In 1994, when we opened our first backyard bird-feeding store in St Paul, Minn., lots of people fed the birds striped sunflower and bought it in 50 pound bags. That’s what feeding the birds looked like 25 years ago.
Henry David Thoreau fed the birds at Walden Pond in 1845. In 1926, the first commercially made hummingbird feeder was sold. Peter Kilham invented and made the first tube feeder in 1969 for his company Droll Yankees. He made 100 by hand and they quickly sold out, and tube feeders became an industry standard.
As conservation of land and animals began to grow more than a hundred years ago, so did the realization that birds had value beyond being hunting targets or a source of feathers for hats. Many of the same people who campaigned to stop the slaughter of large wading birds for plumes and to stop the shooting of hawks for sport were the same people who contributed to the growth of the backyard bird-feeding hobby.
Back in the day, folks threw out breadcrumbs for the birds or extra fat/suet from steers, or — if they were really into it —they filled a feeder with striped sunflower.
Fast forward to today, and we’ve entered bird-feeding 2.0.
We’ve learned a few things over the years. Striped sunflower is more expensive, lower in fat and harder for many birds to eat than black-oil sunflower. Hardly anyone feeds striped sunflower anymore. A mix of quality seed will usually attract a wider variety of birds than will straight black-oil sunflower, as long as the mix isn’t loaded with commercial fillers like milo, wheat and other “grain products.” Some white millet is good in a mix because ground feeders like it. Some sunflower chips are good, and nuts are a great ingredient to add fat and protein.
No-mess mixes (no shells, no sprouting) have become the first choice for many backyard birders. Birds love the high fat/protein options, and birders love that feeding the birds doesn’t have to be messy anymore.
Options like feeding thistle to attract goldfinches, nectar to feed hummingbirds and orioles, mealworms and suet nuggets and suet cylinders to attract nonseed-eating birds are only a few of the choices for those who want to attract and watch birds in their backyards.
When my sister opened Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque in 1991, her store was one of only a handful in the Southwest that catered to backyard birders. The explosion in the hobby has been good for birds. It’s turned a generation of kids and adults on to birds and has connected us all with nature.
When we see the stunning western tanager as they migrate through (a few settle in to nest), it’s hard not to be wowed by their beauty and their journey. In the last few days, as we begin to see the rufous hummingbirds appear at local feeders, it’s amazing to realize that many are on an almost 4,000-mile trek.
The rufous heads north from Mexico and Central America in the early spring through California to reach its nesting grounds in the Pacific Northwest, some going all the way to Alaska. We’re just now beginning to see the bossy rufous on their way back south as they follow the flower highway along the Rocky Mountains. What an incredible journey.
I’m so glad we’re watching and feeding birds. Just think what we’d all miss.
Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She, and her sisters, are the authors of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard.