In the last column, I discussed the benefits of bird feeders and noted that no evidence exists to show that birds become dependent on them. Growing and selling birdseed is big business, with sales of seed and feeders exceeding $2 billion per year. Over 50 million Americans are involved with some level of bird feeding and observation around their homes. Such broad interest has not always been so.

Today, we’ll look at the history of bird feeding in North America. This topic has long been a research interest of mine. This column benefits greatly from information in “Feeding Wild Birds in America” by Paul Baicich and others.

Bird feeding is a two-way street. We feed the birds to help them survive but also to lure them closer to us so we may enjoy their beauty and behavior.

We can start in 1854 with Henry David Thoreau.

In his classic reflection “Walden,” Thoreau writes of tossing half a bushel of unripe corn just outside his cabin and watching the various animals that were attracted to it, blue jays and black-capped chickadees among them.

We fast-forward to 1898 when Florence Merriam Bailey began teaching bird classes to teachers in the District of Columbia. Bailey had recently graduated from Smith College and had been actively involved in battling the harvest of egrets. These birds were being slaughtered in large numbers because their breeding plumes had become fashionable in women’s hats.

Bailey showed that nailing a few bones and suet to a tree attracted a diversity of birds. She recommended grains and table crumbs as well.

At the same time, Elizabeth Davenport in Vermont fed the birds a diversity of seeds as well as cornbread. She kept careful records, documenting over 20 bird species at her feeders.

Anna Botsford Comstock, a professor at Cornell University, started the Nature Study program for children. Kids were encouraged to feed birds and make observations on them. The Nature Study program continued into the 20th century.

The venerable table feeder was in use by the late 19th century. Window feeding-trays appeared in the early 1900s. Bird feeding was encouraged by the National Audubon Society’s magazine, Bird-Lore, and by books by Bradford Torrey and Neltje Blanchan.

Even at this early stage of bird feeding, authors and observers noted the dual benefits of bird feeding: Helping birds survive and attracting birds to enjoy them. Suet was recommended as a most valuable food. We concur with this advice as fat is more calorie-rich than carbohydrates or proteins. Birds store fat to fuel their migrations, their overnight shivering and other activities.

By 1910, more sophisticated bird feeders began to appear. Hans von Berlepsch, a German, had begun to design feeders that minimized waste. His bird bell (a silo-like contraption in which seeds fell onto a tray) was one of the most popular.

Waldo Lee McAtee, a federal biologist, advocated using coconuts or tin cans with small holes as feeders. Such feeders minimize the loss of food. The holes could be made small to allow chickadees access but not larger birds that tended to outcompete chickadees at a feeding table.

The first suet feeders appeared at about this time. Rather than simply tying or nailing suet to a tree, people began to make suet boxes from wood or metal. Some people mixed seeds in with the suet.

House sparrows sometimes dominated bird feeders. Many people found this introduced species undesirable. Clever inventors produced feeders that allowed agile chickadees to get to the food but not relatively clumsy house sparrows.

Commercial bird feeders became widely available in the 1920s and bird feeding continued to increase in popularity. To be sure, World War I and the Great Depression forced cutbacks in bird feeding, but bird feeders were a common sight in 1940. We’ll continue in the next column.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: