Monday, May 18, 2015

Bird Feeding Under Duress - A Glance Back to the Depression by Paul Baicich

Paul Baicich - Photo credit: V. Andolini
Even people who are terribly pinched by hard times should remember that just a few crumbs of bread can tide a bird over its time of stress. Indeed many birds choose bread crumbs even when bird seed is offered, and suet and bread crumbs with a bit of peanut butter for dessert provides a banquet for many a tiny wayfarer. Of course, as the guests increase, the menu may be enlarged as best suits them—and you.  

Ada Clapham Govan, adapted from her letters to the Boston Daily Globe and printed in the regular “Birds I Know” feature (ca. 1930s). Govan, a bird bander who established a bird sanctuary on her Massachusetts property, was a friend and long-distance correspondent of Rachel Carson.

Today, with the country still hampered from the economic downturn of 2008 and with real unemployment as high as it is, it may be instructive to look back at our past, to the Great Depression to see how Americans responded, at least to bird feeding, in similar -but far worse – times

Much of what follows is taken from parts of Chapter 5 of our new book, Feeding Wild Birds in America (Texas A & M University Press, 2015) by Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A.Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson.

Things were so bad in the depths of the Great Depression that millions of Americans who had been upbeat and optimistic in the prosperous 1920s became pessimists in the miserable 1930s. By the end of 1932, thirteen million Americans were unemployed, about a quarter of the workforce. Many of those who still had work had their salaries or wages cut. Industrial output declined about 50 percent and foreign trade, 70 percent. Farm income, having fallen in the 1920s, fell another 50 percent between 1929 and 1932. Corn prices plummeted to those not seen since the Civil War. Bankruptcy was spreading among businesses and banks; many families lucky enough to buy a home in the 1920s lost it in the 1930s. Cities could not collect enough taxes to pay teachers, police, and firefighters.

One would think that, with shocking unemployment and with hungry Americans lining up for food, there would be little sympathy for birds and little interest in keeping them housed and fed. But interest there was, and bird feeding continued and even grew. Only a few small businesses that were connected to bird feeding could survive the economic downturn, but some that were flexible actually adjusted well to the changing scene. Still, many newer feeding practices were concentrated among avid nature enthusiasts, creative rural waste-grain users, and game-bird professionals.

Most individuals who fed backyard birds in the 1930s still used table scraps rather than store-bought birdseed; they were “recycling” before there word had its current meaning. They typically used no more than one or two homemade feeders. Indeed, with the country deep in the Great Depression, the concept of recreational bird feeding could be seen as a luxury, despite the fact that birds were perceived to be under duress in winter.

In fact, it took a combination of major habitat loss in agricultural regions and some severe winters in the 1930s to stimulate even more people to feed birds in winter. Hunters were among the first to take action and provide food for game birds. Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Northern Bobwhites, Ruffed Grouse, Ring-necked Pheasants, and Gray Partridge were all vulnerable to habitat loss and inclement weather. The particularly bad winters of the mid-1930s made a strong case that action was needed to protect some of these birds—game bird species and others—in northern regions.

In the 1930s, Aldo Leopold, based at the University of Wisconsin, helped direct serious inquiry into winter bird feeding. Leopold’s graduate student, Arthur S. “Art” Hawkins, and other colleagues set up a series of experimental feeders for game birds that included tepee shelters, lean-to shelters, and three-sided shelters with roofs. Each shelter had a trough or hopper feeder offering a variety of foods, including corn, milo (sorghum), millet, wheat, and buckwheat. Hawkins discovered that the game birds preferred corn and that they liked to eat near food plots—grain fields that were left unharvested, offering both food and cover. (In later years, Hawkins would become a legend in North American waterfowl management. He helped lay the foundation for waterfowl surveys that have been used for decades, and he was also a tireless advocate for Wood Duck conservation.)

During this decade, the Federal Cartridge Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota, also promoted winter bird feeding. From 1933 to 1936, the company produced free conservation advertisements with nationwide distribution. Today we would call these “Public Service Announcements.” Federal Cartridge promoted eight guidelines for outdoor enthusiasts, including “feed the birds in winter.”

Birdwatchers who had taken up the pastime in the 1920s continued it in the 1930s, and their numbers actually grew when Roger Tory Peterson had his landmark Field Guide to the Birds published (1934, Houghton Mifflin).  The “bird book on a new plan” was a grand success. It spread the popularity of watching and enjoying birds, from the backyard into the field.

By the start of the 1930s, the National Association of Audubon Societies magazine, Bird-Lore, even began to regularly feature ads for commercial feeders of all sorts. And this approach worked well.

Of course, winters in the North could be tough – for people and birds. Winter storms brought bitter cold and ice to the Northeast, for example, in January and February 1935. Boy Scouts and many others pitched in to help the birds through the conditions. Scores of radio stations sent out the plea to feed the birds while ice covered the ground. According to Roger Tory Peterson, “For days scarcely a program on the air did not include an announcement about this. Everybody fed birds, from the fire escapes of New York City to isolated snowed-in farms in the back country.”

