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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1 comment:

Mark Madison said...

I wonder if you think the bird feeders have actually improved over the years or are these just aesthetic changes? Is a coconut shell, for example, as good a feeder as a more expensive purchase from Home Depot? Do the birds care?