Are you considering a major life change like getting a pet or buying a motorcycle? Good. But before you commit to altering the amount of drool on your face or grease under your fingernails, ponder trying a bird feeder as your "pet." Bird feeding allows for a more personal experience with wildlife, and it lacks the costly repair bills of that hog. And we mean that as a pet OR a motorcycle.
A history of bird feeding
Research in the book "The Birds at My Table" reveals some of the earliest written records of humans offering birds a tasty morsel go back 3,500 years to an orthodox Hindu practice that helps balance against accumulated negative karma. Accordingly, this may serve as the longest-running form of an effort to feed wild birds, as the practice still occurs today.
However, the Hindu practice may not be as old as the unique burial practice of Vajrayana Buddhism. In the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia, as well as in Mongolia, Bhutan, and other areas, a funerary practice known as a sky burial might surprise many in North America. In this religious practice, the bodies of the deceased are broken up and fed to local vulture species such as the Cinereous Vulture, Eurasian Griffon, and Himalayan Griffin. This sacred practice is believed to have occurred for over 11,000 years, though there is minimal written or physical evidence to support the number. If true, sky burials may serve as the oldest organized practice of feeding wild birds.
Egyptians also practiced organized food provisioning but for two species of sacred birds. The African Sacred Ibis and Peregrine Falcon were both essential to a religious dedication that involved the mummification of the birds after capture. To ensure enough birds could replenish the wild populations of the captured species, Egyptians would dedicate parcels of land solely to feed each species. Dating back over 2,500 years, this arranged and organized bird feeding only competes with the sky burial effort mentioned above.
Finding a more recognized version of backyard bird feeding is difficult in history before 1825 when ornithologist John Freeman Dovaston created the ornithotrophe, a modified food trough. This device may be the origin of more modern bird feeders, and the British ornithologist recorded 23 bird species visiting this feeder during the winter of 1825. Sixty-five years later, newspapers in the UK began offering suggestions and recipes to feed wild birds during a particularly harsh winter.
The first mention of feeding birds in North America comes in 1845 in Thoreau's "Walden," though this is only a mention of tossing some extra corn out to see which wildlife might visit. A concerted effort began in earnest in the 20th century when several publications offered advice for attracting and protecting wild birds. It was not until 1969 that the first modern tubular garden bird feeder was produced for purchase. Interest has expanded in the 50+ years since the contemporary feeder was introduced. The most recent USFWS study (published in 2016) estimated that the number of wildlife watchers feeding birds was almost 60 million participants. In the United States, these bird lovers are supplied with approximately 500,000 tons of bird food annually. This increase in the practice of supplying birds with seed and suet evolved rapidly.
From sacred practices to modified food troughs to 1 billion pounds of birdseed, bird feeding has changed as often as our society. What will it look like in 50 more years? Only the birds will know!
A benefit to birds
A study published in 2015 helped support the notion that bird feeders offer multiple benefits to birds. And that is not just feeder talk. This three-year study examined fat stores, antioxidant capacity, body condition, immune defense, and nutritional condition. The study results offered strong indications of what bird lovers have thought and hoped since the creation of the ornithotrophe; bird feeders help birds.
Birds using supplemental feed sources had a raised antioxidant capacity, which is critical to fertility, growth, immune function, and resistance to aging. Increased antioxidant levels allow birds to handle stressors more healthily, allowing for an overall better-conditioned bird. Additionally, birds using feeders had fuller fat stores, healthier and better quality feathers, and increased body condition. Enhanced immune function was also found in birds utilizing these human-provided food sources. This immune function can act as the first line of immune defense against potential pathogens experienced at bird feeders or in the wild. Finally, the research continued for ten months after removing the feeders. It provided data to show that bird feeding is supplemental and wild birds are not dependent upon them as their primary food source.
While bird feeding can benefit local and migratory bird populations, evidence suggests that maintaining full and clean feeders is necessary to continue the improved health benefits for avian visitors. Yet, if you stop feeding, the birds will not have to take a ride down the sewer lines. (Also, do not flush exotic animals down your pipes.)
A benefit to humans | Wind in your hair, or happiness in your heart?
Enjoying the sight of fantastic feathered friends has various benefits for our emotional and mental health. Watching birds from home decreases the risk of depression, stress, and anxiety when compared to those who live in areas with fewer birds and lower bird diversity. In fact, scientists have measured a value for the satisfaction we feel from bird diversity, and the more bird diversity around you, the higher that value is!
Attracting native birds to your home during the growing season provides a safe form of pest control. The Purple Martin, a beautiful backyard neighbor, consumes hundreds to thousands of flying insects every day. How does this help your home? The most significant percentage of these flying insects consists of ants and termites. While the Purple Martin may not visit a bird feeder, providing a Purple Martin hotel can attract several pairs! Chickadees are some of the best natural garden protectors. During the breeding season, chickadees can consume almost 10,000 caterpillars. And, if you attract the chickadees, you will begin to fill your yard with other native birds.
Independence is calling
Bird feeders are an effective way to connect us to nature. Yet, birds do not rely upon our bird feeders for survival. This delightful hobby can allow for a flexible lifestyle, even if you still want to commit to that new puppy. Or motorcycle. And, if you are a snowbird, you can take that chopper south with the birds and feed them on YOUR wintering grounds.
Enjoy your new hobby: feeding birds!