Much of the winter feeding of the decade was still largely a rural activity that involved making feed such as corn or wheat available for the birds. After the commercial harvest, the leftover corn could still be manually collected in fields to provide an economical source of bird food. At some rural grain elevators, regular customers often could obtain leftover mixtures of waste grain, or “scratch,” for free, and they could then toss these mixtures into their backyards where birds could feed on the scratch, along with bread crumbs, crackers, and table scraps.

Over time, feeder watchers began to realize that certain birds seemed to prefer certain grains or seeds. The operators of grain storage elevators soon began to combine wheat, other grains, and gray-stripe sunflower seeds for sale in fifty-pound bags.

This pattern appeared in the practices followed by the partnership of Knauf & Tesch (today, known as Kaytee) from Chilton, Wisconsin. Some businesses were also crossover experiments, with seed for the domestic poultry market or for pigeons being the starting points for expansion into offerings for wild bird feeding. One example was Simon Wagner’s company, a precursor of the bird-feeding business later called Wagner Brothers, which was selling seed for chicken and horses. Seed for cage birds, pigeon feed, and pet supply items then were gradually introduced, and the company moved toward wild birdseed in the 1930s.

With the end of the 1930s, the country was picking itself up. The national income increased from about $40 billion in 1932 to about $71 billion in 1939. The birds benefited, too.

Feeding birds became more “practical.” In the context of a country under duress, organizations, individuals, and businesses learned a great deal about bird feeding in the  Depression, lessons that persist today.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

The Bird Feeding Connection: Early Concepts & Deliberate Devices by Margaret A. Barker

One of my personal treasures is a small odd-sized rectangle-shaped book left to me by my paternal grandmother, whose nickname by the way was “Birdy”. Written by Chester K. Reed and printed in 1906, the Guide to the Land Birds East ofthe Rockies was the first modern field guide for birds in the twentieth century. Inside my edition, my grandmother made many notes, including the date (March 24, 1963) and place she and I witnessed over 200 evening grosbeaks descend from the sky to a grove of trees just behind our Gatlinburg, Tennessee hotel.

That surreal experience as well as viewing feeder birds from our East Tennessee dining room window and seeing wholly different kinds of birds on beach vacations, are childhood memories that helped shape my later birding life. And so did that little guide.

When we authors started researching our book, I read through it carefully. A quote from Chester Reed’s Introduction struck me as just right for ours: “By tying suet to limbs of trees in winter, and providing a small board upon which grain, crumbs, etc., may be sprinkled, large numbers of winter birds may be fed; of these, probably only the Chickadees will remain to nest, if they can find a suitable place.”  Paul and Carrol agreed, and so, Chester Reed’s 1906 voice and bird-feeding descriptions get to be shared with a 21st century audience.

The bird guide, cameras and the use of opera glasses and later field glasses and binoculars are late 19th and early 20th century innovations that helped introduce the general public to living birds. These developments as well as the emerging hobby of bird feeding were important elements in what was called, “bird study”.  Instead of hunting birds with guns or other means that ended or caged their lives, people were encouraged to hunt with cameras. Wild birds at feeding stations were ideal subjects.

In her turn-of-the-century book, Birds Throughan Opera Glass, Florence Merriam Bailey wrote that, “…photography is coming to hold an important place in nature work, as its notes cannot be questioned.” Written when she was only 26, this book focused on the living bird. An educator who taught bird classes to teachers in the Washington, D.C. area, Florence’s intent was to help “not only young observers but also laymen to know the common birds they see about them.”
As interest in bird feeding grew, people exchanged favorite bird-feeding thoughts and techniques through newspapers and in magazines such as Bird-Lore, the precursor to Audubon. In the May-June 1916 issue, a 10-year old Virginia girl, described as a “Junior Protectionist” wrote of her bird-feeding experiences. “I like to feed the birds so that they won’t die through the long cold winter and that they may live in peace so that they may be ready for their busy work.”

This style of coconut feeder has been a popular and effective design for at least a hundred years. Reprinted from W. L. McAtee, How to Attract Birds in Northeastern UnitedStates, Farmer’s Bulletin No. 621, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Bureauof Biological Survey (1914).

