Why do we feed wild birds?

From reasons of personal pleasure to ecocentric motivations of bird survival, people love feeding wild birds. Dave Clark looks back on where our motivations for feeding our avian friends come from and explores the key drivers behind this activity.

Wild birds feeding from a bird feeder.
Wild birds feeding from abird feeder.
Dave Clark

Let’s get one thing straight, the importance of feeding wild birds should not be underestimated – it’s quite simply massive. 

As an industry, wild bird feeding is estimated to generate £200-300 million per annum in the UK. The fields that grow the seed mixes which fill our feeders are industrial in size and so are the warehouses that store it. As a pastime, the number of people who feed wild birds in their gardens or on their balconies varies between 40-50 per cent of all households and this does not even take into account the more informal feeding of our wildfowl in the local park. 

More importantly, this practice has an as yet unfulfilled capacity to engage, re-engage and energise our relationship with the natural world. This comes at a time when there is an increasing recognition in both scientific and social channels of the importance of nature for our physical and mental wellbeing whilst the degradation of the environment and loss of species is becoming a hot topic within mainstream media channels.

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 any answers. Was it just about a self-centred joy and pleasure we get from this activity or was it about a more altruistic motive, the birds survival? To move forwards one must always look back at what has gone before and there had been surprisingly little research done on the human part of this everyday activity; there were lots and lots of scientific papers on how feeding may or may not affect birds, but little about us. 

Good will to all birds

I’m guessing that we have probably fed birds from when we were cave dwellers, but it is our relationship with bread that gives credence to a long history of feeding wild birds. We’ve been making bread across societies for over 10,000 years, indicating a change from nomadic to sedentary agricultural lifestyles, whilst the breaking of bread cannot be underestimated. It is deeply embedded in our psyches. Across societies and religions it symbolised and symbolises sharing and caring and goes hand in hand with a ritualistic aspect. And where there’s grain, there’s birds – spread the seed in the chicken coop and the sparrows will congregate.

This religious theme continues through bird feeding history with various hermetic saints practising good will to birds and other animals, but it’s not until the Renaissance and into the 18th century that the factual mentions start to mount up, often in the context of a large estate with ample grounds, an upper-class household, crumbs and plenty of largesse. 

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

This informal feeding rapidly became more formalised with the introduction of bird feeders and tables. Where once it was winter feeding, it’s now all year round. Where once it was scraps left in the garden, on the windowsill or thrown from a London bridge, it’s now so sophisticated that seed mixes are being sold on the strength of the types of birds they will attract and, by inference, the species they may deter.  This plays on the deeply ingrained ambivalence we still have for birds – we still eat them, shoot them for sport and we have favourites, whilst enjoying their antics in our gardens and chasing them across the country when a rare species flies in.

This history lesson suggests that our motivations are a mix between anthropocentric – such as our own pleasure – and ecocentric or aviancentric drivers such as bird survival. But is there more to it than this?

Complex drivers

The research that I conducted into these questions was based in London and the South East where 30 individuals who fed birds regularly were interviewed in depth about their habits and motivations. These interviews often lasted well over an hour and formed the basis of a distillation of their responses into the basis for an online questionnaire in which over 500 people feeding birds took part of which approximately 50 per cent were members of environmental organisations such as the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and Wildlife Trusts. From this qualitative element, nine major themes were elicited, which fed into the quantitative part of the research that produced the numbers as expressed graphically within the paper which you can find in the journal Ecology and Society.

Pleasure and bird survival were confirmed as the two most important motivators to feed wild birds alongside nurture, being close to nature, children’s education, not wasting food, personal atonement, companionship and making amends. Not all respondents would express all nine of these motivations but the research showed that such a simple practice has potentially complex  themes operating. 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 austerity 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 this interest and a recognition that a trigger to feed is often instilled at a young age.

What was a striking element of the research findings was the real 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’, `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.

As with all research, more questions than answers have been brought up, particularly the need to unpick what do we mean by pleasure. From the interviews this pleasure seems to encompass the softer side of the human psyche; spirituality, wonder and awe but also harder edged themes of control, paternalism and domination. The research also suggests the untapped potential for engagement and barriers to engagement as the majority of respondents declared themselves as white and over 35 years old. It should be classless, ageless, raceless and creedless. 

In an increasingly urbanised society where urban green spaces are becoming more important yet more threatened, there is an increasing concern that millennials will suffer from a dearth 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 overriding pleasure that can be experienced through feeding birds and the potential care for our environment that this can generate for all of our health and wellbeing.

Dave Clark is an ornithologist and environmental campaigner with a particular interest in the interactions between birds and humans. He holds  an MSC in Ornithology from the University of Birmingham, and has recently published a study into our motivations for feeding wild birds. He is also a member of the Green Party.