Why do we feed wild birds?

Dave Clark explores the motivations behind one of Britain’s most popular wildlife related activities

Lets get one thing straight: feeding wild birds is massive. It’s estimated that the industry generates between 200 and 300 million pounds each year in the UK alone. The fields that grow the seed mixes that fill our feeders are industrial in size and so are the warehouses that store them. The number of people who feed wild birds in their gardens or on their balconies makes up between 40-50% of all households and this doesn’t take into account the more informal feeding of wildfowl in local parks. More importantly this practice has an, as yet, unfulfilled capacity to engage, re-engage and energise our relationship with the natural world. This at a time when there’s an increasing recognition of the importance of nature for our physical and mental well being and the degradation of the environment and loss of species are becoming increasingly hot topics in the mainstream media. 

Birds feeding

Image credit Gillian Day

But why do we do it? 

A few years ago I started to wrestle with this question and to navigate the arduous corridors of academia to give a scientific dimension to my enquiry. Was it just about the self-centred joy and pleasure we get from this activity or was there a more altruistic motive at play. There has been surprisingly little research done on the human dimension of this ubiquitous activity; there are reams of scientific papers on how feeding affects birds but very few about us.  

It’s my guess that we’ve fed birds since we were cave dwellers, but it is our relationship with bread that gives credence to a long history of feeding wild birds. As a species we’ve been making bread for over 10,000 years, the activity indicating a change from nomadic to more sedentary agricultural lifestyles. The image of breaking bread is deeply embedded in our psyches. Across many societies and religions it has become a symbol of sharing and has often developed a ritual aspect. Wildlife would have quickly adapted to take advantage of the plentiful supply of grain produced by human societies. Spread the seed in the chicken coop and the sparrows will congregate. 

A religious theme continues through the history of bird feeding with various hermitic saints practising goodwill to birds and other animals. Bird feeding as we know it today appears to take off around the Renaissance and into the 18th century from which point there are increasingly frequent written records that describe the practice, often in the context of a large houses with extensive grounds, upper class residents, crumbs and plenty of largesse.  

When we get to the 1890s the practice really accelerates. During this decade Britain was in the throes of chronically hard winters, and in urban centres it was common to see birds in distress and dying as a result of cold and lack of food. In London, Gulls, previously rarely seen inland, were becoming part of the common tapestry of the Thames and whereas two decades previously it was common sport to shoot them now workers were sharing their lunches with them. 

This informal feeding was rapidly formalised with the introduction of bird feeders and tables. Bird feeding has gone from strength to strength. Where once birds were only fed in winter, now they are fed all year round. Where once birds were fed scraps left in the garden, now seed mixes are being sold on the strength of the specific types of birds they will attract and by inference the species they may deter. This plays on the deeply engrained ambivalence we have for birds: we eat some species, shoot other’s for sport, and take great care to attract some species to our gardens. Bird enthusiasts happily travel across the country (and beyond) in the hope of glimpsing a particularly rare species. 

A glance at the history of bird feeding suggests that our motivations are a mixture of the anthropocentric (for our own pleasure) and the ‘ecocentric’ or ‘aviancentric’ (promoting bird survival), but is there more to it than this? 

feeding birds

Image credit Gillian Day

Lets go to the science. 

In 2019 I worked with two other researchers to create a paper on the motivations for garden bird feeding in southeast England. We interviewed thirty people who feed birds regularly and asked them about their habits and motivations. We used these interviews to create an online questionnaire which was completed by over 500 people. Approximately 50% of respondents were members of environmental organisations such as RSPB, BTO and The Wildlife Trusts. I’d like to give a big thank you to London Wildlife Trust and BTO for helping us to reach so many people. This qualitative research allowed us to elucidate nine major themes which fed into the quantitative part of the research. The full paper can be viewed here:  

https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol24/iss1/art26/ 

Pleasure and bird survival were confirmed as the two most important motivations for feeding wild birds alongside a desire to nurture, being close to nature, children’s education, not wasting food, companionship, making amends and personal atonement. Not all respondents expressed all nine motivations but the research shows how a seemingly simple activity can be motivated by a number of complex factors. These drivers have been formed through equally complex cultural roots. Our historical relationships with birds through domestication, pet ownership and garden stewardship, our innate need to be close to nature, themes of thriftiness and a disinclination towards waste reinforced by two world wars and environmental guilt as it is slowly dawning on us how we have negatively impacted on nature. Furthermore, for respondents with children, there was a strong drive to pass on their own interest in wildlife and a recognition that the desire to feed and care for animals is often instilled at a young age. 

One striking element of the findings was the depth of feeling and importance that respondents placed on the practice. ‘They are the world to me`, ‘I don’t know what I would do without them` and ‘I get lost in their world` were just some of the quotes that displayed a profound connection with the birds that visited the respondents gardens.  

The research has raised several questions, particularly the need to unpick what we mean by pleasure. An analysis of the interviews seems to suggest that this pleasure encompasses the softer side of the human psyche: spirituality, wonder and awe, but also harder edged themes of control, paternalism and domination. 

The research suggests an untapped potential for engagement and highlights barriers to engagement. The majority of respondents described themselves as white and over 35 years old. Engagement with nature can and should transcend class, age and race. 

In an increasingly urbanised society where urban green spaces are becoming more important yet more threatened there is an increasing concern that young people will suffer from an extinction of environmental experience. Bird feeding offers a direct interaction with wild animals at home and in communal spaces with little financial investment and very little effort. The trick will be to communicate the pleasure that can be experienced through feeding birds and the potential care for our environment that this simple activity can generate for all our health and well being.