Books on bird attracting became popular. One hundred years ago, Ernest Harold Baynes wrote Wild Bird Guests: How to Entertain Them. In it he implored that where deep snows prevailed in towns in winter, “birds be provided for and not allowed to starve.” Community bird feeding by groups such as local bird clubs, Junior Audubon Clubs, Boy Scouts, sportsmen’s clubs and other volunteers, proliferated in some parts of the country. Both songbirds and game birds routinely were provisioned.
In his bird-feeding pamphlet, Food, Feeding, andDrinking Appliances and Nesting Materials to Attract Birds (1918), noted Massachusetts ornithologist, Edward Howe Forbush included a variety of bird feeders. One of the most unusual ones was an anti-sparrow feeder, a “feeding device to checkmate the English sparrows.”  Forbush drew upon his own bird-feeding experiences.
His accounts, including feeding the birds with his young family as an adult, are contained in his book, Useful Birds and Their Protection (1906). This book underscored the economic value of living birds that eat crop-destroying insects. Birds’ “usefulness” has been and still is couched in economic terms. But President Theodore Roosevelt, writing in theForeword to Bayne’s book, noted birds’ other values. “There is sound economic reason for protecting the birds, and in addition, there is ample reason for protecting them simply because they add immeasurably to the joy of life.”

Window tray feeders continue to be popular. This 1915
 Christmas gift card tells the recipient that Bird-Lore soon
 will arrive. Courtesy the Eddie Woodin Collection.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

The Bird Feeding Connection

Ethan watches and counts the birds at his Illinois home for the
annual citizen science project, the Great Backyard Bird 
Count--a 21st century “practical” reason to feed the birds. 
 Participants submit data via eBird, an online checklist program.
 Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon
 Society and Bird Studies Canada, the now global GBBC count
 reveals clues about the health of birds and our shared environment.
Photograph by Cindy Brown. Courtesy of the National Audubon Society
We three authors are excited to have our book debut on America’s WildRead, especially in conjunction with International Migratory Bird Day 2015.

In the journey we took while researching and writing Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation, we discovered how many of the early efforts to promote the practice of bird feeding initiated in the Bureau of Biological Survey (as WildRead-ers know, one of the agencies that preceded the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service). BBS bird feeding flyers, posters and Farmer’s Bulletins along with bird feeding activities and materials produced by state Audubon Societies and bird preservationists, helped the general public gain “sympathy” with common birds. Much of this bird feeding enthusiasm came in the years just before passage of important bird protection laws, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So we are delighted to have our book connected with this year’s International Migratory Bird Day and to share some of our stories—and behind-the-scenes stories—with you.

Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, Carrol L. Henderson

We will cover several different bird feeding periods over the course of the next several weeks. And we look forward to hearing from you!  [Editor note:  Use the "Comment" link below to respond and start a conversation with the authors]

* * * * * * * * *
What follows is an excerpt from the Introduction in Feeding Wild Birds inAmerica: Culture, Commerce and Conservation just published by Texas A&M University Press.

Bird feeding in the 21st century is still all about the basics: food, water and shelter. But, oh, so much has changed. Emerging out of the bird protection and conservation movement at the turn of the last century, bird feeding—while still simple and enjoyable—has since evolved into an absorbing avocation and an immense business.
This drawing of a vintage bird-feeding tray at a window is reprinted from W. L. McAtee, How to Attract Birds inNortheastern United States, Farmer’s Bulletin No. 621, U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1914. Small evergreen trees or branches were common additions to bird-feeding shelves in the early 1900s

Contrast the modern bird-feeding scene of today with high-tech feeders offering specialty foods in birdscaped gardens, to the simple one suggested by Chester A. Reed in his early Guide to the Land Birds East of the Rockies(1906): “By tying suet to limbs of trees in winter, and providing a small board upon which grains, crumbs, etc. may be sprinkled, large numbers of winter birds may be fed; of these, probably only the Chickadees will remain to nest, if they can find a suitable place.”

In the decades that followed and into the 1930s and 1940s, bird feeding grew into a widespread activity in the United States, so much so that by 1943 the venerable ornithologist Alexander Sprunt, Jr. could write in Audubon magazine, “Probably no one phase of activity connected with birds so engages the attention of the amateur student as does the attraction of birds to a feeding station. In every county, we can find someone who puts out food for the birds, particularly during the winter. Where and when such procedure began is lost in past ages, but it is not necessary to know the history to understand and sympathize with the idea.”

Although Alexander Sprunt may have claimed decades ago that it was not necessary to know the history of bird feeding to appreciate the concept and practice, the authors of this narrative are interested indeed in exploring some of the background, practices and consequences of bird feeding, at least for the United States.

Much flavors the story of bird feeding. It is now a considerable tale, involving changing relationships over generations between two main parties: birds and humans. Squirrels, hawks, cats and other animated beings enter the story, too, some more often than others. There is the “discovery of seeds, the development of different feeders, and the creation of businesses, wholly intertwined. Also woven into the story are the worlds of education, publishing, commerce, professional ornithology, citizen science, all of which have embraced bird feeding at different times and from different perspectives.
On the one hand, the story of bird feeding is the story of innovation and entrepreneurial ingenuity, while at the same time it is the recounting of how Americans have come to perceive and value the natural world.