This column is the second of two on the history of bird feeding in North America. A major resource for this column is a recent book, Feeding Wild Birds in America by Paul Baicich and co-authors.
We pick up the story in the 1941 when the Audubon Guide to Attracting Birds was published, just a week before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Roger Tory Peterson wrote several of the chapters.
Of course, the war effort prevented bird enthusiasts from spending freely on birdseed. Many found that oatmeal, bread crumbs and peanut butter served to attract birds. By the late 1940s, several companies were formed specializing in the retail sale of birdseed.
The 50s decade was a prosperous one. Suburbs proliferated everywhere and suburbanites engaged in various home-based leisure activities, including bird feeding. John Dennis was a particularly influential person through his column “Guide to Bird Attracting” in Audubon magazine. John Terres wrote the 1953 book, Songbirds in Your Garden that further stoked the popularity of bird feeding.
Two men, Simon Wagner and Bill Engler, from competing companies joined forces to develop birdseed packaging suitable to grocery shoppers. The plastic bags allowed the buyer to seed the product before purchase. A shopper could buy food for the family and for the birds at the same time.
John Barzen was one of the first to realize that most birdseed mixes sold in the 50s were actually cheap seeds (cracked corn, millet, milo) that attracted undesirable birds like House Sparrows. European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Barzen found that sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and peanuts were better at attracting birds like Northern Cardinals, chickadees and jays. The first commercial suet cakes appeared in 1958.
Bird feeding continued in popularity in the 1960s. Nyjer seed (sometimes called niger seed or thistle) was introduced as a popular attractant for finches. Most of the nyger we use is imported from Ethiopia or India.
The importation of nyger has sometimes been halted because seeds of noxious weeds are often unintentionally mixed in with the nyger. Most of the nyger seeds are now heat-treated before sale; nyger seeds are more resistant to high temperatures than the weed seeds.
In 1969, Droll Yankee introduced the tubular feeder with a number of feeding ports, perfect for feeding sunflower seeds to hungry birds. A tubular nyger feeder was first produced in 1972.
The first Earth Day in 1970 accelerated the environmental movement, given a strong push earlier by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, her 1962 expose of the impacts of DDT on birds. Bird feeding took on added importance as a way to protect birds.
Birdseed was sold in bulk for the first time, often by yearly sales conducted by bird clubs or environmental groups. Stick-on window feeders made it possible to put up a feeder just about anywhere.
Although people had been feeding hummingbirds for decades, better hummer feeders appeared in this decade.
People became more sophisticated with their bird feeding in the 1980s, often targeting particular species. This practice was made possible by a landmark study by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, Aelred Geis. He conducted extensive choice experiments, determining the preferred foods of many feeder birds.
Specialty birding chains appeared in the 80s. These included Wild Birds Unlimited, Wild Bird Centers of American and Wild Bird Marketplace.
In 1987, Project FeederWatch (PFW) was hatched. This program was actually an expansion of the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey. Homeowners maintain feeding stations and record feeder visits at specified times. PFW participants are generally diligent about keeping their feeders stocked continuously.
By the 1990s, one-third of all U.S. citizens over the age of 16 fed the birds. In this decade, scientists first started to look at the impacts of feeding (increased survivorship and nutritional status, range expansions of species like Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, House Finches and recently arrived Eurasian Collared-Doves).