History lessons for modern bird feeding

Features - Book excerpt

A book excerpt from "Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce & Conservation" by Paul. J Baicich, Margaret A. Barker and Carrol L. Henderson from Texas A&M University Press.

March 15, 2016


Indeed, millions of Americans in the second decade of the twenty-first century assume the task of providing backyard birds a safe, welcoming environment, amply supplied with food and water.

Fortunately for the birds, and us, today we know so much more about feeding wild birds and preserving critical habitats for them than did our counterparts a hundred years ago. We know which foods, native and supplemental, will attract which birds. Time-tested techniques help us lure the greatest variety of birds for our viewing pleasure. Importantly, thanks to pioneering individuals, we are able to offer bird guests novel and improved foods and feeders.

What follows is a brief look at current foods and practices that increase the odds for bird-feeding success. While some foods listed below might have been familiar to early backyard birders, others would be brand new or much changed.

A Cape May Warbler with a slice of orange.

1. Sunflower seeds. Times has proven that black-oil sunflower seeds appeal to bird species large and small. Gray-stripe sunflower seeds dominated the bird-feeding scene starting in the 1930s, attracting the likes of big-billed Northern Cardinals. But black-oil sunflower, which came to the wild bird market in the 1970s, has a wide variety of bird fans. It is the most popular wild birdseed today.

2. Suet and suet cakes. Nature provided the first “suet,” or fat from animal carcasses, and it is a special treat for hungry birds in cold and icy times. Elizabeth Davenport’s bird-feeding notes of the 1890s recall plain suet pieces being nailed to tree trunks. Today, store-bought, wrapped-up, multi-ingredient suet cakes offer the same energy benefit: calories. Both insect- and seed-eating birds devour this bird-feeding staple.

3. Peanuts, nuts, acorns (reminder: these are squirrel foods too!). Birds eat nuts and acorns in the wild, so it is no surprise to find these on bird-feeding menus from the early days and cited in early bird-attracting books (e.g. Trafton 1910; Baynes 1915). Feeding peanuts – not really a nut – and peanut hearts, offered alone or in premium mixes, is a growing trend. Tossing acorns on the ground might attract jays, grouse, quail and maybe even Wild Turkey.

4. Safflower. Introduced as a bird food in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this white seed is a staple ingredient in premium cardinal seed mixes. It is not a favorite of non-native House Sparrows and European Starlings, nor do squirrels or bears prefer it. Bird-feeding hosts use it to attract heavy-billed, seed-eating birds such as Northern Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias.

5. Corn, shelled or on the cob. Henry David Thoreau, at Walden Pond in the late 1840s, used corn to attract birds to his doorstep. Arthur Hawkins in the winter of 1936-37 closely examined corn as a means of attracting birds, and it was widely used in community bird-feeding programs in the late 1930s. Indeed, shelled corn has long been a popular food for game birds such as Ring-necked Pheasant and Wild Turkey, as well as for jays and woodpeckers. Feeding ears of corn can deter squirrels from the usual bird fare.

A Western Scrub Jay with acorns.

6. Nyjer and finch mixes. Nyjer, that tiny, black, high-oil seed sometimes incorrectly labeled “thistle” or “niger,” was long used for caged birds. Experimentation with Nyjer for wild birds in the 1960s set the stage for a new backyard birdseed. Nyjer is supplied in feeders with extra narrow ports. Members of the finch family, including redpolls and Pine Siskins, relish it. Special “finch mixes” – with sunflower chips, peanut hearts and other ingredients – also include Nyjer as a key ingredient.

7. White proso millet and cracked corn. Ground-feeding birds will eat white proso millet and cracked corn all year long. A mix of these scattered on the ground – limited to spring and fall migrations – will attract juncos and sparrows. The secret to drawing in colorful Indigo Buntings and other buntings, where they occur, is white proso millet in spring and summer. Also favoring it, however, are nuisance birds such as House Sparrows and unwanted birds, including the Brown-Headed Cowbird. For this reason, it is not good to provide these foods continuously. Historically, white proso millet was used for cage birds. This gluten-free seed is mostly grown from birdseed.

Individual copies can be purchased from www.tamipress.com or from other online retailers. For a retail sales discount, contact sales at 888-559-8033.

8. Apples, oranges, raisins and grape jelly. Here is an old source of feeding (e.g., documented by Baynes in 1915) that never disappeared but still had to be “rediscovered.” Today, feeding fruits is recognized as a good way to balance some birds’ diet and to diversify bird variety at feeding stations. Orange and apple halves are popular with birds such as Blue Jays, American Robins and Northern Mockingbirds. Grape jelly is a treat for orioles. Early bird-feeding books often mention feeding fruits to wild birds.

9. Mealworms. Here is another “rediscovery.” Early bird-attracting books (e.g., Hodge 1902) list mealworms as a good, reliable, high-protein wild bird food and one that can be raised at home. Offered in shallow trays in all seasons, mealworms can now be ordered over the internet and delivered to your doorstep. Insectivorous birds such as wrens, bluebirds, vireos and warblers will savor these larvae of the darkling beetle.

10. Nectar (sugar water). The adventure of feeding sugar water to birds goes at least as far back as Carolyn Soule, who reported to Bird-Lore at the turn of the twentieth century, and the trial-and-error techniques of this method of feeding take us back to the Tuckers in the 1920s and 1930s in California. Nectar-like sugar water is on the menu for hummingbirds as well as orioles, woodpeckers and even nuthatches. Today, it is served in specially designed feeders with ports for slurping. As this book has described, the nectar formula, one-part white cane sugar and four parts water, — and nectar-feeder design have been developed after decades of experimentation.


When practiced, especially correctly, bird feeding is so much more than feeding birds.

The whole experience has made “birders” out of people of all ages, occupations, physical abilities and academic backgrounds. Often practitioners readily learn their “home birds” and then may pick up on such things as bird song, flight patterns and breeding behaviors. They become more sensitive to birds’ critical need for suitable habitats. They might even collect data for scientific feeder-bird studies.

Over time, this simple endeavor has been transformed into a sophisticated, multi-billion-dollar North American enterprise. Even now, bird feeding is a boost to a weak economy, creating manufacturing, advertising and retail-related jobs. It has formed new markets for agricultural commodities such as sunflower and safflower.

An Eastern Bluebird with mealworm.

In conclusion, we leave you with two representative voices, separated from one another by just over a century yet complementary enough that they could have appeared in the very same essay.

The first is from Neltje Blanchan, who in How to Attract the Birds (1902) reflected on the necessities of day-to-day living, for birds and humans alike: “The birds’ point of view differs scarcely at all from our own in the essentials of life: Protection from enemies, the preservation of the family, a sheltered home, congenial environment, abundant food, pure water – these natural rights the birds, like men, are ever seeking.”

The second is from John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whose Birdscope article, “In Defense of Bird Feeding” (2003), emphasized that what goes on at bird feeders is not simply feeding the birds: “From their purely aesthetic value in millions of backyards, to their usefulness in building inquiry skills among classroom students, to their applications in peer-reviewed, quantitative, environmental monitoring, bird feeders present extraordinary connections between our human culture and the natural world.”