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)

Bird Feeding: 4 mystifying facts you didn’t know

Backyard Birds of NewYork by Kate Dolamore
Original watercolor courtesy of Kate Dolamore Art

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.

Jones Birds at My Table.jpg copy

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.

 

As the American Ornithology Meeting 2018 #AOS18AZ and the Northeast Natural History Conference #NENHC18 are happening, discover more ornithology titles from the press:

 

 

 

Recommended song for this post:

 

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.

 

Bird Feeding: 4 mystifying facts you didn’t know

What happens when we feed birds?

Jones Birds at My Table

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?”

What happens when we feed birds?