In their Sunday magazine, the New York Times recently published an interesting nature article entitled, “Why Do We Feed Wild Animals?” It seems that quite a few people do. Between 20 to maybe as high as 35 percent of households in Australia, Europe and the United States feed birds on their apartment balconies or on their property, according to author Helen MacDonald. She writes that “Americans spend over $3 billion each year on food for wild birds, ranging from peanuts to specialized seed mixes, suet cakes, hummingbird nectar and freeze-dried mealworms.” It’s a costly sum for sure for people to find some pleasure while helping our feathered friends find a tasty meal in our overcrowded urban and suburban neighborhoods.
Of course Helen MacDonald rightly points out that we are seeking pleasure from just certain types of “acceptable” animals that we come across as cute or endearing. Who in their right mind would put out food to attract rats or cockroaches? Though this might occur, especially when people put out too much foodstuff or keep areas untidy.
I found Helen MacDonald’s piece in the New York Times to be well timed as we start a new year that always seems to be dominated by talk of upcoming technology. It’s always technology it seems that gives people hope of a simpler life. Yet, in the end, the promise is often hollow, leading mostly to more stress, agitation, and different unseen problems to solve as we try to understand and cope with the latest power-driven devices.
But a return to nature and watching wildlife is captivating and truly simple. Watching a variety of birds soar, fly, and flutter is an ageless event, visually appealing and a soothing experience.
Wildlife can be an indicator of a poor or healthy environment. Having a diversity of animals in your town or community can reflect the health and suitability of your neighborhood. For instance, how many people would really want to move to a place where only rats, roaches, and leaches existed. Often we seek out places to live, in part, where there are plenty of parks and a diversity of ecosystems to interact with nature nearby. The decline of just one animal species may indicate the deterioration of local habitat.
In the end, having respect and regard toward others is important, whether they're humans, dogs, birds, fish, or other living creatures, even plants. We are all connected and all part of the natural environment. As Helen MacDonald points out in her New York Times Magazine article, growing up as a child with birdfeeders taught her “a lot about animal behavior — the meaning of the aggressive flicking of a squirrel’s tail, the precise posture of a courting robin….and how to empathize with creatures with their own thoughts, intentions and desires. Animals are not human, but they are enough like us to grant us a strange and strong sense of kinship.”
Why Do We Feed Wild Animals?
By HELEN MACDONALD JAN. 6, 2016
The New York Times Magazine
White-haired, with a faintly aristocratic glamour, Mrs. Leslie-Smith lived alone in a wooden bungalow full of books and glossy houseplants a few doors from my childhood home. One warm autumn evening more than 30 years ago, she invited my mother and me to watch her nightly ritual. She scattered broken cookies outside her garden doors, where they glittered dustily under the light of an outside lamp. We sat in the darkened room and waited. A striped black-and-white face appeared at the edge of the illuminated lawn. Then, out of the night, two badgers trundled across the grass to crunch up the cookies, so close to us that we could see their ivory teeth and the patterned skin on their noses. They weren’t tame — if we had turned on the light, they would have bolted — but I wanted to press my hands to the glass to get closer to them, to somehow make them understand I was there. The space between us in the house and these wild creatures in the garden was filled with unexpected magic.
We didn’t feed badgers in my childhood home, but we fed the birds in our garden. So do a fifth to a third of all households in Australia, Europe and the United States. Americans spend over $3 billion each year on food for wild birds, ranging from peanuts to specialized seed mixes, suet cakes, hummingbird nectar and freeze-dried mealworms. We still don’t clearly understand how supplementary feeding affects bird populations, but there’s evidence that its enormous increase in popularity over the last century has changed the behavior and range of some species. Many German blackcaps, for example, a kind of migratory warbler, now fly northwest to spend the winter in food-rich, increasingly temperate British gardens rather than flying southwest to the Mediterranean, and feeding may be behind the northward spread of northern cardinals and American goldfinches.
Putting out food for birds in your backyard can attract predators, and virulent diseases like trichonomosis or avian pox can be spread through contaminated feeders. But even if its impact is not always positive for wildlife, it is for us. We give food to wild creatures out of a desire to help them, spreading cut apples on snowy lawns for blackbirds, hanging up feeders for chickadees. The British nature writer Mark Cocker holds that the ‘‘simple, Franciscan act of giving to birds makes us feel good about life, and redeems us in some fundamental way.’’ This sense of personal redemption is intimately tied up with the history of bird-feeding. The practice grew out of the humanitarian movement in the 19th century, which saw compassion toward those in need as a mark of the enlightened individual.
In 1895, the popular Scottish naturalist and writer Eliza Brightwen gave instructions on how to feed and tame wild red squirrels to become ‘‘household pets of their own free will.’’ In Britain, garden feeding was popularized by the formation in the late 19th century of the Dicky Bird Society, a children’s organization that required members to take a pledge to be kind to all living things and to feed the birds in wintertime. The society was highly influential, even receiving letters from workhouse children explaining that they saved crumbs from their own meals to feed to the birds outside.
