Credit Neeta Madahar
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.