A Tentative History of Wild Bird Feeding (part 1)

Birds feature everywhere in ancient cultural records, especially in the religious texts from many traditions. This is a rich seam followed in Mark Cocker’s Birds and People, the outstanding compendium of the way birds have featured in cultures throughout the world. Birds are depicted as spirit guides and intermediaries, villains and tricksters, agents of evil and even as deities (with corvids—crows and ravens—being mentioned remarkably often). Ancient and medieval writers also employed birds as metaphors, exemplars, and similes (“You will rise up on wings like eagles,” Isaiah 40:31). Real birds—as opposed to literary devices or religious motifs—appear less often, and where they do, they often feature as game to be hunted, potentially dangerous wildlife, or occupants of remote or desolate locations.

THE BIRDS AT MY TABLE

As far as I have been able to determine, the very earliest mention of the feeding of wild birds is found in Hindu writings of the Vedic era, at least 3500 years ago. These texts describe the daily requirement for orthodox Hindus to practice bhutayajna, one of the panchamahayajnas, the “five great sacrifices” designed to mitigate the accumulation of negative karma. The bhutayajna stipulates the provision of food, traditionally rice cakes, for birds but also “dogs, insects, wandering outcasts, and beings of the invisible worlds.” Given that this remains a standard practice of many contemporary Hindus, it surely is the longest running form of organized wild bird feeding.

 

No civilization can claim a stronger relationship between birds and its religious life, however, than that of the ancient Egyptians. While a number of species feature in Egyptian writings and rituals, as divine representatives on earth or as metaphors for divine attributes, two species, the Sacred Ibis and the Peregrine Falcon, predominate in this spiritual landscape. The vast numbers of ibis (sacred to the god Thoth) mummies involved (Saqqâra alone holds 1.5 million; several sites were capable of processing 10,000 birds annually) have been well documented, but less well known are the millions of falcons (representatives of Horus) that were employed in a similar fashion.

An obvious logistical question arises: How did the Egyptians acquire the birds needed in such numbers? We know through ancient administrative texts that both species were raised specifically in captivity for such purposes as well as being harvested in huge numbers from the wild. To enhance the steady demand for falcons, a stipend was provided by the royal household to the priests to be used for the maintenance of fields dedicated to provisioning falcons with food; a statue commemorating a man named Djedhor describes how he “prepared the food of the falcons living in the land.” Similarly, fields were set aside for exclusive use by ibis and were overseen by priestly wardens. Dating from about 700 BCE, this must surely be the earliest form of mass, well-organized, planned bird feeding. This was intentional provisioning for the living birds; when they were dedicated (which involved capture, ritual killing, and mummification), food was also provided for their journey accompanying the deceased to the afterlife: recent X-ray examinations of ibis mummies have discovered special foods inserted into their bills during preparation.

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the earliest writings possibly associated with birds and feeding are thought to be certain passages from the book of Leviticus (written around 1440 BCE). Among the various laws proclaimed is an admonition for some of the harvest—the grain growing at the edges of the field and the fallen gleanings—to be left in place “for the poor and the foreigner among you” (Leviticus 23:9). To this list of unfortunates some scholars have added birds, although this has been contested. A much more characteristic theme is found in the New Testament, in the gospels Luke and Matthew (ca. 80s or 90s CE), of God’s benevolence and care as exemplified by his provision of food for the birds (for example: “Consider the ravens; they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them” (Luke 12:24). This is a powerful image: God as bird feeder, who cares even for the lowly sparrow (Matthew 10:29).

 

The following is an excerpt from The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why it Matters, by Darryl Jones.

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Recommended interview to watch with this blog post:

https://vancouversun.com/entertainment/festivals/bird-lovers-flock-to-vancouver-for-summer-festival

 

 

A Tentative History of Wild Bird Feeding (part 1)

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