In the United States, one of the most significant figures in the new movement was the Prussian aristocrat Baron Hans von Berlepsch. A book detailing his ingenious bird-feeding methods, ‘‘How to Attract and Protect Wild Birds,’’ described how you could pour melted fat mixed with seeds, ants’ eggs, dried meat and bread over conifer branches for birds to feed from in winter. ‘‘Kindhearted people,’’ it explained, ‘‘have always taken pity on our feathered winter guests.’’ During World War I, feeding American birds was considered a patriotic duty, helping them survive the winter so they could go on to eat insects that threatened agricultural production. By 1919, the nation’s garden birds were to be considered, according to the ornithologist Frank Chapman, ‘‘not only our welcome guests but our personal friends.’’
Increasingly, the opposite is true: We are encouraged to see the realms of humans and nature as distinct, and the correct relationship with animals as one of reserved and distant observation rather than close and intimate contact. We permit only a few types of animals to enter our homes as pets; interactions with wild animals tend to be restricted to experts like biologists or park rangers. But gardens and backyards are special trading zones that span the imaginary boundaries between nature and culture, domestic and public space. They are shared territory, places that both humans and wildlife consider home.
Even so, when we feed animals, we want it to be on our terms, not theirs; we expect them to respect their place in an unspoken social order. When a wary squirrel or bird trusts you sufficiently to take food from your hand, it’s gratifying and special, a reaching across the border between us and them, wild and tame. But if a squirrel runs unbidden up your arm demanding food or a sea gull snatches a sandwich from your hands, it can generate an emotion close to outrage. Back in the early days, according to the book on von Berlepsch, proponents of bird-feeding had to fight against the conviction that animals would become ‘‘spoiled’’ by artificial feeding and would ‘‘no longer do their work in nature’s household.’’ Even today, it’s hard to read articles giving advice on wildlife feeding without suspecting that they might be about something else. We’re told to feed foxes ‘‘sporadically,’’ so as not to cause ‘‘dependence,’’ and we’re warned that doing so makes animals lose their ‘‘natural respect’’ for us.
There are acceptable animals and unacceptable animals, as there have been deserving and undeserving poor, and the lines of respectability are drawn in familiar ways, through fears and threats of invasion, foreignness, violence and disease. We see ourselves in the animals around us, and they reflect back at us our own assumptions about the world. ‘‘Feeding foxes is one of those things you don’t talk to people about,’’ one blogger confessed online, worried that her neighbors would find out her secret. To purposely feed the wrong animals — sparrows, pigeons, rats, raccoons, foxes — is an act of social transgression and is liable to get you reported to officials by whistle-blowers concerned with mess or health or noise. With sufficient social capital, you can get away with it: The British actress Joanna Lumley, who starred in the show ‘‘Absolutely Fabulous,’’ feeds foxes in her garden and allows them into her house; newspaper photographs show one fast asleep on the cushions of her living-room sofa.
When contact with others is made difficult through social or personal circumstance, feeding animals can bring enormous solace. People who routinely feed urban pigeons tend to be isolated and socially marginalized: older people, lonely people, homeless people. The sociologist Colin Jerolmack has memorably described such encounters with pigeons as ephemerally dissolving people’s solitude. Some of the saddest wildlife stories in the news are about individuals who have been fined or jailed for refusing to stop feeding birds in their gardens. ‘‘They are my whole life, because all my relatives are gone,’’ explained Cecil Pitts, a 65-year-old who was fined $500 for repeatedly feeding large flocks of pigeons at his home in Ozone Park, Queens, in 2008. He is one of many people who have come to identify with the unloved denizens of their neighborhoods, creatures that are ignored or despised, living behind the visible workings of the modern city.
Growing up with bird tables outside my window taught me a lot about animal behavior — the meaning of the aggressive flicking of a squirrel’s tail, the precise posture of a courting robin — but it taught me, too, how to empathize with creatures with their own thoughts, intentions and desires. Animals are not human, but they are enough like us to grant us a strange and strong sense of kinship. Mrs. Leslie-Smith’s badgers brought her the company of many guests keen to see these rare creatures at close quarters, but the company, too, of wild animals that chose to spend time at her house. This morning, as I filled the feeders in my garden, a flock of small passerines hopped about in the hedges while three jackdaws perched expectantly on the eaves above. One looked down at me, shook its soft gray feathers and yawned, and I found myself yawning, too, in a moment of contagious fellowship. The birds that choose to come to my garden make my house a less lonely place. And that is why many of us feed animals — not merely because it’s satisfying to feel we have helped them, but because it surrounds us with creatures that know us, are able to forge bonds with us, have come to regard us as part of their world.
Helen Macdonald teaches at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent book, ‘‘H Is for Hawk,’’ won the 2014 Samuel Johnson prize and was the 2014 Costa Book of the Year.
A version of this article appears in print on January 10, 2016, on page MM18 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Why Do We Feed Wild Animals?.