Blue Ridge Naturalist: Feeding Wild Birds in America

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Throughout her childhood, the author longed to see a male Northern Cardinal because it sported her favorite color—red.  But despite its common name that might suggest otherwise, this species was common in the southeastern U.S. and very rare in the Northeast in the 1960s. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
Throughout her childhood, the author longed to see a male Northern Cardinal because it sported her favorite color—red. But despite its common name that might suggest otherwise, this species was common in the southeastern U.S. and very rare in the Northeast in the 1960s. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

Throughout the years of my youth, my mother would tear apart stale bread or sweets, such as donuts, and throw the pieces onto the ground in the back yard for wild birds to eat. It wasn’t that my mother had a strong interest in learning much about birds; she simply had a big heart and felt it was better to provide them with foods that would otherwise just be thrown away. Blue Jays took the most interest in my mom’s handouts, and we always had plenty of them around.

Because I did have a special interest in birds, I was given a bird feeder one Christmas. I’ve been feeding wild birds ever since. Yet in all of this time, I had never once given any thought to the origins of this activity—until earlier this year when I read a recently published book on this subject.

Feeding Wild Birds in America, by Paul Baicich, Margaret Barker, and Carrol Henderson, presents a history of bird feeding, a topic that may sound rather boring, but is incredibly fascinating.

Anyone with a serious interest in birds has probably heard about President Teddy Roosevelt’s intense love of bird watching and nature study (activities in which he engaged right here in Albemarle County at Pine Knot). Personally, I was delighted to read that my hero, George Washington Carver, led the nature study efforts at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a college founded to provide a “practical, industrial education for southern blacks.”

I have greatly admired this scientist ever since I first read about him when I was a child. He was born into slavery and overcame great odds to get to college. Because I knew that I, too, would have difficulty getting to college (my parents had made clear that they didn’t have the money to send me), I took inspiration from his life story.

Professor Carver believed that studying the natural world “helps to develop and round out a beautiful character and fit the individual for filling in the best possible manner the great object for which God brought him into existence.” In other words, nature study addressed the spiritual as well as the practical side of human existence.  How I wish more folks shared his vision today.

A 1904 photograph in the book shows at least two dozen people, including women, paying rapt attention to someone pointing out something on a tree on the grounds of Tuskegee. “Nature Study,” a formal course developed by Cornell University, was also offered at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, another historically black university.

The study of nature eventually led to the widespread feeding of wild birds, which was closely tied to the bird preservation movement at the turn of the last century (the late 1800s into the 1900s). Arising from the need to protect birds that were headed towards extinction because of the women’s fashion trade, the interest in birds had much to do with a changing culture from which commerce was able to profit. Thus Feeding Wild Birds in America is subtitled Culture, Commerce, and Conservation, and the book interweaves these subjects superbly.

Did you realize that many of the successful bird-feeding businesses of today grew out of grain businesses established in the 1800s to feed farm animals? Or that bird feeding has become a multi-billion-dollar industry just since the 1990s?

What I find especially interesting in this book are the old ads and illustrations, especially vintage woodcuts, from publications. One such woodcut from an 1886 issue of Harper’s Weekly is captioned, “Birds in winter—outdoor relief.” In it a child looks out an open window from which she (or he, it’s hard to tell) has apparently thrown seeds onto the snow where several species of birds have assembled to take advantage of the easy pickings during a harsh time of year.

A particularly thought-provoking ad for simple opera glasses proclaims that they are “Better Than a Shot Gun!” for nature watching. These low-power glasses were a far cry from the high-quality binoculars currently used, but they were certainly better than using just one’s eyes alone.

While the thought of anyone using a shotgun to obtain a good look at a bird is repugnant to us today, that action had been about the only way to previously study wild birds. Even naturalist John James Audubon shot birds, a fact that shocked me when I first learned it years ago.

When the opera glass magazine ad appeared in 1895, it may have been the first of its kind. Bird watching quickly became tied to the sale of goods to help people enjoy this activity. Food and feeders helped to bring birds closer for viewing, and the novel use of optics helped people to better see and identify them without having to kill the poor creatures!

The last chapter is especially useful for the birdwatcher who is just beginning to take up bird feeding. It discusses the best foods to offer, along with information on when they first began to be used as a supplemental food source for birds.

For example, Elizabeth Davenport, an early member of the American Ornithologist’s Union, made notes about the foods she offered and the many species that visited to partake of them. Her notes from the 1890s tell us that plain suet pieces (fat from animal carcasses, an especially important natural source of energy in winter) were nailed to the trunks of trees. Today most people buy multi-ingredient suet cakes neatly wrapped and easily dispensed in specially designed feeders.

If you are interested in bird feeding, the history of bird feeding, or the history of our country’s growing awareness of the importance of the natural world to our lives, you really should purchase a copy of Feeding Wild Birds in America for yourself and/or your local library. It’s an incredibly educational read.

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