Humans have been feeding birds for millennia. But how did it become a deliberate, planned activity that millions of people participate in? Check out the infographic above, or read through a more detailed timeline below!
Hindu writings describe the practice of “bhutayajna,” which stipulates the provision of food—traditionally rice cakes—for birds (as well as dogs, insects, wandering outcasts, and beings of invisible worlds). Still a standard practice of many contemporary Hindus, this is the longest running form of organized wild bird feeding.
The royal households of Ancient Egypt maintained fields dedicated to provisioning falcons with food. They did this so the birds could be mummified and used in sacred rituals. It was the earliest form of mass, well-organized, planned bird feeding.
See also: 10 Best Foods for Bird Feeding
The New Testament (particularly the gospels of Luke and Matthew) show God’s benevolence and care as exemplified by his provision of food for the birds. It’s not specific evidence of humans feeding birds. But, it depicted God as a bird feeder, likely inspiring early Christians to take up the practice.
Empty records from 1st century CE to 18th, most likely because feeding birds was so familiar and commonplace it was unworthy of comment.
The Ornithotrophe was invented by John Freeman Dovaston. A modified wooden cattle trough fitted with rows of parallel perches and filled with a variety of domestic and farmyard food scraps, this is the first physical evidence of modern bird feeding.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods is often pointed to as the first mention of bird feeding in the U.S., however, its only mention involves tossing scraps to visiting birds—something people had been doing for centuries.
The design of the familiar garden “little house” arrives—a DIY construction of a basic horizontal platform for bird food, sometimes with a sort of roof for protection from the weather.
Terrible winter conditions in the UK caused sympathy for the birds, as newspapers began offering up recipes, suggestions, and advice on how to help them survive the season. So many took up the cause that many consider this the start of winter feeding at a national scale—deliberate, regular, and importantly, planned.
See also: How to Feed Birds During Winter
Publication of How to Attract and Protect Wild Birds by Marin Hiesemann, which translated and documented the efforts of Baron Hans Freiherr von Berlepsch, who sought to solve the problem of the decline of birds partly through winter feeding. The book outlined four feeding “appliances” and was instrumental in bringing a commercial industry based on wild bird feeding to the English-speaking world.
First ad for feeding devices in Bird-Lore magazine, promoting the Dobson Automatic Sheltered Feeding Table, invented by John Dobson, director of the Illinois Audubon Society.
How to Attract Birds in Northeastern United States, Farmer’s Bulletin no. 621 was published by the US Department of Agriculture. In it, W.L. McAtee advocates feeding platforms designed to be weatherproof and waste-proof with roofs and side ledges—one of the earliest to suggest utilizing hopper feeders.
Food, Feeding and Drinking Appliances and Nesting Material to Attract Birds by Edward Howe Forbush is published, which is the earliest advocate for year-round feeding.
Roger Tory Peterson published the Field Guide to the Birds and not only promoted birding through feeding but gave people their first portable, easy-to-use, and comprehensive means of identifying the birds they encountered. This helped contribute to the enjoyment of bird feeding as well as the development of species-specific feeding.
The Kellogg Seed Company began selling a seed mix based on choice experiments conducted by the National Audubon Society, labeled the “Audubon Society Mixture.”
Knauf and Tesch sold the first bags of mass-produced “birdseed” to be sold nationally through grocery stores.
Droll Yankees’ Peter Kilham introduced his model A-6F, the first tubular bird feeder, which instantly solved the issues of mess, waste, and efficiency in feeders and revolutionized the production of commercialized bird feeders.
The advent of the wild bird feeding industry saw multiple companies creating specialized products as the interest in feeding birds using commercial products grew rapidly.
Bird food sales reach $4.07 billion, almost doubling in a decade, as the industry continues to grow.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service reports that almost 60 million people feed wild birds around their home.
Jones, D. N. (2018). The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters. Ithaca: Comstock Publishing Associates.
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.