Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wild Bird Feeding in America by Carrol Henderson

One of my greatest revelations about bird feeding over the past 20 years has been the incredible appeal of bird feeding to children like our two-year old grandson who gets a great thrill from throwing bread crumbs to pigeons near his home in Brooklyn, New York, as well as to senior citizens in their nineties who are entranced by the beauty and actions of birds coming to feeders by the windows at their retirement or assisted living homes.  Feeder birds instill a lifelong passion among people with their fascinating colors, behavior, and seasonal appearances that keep bird feeding fun and interesting.

One reason for the increased enjoyment people get today from feeding wild birds is the change that has occurred over the past several decades as people have transitioned from “generic” bird feeding to “targeted” bird feeding. Generic bird feeding was characterized by putting out old bread, table scraps, and waste grain for the birds and watching whatever birds showed up—typically species like Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, European Starlings, grackles, and Brown-headed Cowbirds. 

I became aware of the potential for targeted bird feeding when visiting with John Barzen, CEO of Barzen International in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the mid-1990s. He was marketing a premium line of bird foods like a “cardinal mix” that contained black oil sunflower seeds, safflower, and peanut pickouts. He said had learned that people will pay for “premium” bird food mixes that attract “premium” birds.

A male Northern Cardinal is about to crunch a white
safflower seed. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.
Demand was evolving for nyjer seed to attract goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and redpolls; safflower seed to bring in cardinals (while discouraging use by House Sparrows); and peanuts for woodpeckers (offered in squirrel-proof feeders).  Also coming to market were starling-proof suet feeders that attracted chickadees and nuthatches and white proso millet that attracted Indigo Buntings and Painted Buntings. Black-oil sunflower seed (compared to the more traditional gray-stripe sunflower seed) turned out to be easier for smaller songbirds to crack open and, as an added benefit, had higher oil content, providing birds more energy. It was discovered to be a great attraction for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, cardinals, and other seed-eating songbirds, too. Grape jelly was found to be very attractive to orioles, catbirds, and even Scarlet Tanagers.

A male Scarlet Tanager digs into a platter of
grape jelly. Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.
In this same era mealworms—the larvae form of the darkling beetle—were “rediscovered” to be a great food for attracting bluebirds.

Mealworms are “targeted” fare for bluebirds.
 This male Eastern Bluebird might be taking
 mealworms back to a nest full of chicks
Photo by Carrol L. Henderson.
Backyard bird feeding stations changed from an assortment of “junk foods” for birds to backyard delis that now attract beautiful and colorful birds throughout the year. 

That was the other major change that has occurred with wild bird feeding over the past several decades. It used to be a hobby for the winter season when people felt birds were most stressed by the weather and needed supplemental feeding. When I first began working to promote bird feeding for the Minnesota Department ofNatural Resources, I would call bird food retailers at the end of winter and ask if they had “left-over” bird seed that they needed to dispose of so it would not get moldy over the coming spring and fall. They gave me the seed free which I distributed to Minnesota’s state parks and Department of Transportation rest areas to stock their bird feeders. Not anymore. Now people have discovered the joys of year-round bird feeding and the wonderful colorful birds that come in the spring and summer like Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, orioles, goldfinches and even Scarlet Tanagers.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks can be seen visiting feeders 
in the Eastern U. S. and parts of Canada all summer 
long. Parents will often introduce their young to
 feeder foods. Image of male Rose-breasted Grosbeak
 by Carrol L. Henderson.
While delighting over the joy that people of all ages get from feeding wild birds, I have also learned of an unusual perception that some people have about bird feeding—bird feeding is an important conservation measure to save the birds. It might seem logical, but for most birds, the amount of food that most birds obtain from feeders contributes only a small portion of their total diet. Studies have shown that even for Black-capped Chickadees, which are one of the most common visitors to bird feeders, only up to about 20% of their diet is provided at bird feeders. The rest comes from seeds and insects obtained in the wild.

One time I gave a talk about the wildlife conservation work of the Minnesota Department ofNatural ResourcesNongame Wildlife Program to members of a bird club. That program has been funded primarily by voluntary donations to the NongameWildlife Checkoff on Minnesota’s tax forms since 1981. After the program, a gentleman came up and said that he didn’t donate to the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff because he had spent about $200 in the past year feeding the birds so that was his contribution to help wildlife. I was so disappointed to hear of this obvious lack of interest in the work we were doing for the state’s wildlife, but I wasn’t sure how to express that disconnect between benefits of bird feeding and larger scale needs for wildlife conservation at the state and national level.

Bird feeding provides supplemental nutritional benefits for birds but it is primarily a benefit for the up-close-and-personal observation of birds which creates enjoyment for people of all ages and creates a lasting bond with nature as we enjoy those “backyard” birds.  However, in Minnesota, we have only about three dozen bird species that commonly come to feeders out of over 400 species that have been recorded in the state. Interestingly, most of the birds that come to feeders are among the most common and adaptable of birds—like the Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, European Starling, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, and American Goldfinch.

In the national State of the Birds Report that was issued in 2014, serious problems were identified with continuing habitat loss of forests, grasslands, and wetlands.  Any serious conservation initiatives for bird conservation need to address these losses and initiate projects to restore and maintain the quality and quantity of those habitats.

So my closing thought on our book, Feeding WildBirds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation (Texas A&M University Press), is that we have done our best to document the long and fascinating history of bird feeding traditions in America and to document what lessons we have learned on how to feed the birds—and how to conserve the birds.

If you want to increase your enjoyment of the birds at your feeders, check out Chapter 14 that highlights our “Top Ten” list of bird foods and our “Top Five” Best Practices Tips for doubling the number of bird species at your feeders.

And if you really love birds, help save the habitats of the forest, prairie, and wetland birds that never come to backyard bird feeders! Buy a federal “Migratory BirdHunting and Conservation Stamp” (often called the “Duck Stamp”), donate to your state “Nongame Wildlife Checkoff” or “Wildlife Diversity Checkoff” on your state tax forms, and purchase a state conservation license plate.  

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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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