People feeding backyard birds dates back to at least 1845

10:18 am | January 30, 2012

I couldn’t blame the birds for thinking spring has come early. January’s almost at an end, and we haven’t really experienced much in the way of cold temperatures and snow.

Photo by Donald Rice - A Tufted Titmouse visits a feeder for some energy-rich suet.

Thankfully, the birds are still visiting my feeders, but perhaps not with the devotion they show to my offerings when there are several inches of snow covering the ground.

Photo by Donald Rice - Carolina Wrens, such as this individual, are not usually attracted to seed, but they will feed from a suet cake.

I got an email from Donald Rice this past week wanting to know why he hasn’t been able to attract any Northern Cardinals so far this winter. I shared a story with him about how my own resident Eastern Towhees apparently vacated my feeders from early October until a single female towhee made a return appearance during the recent spell of inclement weather. I advised patience and, sure enough, he emailed me back later to tell me a cardinal had finally paid a visit.

First and foremost, most birds are attracted to our yard when we offer them three crucial items: shelter, food and water. At my home, a fish pond and access to Simerly Creek means I don’t have to offer supplemental sources of water.

I do offer a variety of foods to appeal to birds, and they have responded with enthusiasm. Food can be a great magnet for attracting birds, but it helps to know the preferences of some of your feeder visitors.

Feeding birds has a long history in the United States. In his book A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding, John V. Dennis writes that Henry David Thoreau fed birds at his Walden Pond cabin as early as 1845. He scattered corn and bread crumbs to attract Blue Jays and chickadees as well as squirrels and rabbits. By the end of the 1800s, naturalists like John Burroughs offered food to lure birds closer.

Dennis notes, however, that the first person to establish something like the practice of feeding birds throughout the year was a housewife in the Vermont town of Brattleboro. The efforts of Mrs. E.B. Davenport are known because another woman, Florence A. Merriam, wrote about Davenport’s feeders in a book titled Birds of Village and Field. Apparently, Davenport hosted birds such as Ruffed Grouse and Blue Jays at the feeders at her Vermont home.

Dennis notes that hummingbird feeders made their first appearance in 1900. Again, a woman can take the credit. Caroline G. Soule of Brookline, Mass., started the practice of offering sugar water to attract nectar-feeding hummingbirds. She hung up a bottle with an imitation trumpet creeper blossom inserted in the opening. As Dennis notes, the concept of a feeder for hummingbirds has changed very little since those initial attempts.

As a result of an increase in the popularity of feeding birds, some very noticeable changes took place. With ready access to food at all seasons, some birds expanded their native ranges. Birds such as Northern Mockingbird and even Northern Cardinal were once rare in the Northeastern United States. Today, these species have expanded well beyond their stronghold in the southern United States. Dennis identified four species — Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird and Northern Cardinal — as four such southern species that were able to expand northward thanks to feeders.

Dennis died in 2002, but his books are still available through a variety of outlets. I highly recommend A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding and The Wildlife Gardener to anyone interested in attracting more birds to their yards and feeders.


I offer a variety of foods at my feeders in the hope of attracting as many different birds as possible. In addition to black oil sunflower seed, I sometimes offer such seed as millet, safflower and thistle. For people who lose too much seed to squirrels, safflower seed is not liked by these rodents, but will be accepted by such colorful birds as Northern Cardinals. The tiny pearl-shaped millet seeds attract sparrows, including Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow. When spring arrives, Indigo Buntings and Chipping Sparrows also enjoy millet seed. Thistle seed is primarily enjoyed by American Goldfinches. Special feeders or mesh stockings are used to dispense tiny thistle seeds, which also attract House Finches and, during spring, an occasional Indigo Bunting.

Many of our common birds, however, exist mainly on a diet of insects. During the colder months, insects are notably scarce and these birds must migrate to warmer climates or modify their diets. We can attract insect-eating birds by offering suet cakes, which can be purchased at various stores. You can also make your own by rendering fat and adding an assortment of other foods, such as peanuts, peanut butter, oats and cornmeal.

Suet cakes attract a wide assortment of birds, including Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Pine Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue Jay, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker. On occasion, a bird such as a Dark-eyed Junco or Northern Cardinal will also sample some suet. Mesh cages to hold your suet cakes can be found in any store that also sells bird seed.

It’s worth noting that it’s not only birds that enjoy suet. Many mammals — raccoons, opossums, squirrels and even black bears — will feed on suet. Raccoons and bears will also carry off your suet cages. Since most of these animals visit after dark, it’s a good idea to bring your suet indoors in the evening and put it back out in the morning. To discourage nocturnal visitors, I place only enough seed in my feeders that the birds can finish in a single day.


Peanuts are also an excellent food for birds. I own several mesh containers that are designed to hold shelled peanuts. Buy unsalted peanuts for stocking these feeders. The list of birds attracted by peanuts is almost identical to the one for suet. It’s fun to watch a White-breasted Nuthatch or Tufted Titmouse hang to the side of the feeder as they deftly maneuver a peanut out of the mesh container. Because they have to take a little time to extract the peanut, it also forces them to remain in view instead of “grabbing and going” as birds such as Carolina Chickadees are prone to do.


A survey would probably reveal that people feed birds for different reasons. For the most part, the birds need our handouts much less than we think. They are capable of finding their own food. Bringing them closer by using food, water and shelter to attract them, however, means we get to enjoy their beauty and their songs. The only effort we put forth is to fill feeders daily and clean them on a regular basis. I also think most people would agree that the expense of providing food brings a worthwhile return on their investment.


To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or send email to or bstevens@ I’m also on Facebook.

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