Elsewhere in the New Testament, birds are portrayed as agents of wasted opportunity in Jesus’s parable of the sower (Matthew 13:4), consuming the metaphorical “seed as the Good News” carelessly cast onto the path rather than onto the tilled soil. These would have been effective metaphors for Jesus’s rural audience, who would have been familiar with the local birds ready to scavenge any seed they could. For our current purposes, this reminds us of those instances when bird feeding occurs against our wishes: the unwelcome species at the feeder; those aggressive waterbirds that invade the picnic; the scavengers of human food wastes.
A final biblical example of a feeding interaction disturbingly reverses the expected arrangements: God directed the prophet Elijah to await further instructions from a cave in the dry and remote Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan River. How can he possibly survive? By wild bird feeding with a difference. “Ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening” (1 Kings 17:6; ca. 550 BCE). How’s that for deliberate, systematic, and regular provisioning of species-appropriate sustenance?
In reality, however, the historical record—at least the component available in English—is strangely silent (ignoring the Egyptians for the moment) about what we would accept as just about any form of bird feeding from the first century CE until somewhere in the eighteenth. Maybe other things were happening—the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Reformation—but writers, philosophers, and journalists seem to have missed the feeding undoubtedly occurring in their very own streets and villages. In all seriousness, that is the most likely explanation: it was so familiar and commonplace—so ordinary—as to be unworthy of comment.
There are a few worthy exceptions to this dearth of historical detail, although their veracity may be questionable, both involving Roman Catholic saints. The first features the somewhat opaque Scottish figure Saint Serf (or Serbán) (ca. 500–583) of Fife. Among numerous highly improbable adventures (including seven years as pope in Rome) and the usual series of miracles, it was his apparent “taming of a wild robin by the act of hand feeding” that has often warranted mention. Although not directly related to feeding, Saint Cuthbert of Northumberland (634–687) also deserves attention here in the context of a very early concern for bird conservation. Arguably the most famous saint of Anglo-Saxon England, Cuthbert is today recognized for enacting the world’s first bird-protection laws. During a spiritual retreat on the nearby Farne Islands, Saint Cuthbert used his authority as bishop of Lindisfarne to declare legal protection for the eider ducks and other seabirds that were being harvested unsustainably by fishermen. These laws—literally centuries ahead of their time—remain in place today.
Saint Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) is venerated for his revolutionary ideas on many topics, but of particular relevance here is his conception of the relationship between humanity and nature. Francis regarded the natural world as “the mirror of God,” and therefore all animals were fellow creatures to be treated with appropriate respect. He famously preached to flocks of birds gathered expectantly beside the road—although there is no mention of him actually feeding them. He does, however, convince some irate villagers to feed a starving wolf instead of killing it. The legend says they did so.
The long slow centuries without much reference to bird feeding come to a whimsical end with the advent of the era of broad circulation newspapers, especially in England. For example, on one apparently slow news day in 1787, the Northampton Mercury felt it “worthy of Remark,” that a “Pair of wild Sparrows have built a Nest and hatched their Eggs in the kitchen,” and that the “Mistress of the House often feeds the young Ones.” Furthermore, a predilection to bird feeding may be an indicator of moral character according to a character reference tended to a Scottish court. The accused murderer, according to an acquaintance, was a “kind and mild man of a sensitive nature. He used to carry crumbs of bread for the purpose of feeding birds.” We do not know whether this swayed the jury.
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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