When the Texas A&M University Press asked me to consider reviewing Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation by Paul Baicich, Margaret Barker, and Carrol Henderson, I had mixed feelings.
Was this just another backyard bird feeding guide? That would be nice, but not too exciting. After all, feeding birds is just a matter of getting a bird feeder and keeping it full, right? Was it an indictment of what some might consider a bad practice, because it brings birds in close contact with killer windows and cats, and causes them to become dependent on fickle human providers? Was it yet another guide to help bird lovers in their never ending battle with squirrels and other feeder-exploiting non-birds?
But, I figured, what the heck, I’ll have a look. And I’m glad I did. This is a great book because it is full of stuff you would have never thought important or interesting, but that is, in fact, important and interesting.
Americans have been feeding birds on a variable but more or less regular basis for well over a century. Human feeders have become part of the ecology of birds, and the practice has probably figured into the redistribution of a number of species, some invasive, some not. Bird conservation and birding, and generally, interest in birds, has been significantly enhanced by the practice of “bringing the birds to the people,” which is usually the reason to do this. The annual backyard bird count, which plays an important role in tracking conservation and zoological status of birds, is an extension of backyard bird feeding.
See also: Books on birds and nature.
Just as importantly, and really, one of the main reasons to read this book, is that the practice of feeding birds, supplying feed, designing feeders (and baths and other things) is an historically rich, complex, nuanced, and fascinating endeavor. Understanding the history of feeding birds is a little like collecting stamps. You can’t avoid myriad connections with history, in this case, world political history, history of American industry, game hunting, conservation, and, the environmental movement.
The history starts in the nineteenth century, when regular feeding of birds became a thing. By the early 20th century, books on the topic, and a commercial and do-it-yourself industry, formed around the problem of delivering seed. Over time, various seeds and other feed products were invented, and the same industry that feeds our pets and farm animals got involved in producing bird feed. Before World War II, the practice and the associated industries were established, if not yet fully mature.
Things got tough during the depression and World War II, because of limited resources (see especially the chapter on “Hemp, the Devil’s Birdseed”).
Somewhere in there, the practice of feeding game birds developed. Bird baths were invented and deployed. Suet was introduced. Windows and cats increasingly became problems, and increasingly, solutions developed (partly).
The authors investigate the spread of various species, including invasive species, with bird feeding. Of particular interest is the spread and distribution of the Cooper’s Hawk, which in some areas specializes in hanging around the feeder-equipped backyard where it is easy to find prey. (This hawk specializes in catching birds in close quarters.)
During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the practice involved a lot of experimentation, including how to address squirrels, and a further diversification of feed types and types of birds attracted, and the development of more companies making more products. By the end of the 20th century, the practice was fully institutionalized, and most of the current practices and products were developed, from seed to suit to hummingbird juice.
See also: How do birds survive the winter?
If you are a feeder of birds, this book will help you be a better feeder of birds. More importantly, it give you something else. Both bird watching and bird feeding (and lots of other things people do) are pleasurable, and people get hooked on these activities, their leisure time enriched. But these are also activities that are potential touchstones to other, vast areas of knowledge. Just as birders could, in my opinion, have an even better time birding if they knew more about the ecology and evolution of birds, bird feeders can appreciate this activity a great deal more knowing about the history. And this history is not dry, or a hard slog of any sort. The book is engaging, compelling, and just plain cool.
I strongly recommend Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation for your avian culinary edification.