When winter is at its most monochromatic, I appreciate birds. Their quick flitting to and from the feeders in my backyard breaks the snowy monotony. When a pair of cardinals land on the bare branches of the redbud tree, one hunkering down over the sunflower seeds while the other stands guard, their scarlet feathers provide a much-needed jolt of color that stands in stark contrast to winter’s neutral palette.
While there are particular pleasures to feeding birds in frigid weather, winter isn’t the only time Americans do so. According to the National Bird Feeding Society, which recognizes February as National Bird Feeding Month, bird feeding is a $3.8 billion, year-round industry.
Image from Oregon State University Archives on Flickr
It wasn’t always that way, however. While citizens of the world have entertained themselves for centuries by sharing breadcrumbs and cornmeal with wild birds, bird feeding in the U.S. can be traced to the mid- to late 1800s, when Henry Thoreau and others wrote about their avian encounters and birds turned up in poetry and prose. Not only were birds hunted for sport, feathers were a highly desirable element in women’s fashionable hats and accessories. Countless birds, including endangered and exotic species, were slaughtered to adorn women’s clothing. Thanks to efforts of ornithologists, Audubon Societies and writers including Florence Merriam Bailey, awareness grew that without protection many bird species risked extinction. The result was the first federal law protecting wildlife, the Lacey Act of 1900.
Image from UW Collections on Flickr
Attention to these issues also increased the public’s appreciation for nature in general and birds in particular. Simple wooden trays on posts began appearing in backyards and the Nature Study Movement, which emphasized learning through “nature, not books,” meant that school children’s science lessons increasingly included exploration of the world around them. Birds, which survive in cityscapes and countryside alike, were readily available for study and feeding them brought them in close for observation and appreciation.
In the 1910s and 1920s, small businesses grew around bird feeding, but when the Depression hit, feeding birds took a back seat to feeding one’s family. As the economy recovered the industry did too, and by the 1950, as prosperity and home ownership grew, birdfeeders sprouted alongside barbecues in American backyards. While wild birds typically had been fed leftover chicken feed or corn meal, the bird feeding industry began to grow sunflower seeds and grains specifically for birds.
Image from the State Library of New South Wales on Flickr
Though there has been some controversy about wild bird feeding, author, conservationist and birder Paul Baicich says while wild birds don’t need us to sustain them through the winter, feeding them doesn’t harm them. “We’re doing it mostly because it brings them closer to us in our backyards and gives us a lot of enjoyment,” he says. “Feeding birds can give you a different orientation toward wildness and nature.”
And, I find, a different orientation towards winter. When I’m indoors so much at this time of year, my head in a book or my eyes glued to my computer, there is nothing like a red bird against a white background to sharpen my senses and remind me that the natural world is still fresh and alive, right in my own backyard.