray Jay, Varied Thrush, Western Tanager, and numerous other species were seen at feeders. Birdfeeding has been the focus of several citizen science projects like Project FeederWatch. There have even been some who have suggested that the plethora of bird feeders in America may have changed some species ranges. Certain non-avian creatures like black bears have taken full advantage of this ubiquitous food handout and have learned to expect it in suburban neighborhoods. In certain areas of New England, State Fish and Wildlife officials now recommend taking bird feeders down in summer to prevent bears from hanging around yards, destroying feeders, and scaring neighbors. Birdfeeding has become big business. Once you get a feeder and see the first birds close up and personal, you are hooked. From then on it’s a never-ending series of trips to the hardware store or local bird business for countless bags of seed and feeder upgrades. Today birdfeeding is as American as Homer Simpson’s craving for doughnuts.
So it comes as a surprise that there was not a thorough history of birdfeeding until Feeding Wild Birds in America was published. It definitely surprised well-known birding and conservation writer Paul Baicich. He was asked to give a talk on the history of birdfeeding for the annual meeting of Wild Bird Centers of America and was shocked to find only one article previously written about the subject. He enlisted the help of Margaret A. Barker, writer and educator and former coordinator of Cornell’s Project FeederWatch, and Carroll L. Henderson, longtime supervisor of Minnesota’s Nongame Wildlife Program in the Department of Natural Resources. Together they have produced one of the most surprising, entertaining, and beautiful histories of birds and people. It is a story that will be a revelation to readers.
Birdfeeding as we know it is a twentieth century phenomenon. Before that time, feeding birds was a pretty basic and spontaneous event. People, particularly in rural areas, would sometimes toss out table scraps or sweep out waste seed from the barn and enjoy watching what came to the unexpected bounty. This included Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854): “In the course of the winter I threw out half a bushel of ears of sweet corn, which had not got ripe, on the snow-crust by my door, and was amused by watching the motions of the various animals which were baited by it.” (p. 5, Feeding Wild Birds In America)
Judging by this description, it is safe to assume that Thoreau was also feeding squirrels, a frustrating feeding tradition still with us today.
One of the brilliant strategies of Feeding Wild Birds In America is that the authors place the evolution of birdfeeding into the larger social and political milieu of America at different eras. Before the end of the nineteenth century, most Americans looked upon birds simply as a resource. Birds were for harvesting, mostly for food, but also their feathers and bodies were used in the millinery trade. The rise of the bird protection movement, including the birth of the Audubon Society, was a reaction to the horrible excesses of this market-gunning era. It eventually coincided with the beginning of the Progressive Era, and with the election of Teddy Roosevelt America had a president who kept a White House “list” and pushed for conservation.
This was also the era of fascinating ornithologists and bird lovers whose publications brought to a wide audience the revolutionary idea that you could actually enjoy birds that weren’t on your plate. Florence A. Merriam (Bailey), a founder of the bird protection movement, was an early promoter of feeding birds. Her classic, Birds through an Opera Glass, was one of the first popular field identification guides. Natural historian and ornithologist Frank M. Chapman edited Bird Lore magazine beginning in 1899. This became associated with the National Audubon Society and often featured articles that promoted feeding birds. An associate of Chapman, Mabel Osgood Wright, wrote Birdcraft (1895), a popular book that offered ideas on how and when to feed birds.
Birdfeeding at this time was still mostly a winter activity. The “winter feeding stations” or “bird tables” were simple D.I.Y. affairs with a pole stuck in the ground and a flat plank nailed on top to hold seed. Later developments included putting a ridge on the bird table to prevent seed from blowing off and making a hole in which to attach a tree bough, often a conifer. This gave the birds a perch, and the bough could hold seed.
Baicich et al. identify several conceptual stages in the evolution of birdfeeding. The first was seeing it as an act of kindness. The feeling was that birds were having a tough time in winter, and our feathered friends could use our help. This was at a time when there was an important change in societal attitudes that condemned rampant cruelty toward animals. These attitudes initially concerned abuse of domestic animals but evolved to include wild animals like birds. With the publication of Edward Howe Forbush’s classic Useful Birds and Their Protection and similar books came the realization that birds could be useful in the control of pests. It became important to preserve birds not only because they needed our help, but because they could also help us. There were good birds and bad birds. Visual beauty and a mellifluous song were a plus because those qualities gave us pleasure. If the bird didn’t eat crop or human pests or did not have a sweet song or look “pretty,” then it was put in the bad bird category. These included all black birds like crows, grackles, and starlings and almost all raptors because they fed on good birds. You wanted only good birds at your feeders. At this time there were many community birdfeeding areas, where towns would set aside a location specifically for feeding birds, and bird clubs would help keep these areas stocked with food. Roger Tory Peterson as a youth helped maintain a community feeding area. Only much later was birdfeeding seen as something to enjoy or for study.
With the rise in interest in feeding wild birds came the evolution of the birdfeeding business. This started simply enough with enterprising enthusiasts selling plans and kits for basic feeders and advertising in various bird-friendly magazines. Soon people in the grain and feed business saw the opportunity to make extra cash from those “bird people” by marketing seed and feeders to them. Much of the early bird food for home use was simply mixes also used for poultry. Everyone was searching for that special feed that would attract the most “good” birds. Mabel Osgood Wright even recommended “Spratt’s Dog and Puppy Biscuits” as the treat that would bring the birds in. The first hopper feeders were nothing more than scaled down poultry feeders, often marketed by the same companies. Knauf and Tesch, the forerunner of the Kaytee Company, began as a grain elevator business that served folks in east central Wisconsin. It soon found that birdfeeding enthusiasts were beating a path to its door for products geared for feeding wild birds, and these products led to this company’s national expansion.
Suet feeding began when people with no in-home refrigeration noticed that birds were attracted to the fat on the meat they were storing outdoors in winter. The preferred suet in those early days was beef kidney fat. Typically it was simply nailed to a branch, sometimes with some chicken wire over it, or stuffed in a hole in a tree. Later, people would melt the fat and pour that over conifer branches.
Sometimes, global politics affected trends in American birdfeeding. After the Spanish-American War, America suddenly had access to cheap products from the Philippines, and coconuts appeared on America markets. Suddenly many birdfeeding articles started recommending coconuts as great bird feeders and suet holders. Some of the more unusual feeds for birds have long histories. Mealworms were recommended as bird food as far back as 1902, but they did not become popular with the birdfeeding public until the 1990s.
This is just part of the fascinating history found in Feeding Wild Birds in America. The book is profusely illustrated with interesting old magazine illustrations of birdfeeding and ads for seeds and feeders. One of my favorites is a two-page full color spread of birds at a feeder in winter painted by Roger Tory Peterson for the January 15, 1945, issue of Life magazine. Near the end of Feeding Wild Birds in America there is a collection of personal birdfeeding recipes “then and now” going all the way back to 1888 and including such modern avian gourmet treats as Julie Zickefoose’s new and improved (2010) Zick Dough. It is tempting to try one of the older recipes and see what it attracts nowadays.
Feeding Wild Birds in America is an important and vastly entertaining addition to the greater history of human society and wildlife. Most of us know how to feed birds, but this is the first book that tells us where that passion came from and how it evolved.
- Forbush E.H. 1908. Useful Birds and Their Protection. Massachusetts: Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture.
- Merriam, F.A. 1890. Birds through an Opera Glass. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company.
- Wright, M.O. 1895. Birdcraft. New York: Macmillan.