Featured Article - November/December 2017

Hats to Habitats: A Look at the History of Backyard Bird Feeding

By Mary Schmidt


Adding native plants to a backyard habitat can attract birds that don’t visit feeders like this robin. Photo by Curt Hart.​

“I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs." – Joseph Addison, The Spectator, 1712.

We are a state of bird watchers. According to a 2011 U.S. Fish & Wildlife survey, nearly a million Tennesseans watch birds around their homes and spend over $100 million each year feeding and observing birds!

Birders have devoted so much time studying birds that we know details like Blue Jays prefer peanuts, safflower seed attracts cardinals but not starlings; and mealworms can attract nesting bluebirds. There are feeders designed to keep squirrels at bay or designed exclusively for goldfinches.

In the last 200 years we’ve come a long way in our knowledge about feeding and identifying birds, from humble beginnings of table scraps scattered on the ground to the carefully selected buffet that birds now enjoy in some of our Tennessee backyards. The more time we spend watching birds, the more we learn about them and how to continue to help attract and feed them.

Humble Beginnings

Historical records of feeding birds dates back to at least the sixth century but probably even predates that time period. It wasn’t until the 1850s that bird feeding accounts begin to appear in the United States and the hobby of backyard bird feeding had its modest beginnings.

In the 1800s, birds were primarily thought of as food or fashion. Wearing a bird feather or in some cases the whole dead bird secured to a hat was a sign of wealth and influence. Millions of birds were killed annually to meet demands of the North American bird hat trade. Bird watchers started to notice the decline in bird populations and bird conservation groups began to form.

In 1896, Harriet Hemenway and Mina Hall formed the first Audubon Society in Massachusetts with the goal of deterring women from wearing bird hats. Soon, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was passed making it illegal for anyone to take, possess, sell, or buy any migratory bird, bird part, nest, or egg of migrating bird species. This would essentially end the bird hat fashion industry.

The development of lightweight and easily focused binoculars continued to fuel the popularity of bird watching. Opera style glasses were the norm in the 1850s, but by the 1900s adjustable higher-magnification prism binoculars were developed that laid the foundation for modern bird watching binoculars.

Bird Study

An early account of feeding birds in North America can be found in David Thoreau’s Walden published in 1848. He writes about observing Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees eating corn he tossed outside of his cabin. Around the same time, John James Audubon published his Birds of America and wrote of feeding hummingbirds dissolved sugar or honey placed inside artificial flowers.

Tennessee native Albert Gainer began publishing bird articles in 1899. He would later go on to help form the Tennessee Ornithological Society in 1915. In 1933, he published the first attempt to compile a detailed list of the birds of Tennessee. He continued to promote bird study though his publication of over 200 articles on the birds of Tennessee and by helping to establish other TOS chapters across the state. Currently there are 11 TOS chapters stretching across the length of Tennessee from Bristol to Memphis.

According to the 2015 book Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation, the 1900s also saw the study of birds flourish for both adults and youth. A nature study program was started at Cornell University in New York for students and school teachers. During the program, participants were encouraged to feed and observe birds. Cornell University continues to be a pioneer and leading authority on North American birds, bird feeding and citizen science.

Now, the popularity of bird watching coupled with increasing access to the Internet allows scientists to enlist the general public’s help for valuable data on populations and distribution of birds across the United States. Citizen science projects include reporting observations of birds at your feeder, locating nests, or just recording and submitting bird sightings.

The Field Guide

In 1889 the first bird field guide in North America, Birds Through an Opera-Glass was written by Florence Merriam, a pioneer in early bird conservation. The guide included 70 North American species and about a dozen drawings. The text is written from field notes and includes anecdotal tales from Merriam’s experiences watching birds.

The field guide was revolutionized in 1934 with Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. The guide included hundreds of colorful drawings of the birds and minimal text. The guide was also organized by bird families and gave the reader a method for identifying birds (silhouette, shape, and field marks).

Digital photography has recently changed the field guide again. Crossley ID guide: Eastern Birds was released in 2011 and includes thousands of high resolution photos of birds at varying angles and distances. Each bird has a collage of photos on a background of the species typical habitat and includes brief text descriptions.

The Evolution of the Bird Feeder

With more people beginning to feed birds, bird feeders were improved to meet the needs of birds and their human observers. In the 1850s bread crumbs, table scraps, bones tied to trees, and suet were the bird feeding foods of choice. By 1910 a variety of styles of bird feeders begin to appear like suet boxes, hanging tray feeders, and tin cans with perches.

By the 1920s, blueprints for homemade bird feeders were published in magazines and commercial feeders became available. Careful observations and study showed that certain birds were attracted to certain foods and specific styles of feeders. Now we have hundreds of varieties of feeders and feed available for bird feeding enthusiasts.

Studies show that birds have seed preferences, so investing in quality seed will not only attract birds but it will keep habitats cleaner, reduce the risk of unwanted visitors (rodents and raccoons) and reduce the risk of spreading disease among birds.

“Not all birdseed is “created” equal” says Debbie Bruce owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Memphis. A lot of cheaper seed mixes contain waste or filler seed that birds don’t eat and kick out of feeders leaving a mess on the ground. Sunflower seed and suet are great foods, but if you are interested in a larger diversity of species, research the seed preferences of some of our native birds and experiment with a variety of seed and feeders.

Birds aren’t the only ones attracted to bird feeders; other animals that eat seed or animals that eat birds are also attracted to feeders. Predator guards and proper placement of feeders make feeding stations less attractive to seed “stealers” and potential predators.

As we continue to understand more about the needs of birds we are learning new ways to increase the attractiveness of a feeding station. Providing a feeder might attract some birds but creating a habitat will increase the number and diversity of birds. Providing native plants, species-specific bird houses and water features increases the attractiveness to birds that typically don’t visit feeders.

Bird Watching and Technology

Technology has also played a role in advancing access to bird watching and identification. A quick Internet search now revels dozens of available print and online field guides. Specialized field guides are available that focus on specific bird groups or regions. In the past, tape recorders and chunky field guides accompanied birders in the field. Now birders can take their smart phones and have access to thousands of bird sounds and a variety of bird identification apps.

There are apps that use facial recognition or voice technology software to identify birds from a photograph or sound. These apps are currently available but still in the early editions and the identification isn’t completely accurate. Perhaps future innovations will include feeders with smart technology that only dispenses seed to specific birds or binoculars that can immediately identify a bird in your field of view. Whatever the future brings the joy so many Tennesseans get from watching and feeding birds won’t change.

(Mary Schmidt currently works as the Backyard Wildlife Center Curator at Lichterman Nature Center in Memphis. She has observed 50 different species of birds in her East Memphis yard.) 

Find out more: 

Learn more about birds in Tennessee by visiting the Tennessee Ornithological Society’s website www.tnbirds.org. There you can read the TOS newsletter The Tennessee Warbler as well as back issues of the TOS quarterly, The Migrant. The open access electronic archive of The Migrant begins with the 1930 issue and there is other literature on Tennessee birds described on the website.

TOS was founded in 1915 to promote enjoyment, scientific study and conservation of birds.

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