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Wild Bird Parties All Year Long: Authors’ Talk on May 26

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Today’s guest post is by ST&B’s upcoming speakers, Paul J. Baicich and Margaret A. Barker, who will present “The Surprising History of Bird Feeding,” based on their book (written with colleague Carrol L. Henderson), Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation (Texas A&M University Press, 2015). Books will be for sale at the event, and the authors will sign them after their talk.

Date: Thursday, May 26, 2016

Time: 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Place: Mary Pickford Theater, 3rd Floor, Madison Building

For inquiries about this program contact the Science, Technology & Business Division librarians, Sean Bryant at [email protected] or Angel Vu at [email protected]. Individuals requiring accommodations for this event are requested to submit a request at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

Caption: The short film, Caring for the Birds in Winter came from Edison Studios in 1917. Among other things, it showed Boy Scouts building and using feeders and feeding stations, including this coconut feeder. Image courtesy of the Thomas Alva Edison Collection, Motion Picture and Broadcasting Division, Library of Congress.
Caption: The short film, Caring for the Birds in Winter came from Edison Studios in 1917. Among other things, it showed Boy Scouts building and using feeders and feeding stations, including this coconut feeder. Image courtesy of the Thomas Alva Edison Collection, Motion Picture and Broadcasting Division, Library of Congress.

Wild birds seem to relish the parties we throw for them in our backyards. All that free food and plentiful water entices them to hang around our homes. And we enjoy the show — getting up-close looks at a variety of species, witnessing a wide range of behaviors, and spying rare or out-of-season birds like the Baltimore Oriole that showed up at a peanut feeder near Annapolis in January. One can even learn to recognize individuals, such as the tail-less male Northern Cardinal feeding in Margaret’s backyard since early spring.

We humans have been giving these wild bird soirees for just over a hundred years or so. And there’s been much to learn about how to be good hosts. For example, many of us will be hosting hummingbirds in our backyards this spring and summer. The convenient multi-port feeders full of sugar-water nectar we deploy in our backyards today haven’t always been around. Methods to feed hummers have come about over time through experimentation.

Our hummingbird research for Feeding Wild Birds in America led us to an account by John James Audubon of hummer feeding at a Louisiana plantation in the early 1820s. He witnessed the birds going to flowers into which “sweetened wine” had been poured. More detailed reports showed up in the National Association of Audubon Societies’ publication, Bird-Lore, near the turn of the 20th century. Carolyn B. Soule of Brookline, Massachusetts offered hummers provisions from a small bottle she had adorned with a red-orange paper flower. She then filled it with “not too thick” sugar water. On this first try she attracted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird right away.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, California banker and philanthropist Benjamin Tucker and his wife, Dorothy May, broke new ground for hummingbird feeders. Their love for hummingbirds and hospitality converged at their Orange County home’s 24-foot long “Hummingbird Bar.” Here, local birdwatchers assembled for cocktails to watch upwards of 200 hummingbirds being fed by Tucker’s latest feeder designs. He first served his fly-in customers a half-water/half-sugar mixture from Prohibition-era “happy hour” glasses. Some glasses had tin tops with holes punched in for hummingbird beaks. Others had sipping holes drilled into wooden lids. Later he fashioned a feeder based on automatic drinking fountains used for chickens. To these glass globe feeders with narrow necks he added a wire perch, a design feature adapted to modern feeders.

The Tuckers’ half-‘n-half nectar mixture is considered too sugary today. Some research shows the standard nectar hummingbird recipe of 1 part white cane sugar to 4 parts water is more like the natural nectar in flowers—no red dye necessary! Sheri Williamson of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory recommends a dynamic approach to nectar. In cold weather, she offers a 1:3 ratio solution. In times of drought she’ll provide a 1:5 mix.

Similar to hummingbird feeding, non-hummer wild bird foods and feeders have changed considerably over the years. Today’s most popular wild birdseed, black-oil sunflower seed, was only introduced in the 1970s. The ubiquitous tube feeder—almost de rigueur for feeding sites—wasn’t invented until 1968. We writer-researchers found surprising stories behind these developments, including a connection to Cold War intrigue and to modern art. Both of these items have become staples of the billion-dollar wild bird feeding business.

A hundred years ago, a simple coconut stuffed with animal fat and nuts was a popular feeder. A 16-mm film image of just such a feeder-system is what we discovered when our research brought us to the Library of Congress. After noticing several references to a 1917 Edison Studios film, Caring for the Birds in Winter, we were determined to find the film and watch it. Thanks to Rosemary Hanes of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division’s Moving Image Section, we succeeded. The still image we chose for our book is of a Boy Scout hanging up a coconut feeder, part of a larger Boy Scout effort to feed the birds in winter.

While the Edison film shows Boy Scouts caring for wild birds, as well as game birds, America’s relationship with birds has been an ever-changing one over the decades. At one time wild birds, including species we feed in backyards today, were valued as commodities—harvested for food, caged as songbirds, or slaughtered for decorative feathers. But around the turn of the last century people working for bird protection laws encouraged people to appreciate living birds. One way to do that was to promote learning about birds and feeding them. Today, the bird protection laws passed nearly a hundred years ago mean that the 50 million Americans who say they feed wild birds have a ready supply of avian customers to attract, feed and enjoy. And the resulting $4 billion of bird food sold annually and the $970 million spent each year on feeders, nest boxes, and birdbaths illustrate how far we have come.

About the Speakers:

Paul J. Baicich’s teenage birding days in New York City led to a bird-oriented career. Currently, he is a bird and conservation writer and editor as well as an avitourism consultant. Most recently he has led birding trips to Cuba. Formerly with the American Birding Association, he is coauthor of A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (Princeton University Press, 1997; revised, 2002). He co-edits the popular monthly Birding Community E-bulletin.

Tennessee native Margaret A. Barker, a writer, speaker and educator in the Chesapeake Bay area, interned with the Washington, D.C. office of the National Audubon Society before joining the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There she coordinated the Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch and later worked with Cornell University’s agricultural outreach gardening program. She is coauthor of The FeederWatcher’s Guide to Bird Feeding (Harper Collins, 2000) and the Audubon Birdhouse Book (Voyageur Press, 2013).


  1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. p. 38. http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/singleitem/collection/document/id/859/rec/3;

Comments (2)

  1. The talk was great! Is there a place we can stream or download “Caring for the Birds in Winter”?

  2. Rob – there was nothing in the record that indicated it was but I am a business librarian and don’t want to give you bad information. You can put in a question directly to the custodians of this at https://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-mopic.html

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