Practice of feeding birds a relatively recent development



Emily Dickinson


Henry David Thoreau

Some recent bouts of cold weather brought increased numbers of birds to my feeders. It’s easy to look at the birds flocking to feeders and think that this special relationship between them and their human hosts is a long-running one. However, the practice of tempting birds with food to invite them to take part in our daily lives is a fairly recent one. The concept of feeding the birds began to develop in the 19th century, motivated in part by some of the early naturalists and transcendental thinkers of New England.


A Northern Cardinal checks out a gravel drive for dropped seeds.

For instance, the 19th century writer Emily Dickinson described feeding birds in some of her poems. In addition, she wrote about hummingbirds attracted to the flowers in the gardens that she tended with her sister at their home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson’s fellow writer, Henry David Thoreau, fed birds at Walden Pond as early as 1845. He later wrote his pivotal work, “Walden,” based on his experiences living in his small cabin in the woods. The work is filled with his description of birds and other wildlife.


Florence Merriam Bailey

The late John V. Dennis, author of “The Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” sketches out the history of feeding birds in his informative work. Dennis noted that early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon wrote in the 18th century about people from the old country (Europe) feeding birds during spells of bad weather. For a long time, Dennis noted in his book, feeding of birds remained rather sporadic. This began to change in the late 1800s. The evolution of bird feeding was documented by Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey, a 19th century ornithologist and naturalist.

Bailey wrote “Birds Through an Opera Glass” in 1889, becoming one of the first writers to write about birds for popular audiences without too much emphasis on the more scientific aspects of ornithology. She also wrote “Birds of Village and Field: A Bird Book for Beginners,” intended to foster an interest in birds and birding among the general public. Bailey even identified in her writings the first person — a Mrs. E. B. Davenport — to implement a winter-long, even year-long, practice of feeding birds. Another woman — Caroline Soule — developed the first hummingbird feeder back in 1900. She took a glass cylinder, filled it with a sugar water mixture and attached an handmade artificial flower to it. When she hung the feeder near a trumpet vine at her home, she reported that the hummingbirds readily fed from her feeder. Dennis noted that Soule’s basic feeder design has needed very little modification in the last century.


House Finches visit a feeder in suburban Atlanta, Ga.

Althea Sherman discovered that ruby-throated hummingbirds quickly learned to associate clear bottles filled with sugar water as a source of food. Her 1913 study of hummingbird feeding behavior also noted that hummingbirds remembered the locations of artificial feeders from a previous year and would hover at those precise spots when they returned each spring. So, in less than a century, humans have had a major influence on hummingbirds, helping them adapt to supplemental food sources provided by humans hoping to lure these tiny birds into their yards and gardens for extended stays.

Feeding of birds expanded rapidly in popularity. Today, some estimates indicate that as many as 55 million Americans regularly feed the birds in their yards and gardens. Bird feeding is second only to gardening as the most popular hobby in the United States. The two activities can also overlap. The month of February was named National Bird-Feeding Month by the U.S. Congress back in 1994.


A Tufted Titmouse and Downy Woodpecker visit a feeder for a chunk of suet.

Feeding the birds can be expensive, but all that money is, without a doubt, good for the economy. Americans spend about $3 billion a year on bird feed. Another $800 million goes to purchase bird feeders, baths and houses. The variety of food is quite extensive, but I generally offer black oil sunflower seeds and commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter. I sometimes supplement my offerings to the birds with peanuts, nyjer thistle seed (a favorite of American goldfinches) and safflower seed. The latter is useful if you want to discourage squirrels. Unfortunately, the hard shells of safflower seeds also make them inaccessible to some smaller birds, but birds like tufted titmouse and Northern cardinal appear to have no difficulty with these seeds.

Some people have great luck feeding a wide range of birds, including Eastern bluebirds, Baltimore orioles and ruby-crowned kinglets. My bluebirds show an occasional interest in my feeders, but orioles and kinglets have largely ignored them. For bluebirds, mealworms, which can be purchased live or freeze-dried, are a very popular food.


Dark-eyed Junco visits a feeder during a snowstorm.

I’ve come a long way since my childhood when my grandmother would let me scatter crumbled cornbread on the ground for the dark-eyed juncos ahead of snowstorms. I also remember that the juncos, or snowbirds, would flock to the site where my grandfather dumped the ashes from his wood stove. I suspect the ash provided supplemental minerals and nutrients craved by the birds.

Some birds are quite adventurous in their tastes. On a whim, I once placed a stale McDonald’s apple pie on my front porch during a winter cold spell. A Carolina wren discovered the pastry and made frequent trips each day to feast on this unexpected bonanza. The wren whittled away at the pie, which soon disappeared. I suspected the wren probably advertised to friends, so other wrens may have helped in finishing off the pie.

Human generosity can help birds survive frigid cold snaps, but for the most part, they’re not dependent on humans for their food. The reason to feed birds is entirely a selfish one. We take immense pleasure in observing their antics as they interact with each other at our feeders. Experts have even shown that such activities as bird feeding can be therapeutic in reducing stress in human observers.

People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants.

In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.


The roots of Project FeederWatch extend back to 1976 Ontario, Canada, when Dr. Erica Dunn with Canada’s Long Point Bird Observatory established the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey. After a successful 10-year run, its organizers realized that only a continental survey could accurately monitor the large-scale movements of birds. Therefore, Long Point Bird Observatory decided to expand the survey to cover all of North America.

The expansion launched in the winter of 1987-88, when more than 4,000 people enrolled. FeederWatchers represented every state in the U.S. except Hawaii, as well as most Canadian provinces. Project FeederWatch continues to be a cooperative research project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada (formerly the Long Point Bird Observatory) on an annual basis. To learn more, visit
The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, based in Elizabethton, Tennessee, is once again offering for sale its annual calendar. All proceeds from sales of the 2017 calendar benefit the chapter’s work to promote birds and birding. This year’s calendar features nearly 100 full-color photographs. Calendars are $15 and can be obtained at the office of the Bristol Herald Courier, 320 Bob Morrison Blvd., Bristol, Virginia. To reserve a copy, email me at or message me on Facebook.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

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