Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Notes for a pre-history of bird feeding

I greatly appreciate the recent Feeding Wild Birds in America by Paul Baicich, Margaret Baker and Carol Henderson, but I will admit feeling a little frustrated that they begin their history in the late 1800s with the Audubon and Nature Study movements. Surely, as this still-incomplete blog project hopefully demonstrates, more than a century of interest in birds and bird-protection fueled those movements. That said, I know you have to begin your story somewhere and undoubtedly the popularization of suburban backyard bird feeding in America does flow from that time. So I'm content to offer some notes on a possible pre-history of bird feeding. (The pre-history provided in the book above is Thoreau tossing out corn for the animals in the late 1840s. Surely we can go earlier than that).

My thoughts went first to the crumb-loving Chipping Sparrow, a longtime favorite of the American door-stoop (before being pushed aside by the House Sparrow). And indeed, Alexander Wilson (1808) comments directly on the sociability that follows from the bird being tossed bread crumbs.

I have known one of these birds attend regularly every day, during a whole summer, while the family were at dinner, under a piazza, fronting the garden, and pick up the crumbs that were thrown to him. This sociable habit, which continues chiefly during the summer, is a singular characteristic.
Of interest: Wilson notes that "Snowbirds" (Juncos) are the winter crumb-loving equivalent of Chipping Sparrows, so much so that some people evidently thought that they were the same bird in different plumages.

The roots of American bird-feeding (as with bird protection) are ultimately in Europe. Robins are the great crumb-lovers, easily trained to visit front doors and dinner tables. In the 18th century, Gilbert White noted the love of Blue Tits for suet. And I found an article in a British publication from the 1840s describing a bird feeding set-up rather sophisticated for its time (though still regarded a curiosity).
A lady…amused herself in the winter…with throwing, several times a day, different kinds of seeds on the terrace below the window, in order to feed the birds in the neighborhood. These soon became accustomed to this distribution and arrived in crowds when they heard the clapping of hands, which was the signal used to call them. She put some hemp and cracked nuts even on the window-sill, and on a board, particularly for her favorites, the blue tits. [It was the Nuthatches that ultimately benefited the most].
Also circulating through publications of this era were accounts of an apparent Swedish Christmas-time custom of providing sparrows with a "sheaf of unthrashed corn" to prevent their starvation.

That the feeding of wild birds is a human practice of long standing, though, is best evidenced by the story of Walther von der Vogelweide, famed 13th century German lyric poet, whose will commanded that bird food be left on his tomb every day at noon. This story was told in verse by Longfellow in 1846.
Saying, "From these wandering minstrels
I have learned the art of song;
Let me now repay the lessons
They have taught so well and long" 
Thus the bard of love departed
And fulfilling his desire,
On his tomb the birds were feasted
By the children of the choir.
Note that the story ends ironically, with the "portly abbot" charged with setting out the food deciding that it is going to waste and better off turned into loaves of breads "for our fasting brotherhood."

To really understand the history of bird feeding, however, I think requires understanding the history of the capture and confinement of wild birds (the preferred way, when it was allowed, to get close to wild birds) and the taming of wild game birds, particularly ducks and geese, for domestication. 

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