Since last Fall I have gotten more heavily involved in photography. It’s become my passion. I have been exploring it all, macrophotography, astrophotography, portraits, landscapes, and wildlife. Living in Upstate New York offers many opportunities to photograph birds. You’ll find countless bird boxes and feeders in our yards and an abundance of state parks, lakes, and protected lands that provide a sanctuary for more exotic species like bald eagles and great blue herons. I have really enjoyed capturing them in action and being able to show them in ways we don’t normally get to observe them.
It should be no surprise then that my bundle includes books on photography and birds. If you are curious to see more of my photos you can find them at www.scottelevine.com, but before you do, you should check out the books that I have bundled.
Can the efforts of local environmental stewards impact resource management, environmental governance, and even social movements? What are the impacts of citizen science? How do we build resilient communities? This bundle includes resources for a broad transdisciplinary audience of researchers, educators, and practitioners who are interested in improving existing programs or developing new ones.
As part of CUP’s150th anniversary, current and former staff compiled a list of 150 of our most notable books. But one of the entries on this list is not a book at all—and is all the more significant for its differences. In 1942, Comstock Publishing began a partnership with the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell to produce our first record album—American Bird Songs. This unusual publication is in fact a set of six 78-rpm records that marked innovations in both scholarly publishing and ornithological study.
This may not have been the first record album to be issued by a university press—I confess I have not researched the matter exhaustively—but it is highly unlikely that there were any earlier university press–issued wildlife recordings. The debut of this album was also the first step in creating a new imprint at the press: the Cornell Records Division. Over the next two decades, Cornell Records and the Lab of Ornithology produced twelve albums of recordings of songbirds from the United States, Mexico, and Africa; frogs and toads; and insects. American Bird Songs included familiar blue jays and mourning doves, water birds like loons and whistling swans, marsh birds like bitterns and Wilson’s snipe, and a wide variety of warblers. Thousands of copies of this album were purchased by amateur bird lovers and professional ornithologists alike—and for students at camps and schools.
These recordings showcased the emerging field of wildlife recording, which was virtually invented at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. In the late 1920s, Professor Arthur Allen produced the first recordings of birds made in the wild in North America. He worked with Peter Paul Kellogg, a graduate student, to develop the technologies to produce better recordings, including Kellogg’s concept of the first portable (under twenty pounds!) tape recorder for fieldwork. Peter Keane, an undergraduate student, came up with the concept of using a parabolic dish to isolate the sound of a particular bird. Albert R. Brand, a former stockbroker who became an adult student at Cornell, funded much of the early recording work and produced the first album of bird songs.
The Lab of Ornithology’s sound recording collection now includes tens of thousands of wildlife sounds and the lab continues its technological innovations. Cornell University Press and Comstock Publishing are proud to have played an early role in sharing their work with the world.
About the author of this blog post: Karen Laun is the self-proclaimed press historian and an enthusiast of all things old and dusty. In her spare time, she is a Senior Production Editor and also works in the ultramodern world of e-books as Digital Publishing Editor.
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.
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.
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).
A recent 1869 Cornell University Podcast revealed that an astonishing one third to a half of the homes in Northwestern Europe, the United States, and Australia are feeding wild birds. We get it, bird feeding is a huge trend. And yet . . . should we do it? Well here’s some food for thought:
Birds of a feather flock together. Or not. When it comes to feeding wild birds, different species that would not necessarily mingle, come together in an unnaturally small area to share food. The dangers of such unique turnout include the spreading of diseases, the attracting of predators, and the consuming of rare foods.
Food for thought. According to the author of The Birds at My Table Darryl Jones, birds are much like humans, and will jump at the opportunity to indulge in sugary or salty foods. In Australia, for example, people often feed birds meat. The Australian Broadcast Corporation asked Jones about this practice, which can lead to obstruction in the bird’s beak and ultimately to bacterial infection. And it gets worse. Birds eating at feeders are now exposed to foods that are intended for human consumption; such as cereals and stock foods, pumpkin seeds, chicken eggs and eggshells, fat, rind, lard, marrow, and table scraps. With an increasing demand for more convenient products and ready-made feed mixes, an entire corporate business dedicated to bird feeding is growing to the detriment of the actual well-being of the birds.
The sky is the limit. Jones roots himself in the idea that mindfulness is key when it comes to bird feeding: “Your feeder is one link in a gigantic chain . . . Your private, personal action of providing food for birds changes the structure of an entire, interconnected ecosystem.” The Conversation joined this debate and posted an article including simple rules to follow when taking part in an activity that “has become acceptable, widespread, and even a sign of moral expression.”
Two birds with one stone. People may think that by putting up a bird feeder they are both helping the birds while undertaking an enjoyable activity, but Jones concludes that the feeders are actually for us. In providing information on how to feed birds responsibly, he is getting the discussion on the table. And he’s not alone. The Sydney Morning Herald featured an article on bird feeding that focuses on doing so with care.
All things considered, The Birds at My Table conveys the idea that bird-feeding, done conscientiously, can be a valuable experience. On a human level, it provides with pleasure and personal fulfillment. It allows the average person to connect with nature within the confinements of their own garden and in a sense, bond with the birds. Jones’s book helps fill in the information gaps on how to feed the birds and challenges us to do so with awareness, and to become good hosts.
Find more information on the author or to purchase The Birds at My Table, here.
About the author of this blog post: Sierra Grazia is a senior writing major at Ithaca College with minors in comparative literature and writing for film, television, and emerging media. When Sierra is not writing or reading, she enjoys spending her time running for her college cross country and track team, taking photographs, and traveling.
Feeding wild birds is probably something so familiar, so everyday, so commonplace—so tame perhaps—that we can forget that this is a fundamentally artificial activity. In virtually every case, the types of food we use to attract birds to our house yards—typically mixtures of various seeds but sometimes leaf-overs from a family meal—are entirely different to those they consume in their natural diet. Our feeders also concentrate birds into closer interactions than they would normally tolerate, often bringing together species which would never have anything to do with each other. Even the structure of the feeder itself is starkly unnatural: a swaying glass cylinder or a conspicuous platform, typically in an open and potentially dangerous setting. Continue reading “What happens when we feed birds?”→