Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation (Texas A&M University Press, 2015), by Paul J Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson discusses the changing relationship between backyard birds and humans. The chapters demonstrate how we’ve developed with bird-feeding inventions, and also how Americans have come to value nature. This excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Backyard Prosperities.”
One of the most impressive changes in bird-feeding traditions during the past two decades has been the transition from feeding birds in the winter to feeding birds throughout all four seasons of the year.
But the occasional practice of four-season feeding does go back many decades. Ernest Harold Baynes, in his popular 1915 book Wild Bird Guests, stressed that most birds “will appreciate hospitality at any season.” He emphasized his practice in New Hampshire of gathering berries of mountain ash, wild cherry, and other food plants, drying them on stalks and branches, and making them available in the early spring for migrating birds surprised by unseasonable cold. While this was a transitional practice, a post-winter endeavor, it was edging out winter-only feeding. Elsewhere, bird feeding began primarily as a means of helping game birds survive harsh winters.
In most places, bird feeding became a backyard activity as people tossed table scraps, suet, and waste grain out for birds in winter. With the arrival of spring and summer, people discovered the joys of attracting hummingbirds with sweet nectar solutions.
By the 1940s, the dispute over feeding birds through the warmer months was running its course, and none other than Roger Tory Peterson entered the debate. He stated unambiguously that such feeding was not “necessary” but declared, “There is no hesitancy on the part of many birds to accept a handout even when natural food is abundant. Feeding birds in summer is hardly a conservation measure, but it may give much pleasure to the man who feeds them.”
By the 1950s and 1960s summer feeding was growing, and some seed companies actually promoted products suited for summer feeding. Henry Hill Collins, always attuned to trends in birding in the backyard and afield, would note that “summer or winter, birds will always be attracted by a supply of edibles,” with American Robins, Gray Catbirds, and Northern Mockingbirds appreciating grapes, oranges, sliced apples, raisins, and other fruit.
Of course, bird enthusiasts in warmer climates, such as the southern parts of Arizona, Texas, California, and Florida, rarely had the option of feeding birds in bitter cold. They fed birds in warm seasons, regardless of what the calendar said.
By the late 1980s, bird advocates like John Dennis were promoting summer bird feeding. Indeed, Dennis had an entire book by that name on the subject — Summer Bird Feeding (1989).
Generally, and until the 1990s, commercial bird feed sales would peak in the winter and drop off significantly in the spring, creating a problem for retailers: packaged bird food like sunflower seeds frequently became moldy or stale before the next winter feeding season arrived. The Nongame Wildlife Program in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, however, benefited from this problem by keeping in touch with local bird food retailers. At the end of the winter bird-feeding season, retailers donated remaining bags of birdseed to the Nongame Wildlife Program for use at state park bird feeders and at Department of Transportation highway rest area bird feeders.
By the late 1980s, an increasing number of feeder watchers began discovering that targeted feeding efforts in the spring and fall could attract a host of migrant birds, including Yellow-rumped Warblers, Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes, Harris’s and Chipping Sparrows, Indigo and Lazuli Buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks.
They also found that by adding selected seeds and fruits in summer they could attract a colorful array of birds, such as Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, Gray Catbirds, Purple Finches, American Goldfinches, Baltimore and Hooded Orioles, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
The discovery of the delights of four-season bird feeding helped launch a new era of bird feeding as a business that could thrive on a year-round basis. It is no coincidence that this is also the period in which wild bird feeding specialty stores began opening throughout the country.
For more from Feeding Wild Birds in America:
• Suet: A Bird-Feeding Staple
This excerpt was used with permission from Feeding Wild Birds in America, by Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson, published by Texas A&M University Press, © 2015.