American Birding Podcast



Why We Feed Birds

A review by Grant McCreary

Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation, by Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson

Texas A&M University Press, 2015

306 pages, $27.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14477

Feeding birds? Isn’t this the American Birding Association? Don’t lie: I know you thought it, if only briefly.

I wondered something similar when I first saw this title, something along the lines of, “Like we need another book about feeding birds.” But this isn’t a book about how to feed birds. Rather, it is a history of the practice and an examination of why we do it. As such, it deals  not only with bird feeding but also with bird conservation and, yes, with birding.

The authors of Feeding Wild Birds in America begin the story more than 150 years ago, with Henry David Thoreau’s throwing out some corn to see what animals fed on it. Thoreau’s choice was typical: Through the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, the food offered to birds was “mostly extra bits from the home larder, leftovers from the dinner table, and waste seeds and grains from threshing and storage.”

Similarly, early feeders were cobbled together from scrap materials around the house. These “bird shelves” and “bird tables” were often attached to windowsills. Bird feeders evolved quickly, with the still-familiar hopper style appearing by the 1910s, when ads for commercially produced feeders started to appear. One such ad, from a 1913 issue of Bird-Lore (the predecessor of Audubon magazine), depicts a weather-vane style feeder that wouldn’t look all that out of place in a backyard today. The ad also touts a sparrow trap: House Sparrows, here called “the worst enemies of our dear native birds,” have been plaguing American bird feeders since day one.

14477In the first half of the twentieth century, one of the most popular seeds was hemp. Although birds really like it, I don’t think you could get by with that in most places today. Honest, officer, I’m growing it for the birds! Some other items were conspicuous in their absence. It wasn’t until the 1970s that two staple seeds of modern bird feeding—black oil sunflower and niger seed (Guizotia)—came into widespread use. Other foods in today’s feeders may seem like new entrees, but in fact have only been “rediscovered” recently. Peanuts and mealworms, for example, were mentioned in bird-feeding books at the turn of the twentieth century.

The modern bird feeding industry was born in the 1970s. By the 1980s, Americans had ever more choices in bird foods and feeders, especially with the opening of the first wild bird specialty stores. The twenty-first century thus far has not seen the introduction of new foods or new types of feeders, but there have been continuous refinements and improvements. New seed blends have been made available, and there has been a proliferation of anti-squirrel devices.

Each chronological chapter is followed by one or more mini-essays, exploring topics from the history of bird baths and hummingbird feeding to controversial issues such as outdoor cats. These essays are consistently informative, even entertaining. The tale of how an especially oil-rich sunflower was imported from Russia reads like a cloak-and-dagger story.

BINbuttonFeeding Wild Birds in America concentrates on the practice in the United States. As anyone who has marveled at the setups of some lodges in the American tropics (or has just seen videos—sigh) can attest, feeding birds in Latin America and the Caribbean is a drastically different experience, briefly touched on here in one of the end-of-chapter side stories. Much more could be written on the topic: The practice of hand-feeding antpittas and other reclusive birds isn’t even mentioned here. It is remarkable, though, to read about Greater Rheas attending feeders in Brazil’s Pantanal—and to see this book’s photos of the phenomenon.

What, how, where, even when we feed has changed dramatically over the decades. But the most interesting changes have to do with the reasons Americans continue to supply the birds with seeds and suet. One of the earliest justifications was economic, a factor especially enticing to farmers, who greatly appreciated the birds’ pest- and weed-control services. Hardly anyone feeds birds for that reason today, but the sales of bird-related products and the money spent on bird-related travel are still invoked in the attempt to convince the powers that be to embrace conservation.

Of course, there is the aesthetic motivation, still as strong today as it was when the first person threw out the first bread crumbs. There’s not a lawn ornament made that can match a Northern Cardinal. Another persistent drive is the desire to help birds, the notion—false, except, perhaps, in extreme circumstances—still held by many Americans that birds need us to get through the winter.

Ironically, this desire to save them may be keeping birds from getting the kind of help they really need. The authors posit that bird feeding enthusiasts may feel that they have “done their duty” and thus don’t need to do anything else in support of bird conservation. But only a small percentage of bird species will ever come to a feeder. The vast majority that are in need of help are dependent on conservation programs run by government agencies with limited resources.

Minnesota’s non-game wildlife program, under the supervision of the conservation superstar Carrol Henderson, gives bird food manufacturers the opportunity to contribute to conservation initiatives. For example, they can display the initiative’s logo on their packaging, letting prospective buyers know that by purchasing this seed they are helping birds. Hunters have long supported conservation through special taxes on equipment, but similar schemes to tax birding-related items have gone nowhere. Perhaps other states should take a cue from Minnesota.

If this hobby started out as a way to bring birds to people, today it can be thought of as a way to bring people to birds. Whether it’s done as a family activity or a classroom tool, for personal enjoyment or in the name of science, feeding birds provides a much-needed connection between us and the natural world. And, most importantly, bird feeding can lead to a deeper interest in birds.

Feeding Wild Birds in America recounts a history that is interesting in and of itself, but it offers much more than just a timeline of of bird feeders and seed. As the authors write, “to know this history is to learn about the roots of modern bird conservation, trends in American agriculture, developments in American interests and values, the progress of bird research, and the development of myriad bird-related businesses.”

We did need another book about bird feeding, after all.


– Grant McCreary is a regular birder who happens to love both birds and books, twinned interests that are reflected in his website, The Birder’s Library. He has birded his home state of Georgia extensively, and has been fortunate to visit such hotspots as southeastern Arizona, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and Costa Rica. 

Recommended citation:

McCreary, G. 2015. Why We Feed Birds [a review of Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation, by P. J. Baicich, M. A. Barker, and C. L. Henderson]. Birding 47 (5): 66.