A Bird’s Tale

A Brief History of Bird Feeding

Posted:  Wednesday, January 30, 2019 - 10:30am
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February is National Wild Bird Feeding Month, and chances are you celebrating—sort of, if you, like us, are among the 50 million Americans who maintain wild birder feeders. What a great way to watch wild birds for prolonged periods of time, up close! No wonder someone came up with a way to celebrate this hugely popular activity.

When a congressman from Illinois introduced a declaration into the congressional record in 1994 to establish National Wild Bird Feeding Month, it was probably more or less to appease the bird feeding industry, which continues to promote it. But when people first began feeding wild birds, they did so with the common-sense idea that they would be helping them. In the early years, people probably noticed birds picking up grain spilled around farms and saw them picking seeds from manure, and couldn’t help but notice other birds that would scavenge at dead animals and offal. It wouldn’t have been too hard to imagine that someone, perhaps with a soft heart for wild birds or an interest in getting a close look at them, might start intentionally putting grains and food scraps out somewhere nearer the house where the birds could be seen from the kitchen window.

We don’t know the full history of bird feeding in the U.S. but we do know that people were regularly feeding birds by the late 1800s, as evidenced by books written around that time that mention the idea of feeding birds. In her book, “Birdcraft,” published in 1896, Mabel Osgood Wright, an early ornithological and bird conservation pioneer, wrote about the special bird food that she made and left out for wild birds. In the 1897 book, “Bird Neighbors,” author Neltje Blanchan suggested hanging a raw bone out for birds.

Today, birds have a smorgasbord of food provided to them. In fact it can be confusing to know which birds prefer which seed. We provide tips for feeders, seed, and more in a previous column.

But the offer of bones and other agricultural bounty coincided with the birth of the Audubon bird conservation movement that culminated in the signing of the famed Migratory Bird treaty, whose 100-year anniversary we recently celebrated. Much work was going on around the turn of that century to educate people about birds and their needs, and to encourage people to attract birds and watch them. There were millions of new-found recruits to the bird conservation movement at the time, and they wanted to be able to help the birds that they were hearing about.

Yet even back then, people were aware that one of the main reasons to attract birds was to just enjoy them and feel connected to nature. This quote from Frank Chapman’s 1918 book, “Our Winter Birds,”  encapsulates this: “Our pleasure in attracting the birds to our homes in winter is measured not only by our success in giving them shelter and food during the bleak and barren season, but also by the extent to which we gain their confidence and win their companionship.”

Bird feeding eventually came to support businesses that grew and distributed seed, suet, and feeders along with various accessories. In the 1980s, bird feeding appears to have really taken off, and today, there are tens of millions of people who feed birds in the U.S., supporting an industry that generates billions of dollars in sales.

At its core, the activity of feeding the birds is still what it was back in 1896: a very local and personal action that is undertaken in our own backyards. It may be undertaken primarily just to see, enjoy, and interact with birds and other creatures of the natural world that we can sometimes feel disconnected from, especially if most of our time is spent working and living in urban settings. It may be because we hope to help some birds survive the cold and snow of winter. We may not even know exactly why we do it. There is no doubt that the millions of people who feed birds make and maintain connections that embody values that can lead them to learn more about and become active in efforts to care for the environment that we share with birds and all other living things.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.