Why Feed Birds?

A birdwatcher explains why he loves feeding birds.

To the uninitiated, birding and bird feeding might seem like an absurd waste of time, money and energy.

From a practical standpoint, my passion for birds does seem a bit silly. I go to extraordinary lengths to watch, feed, photograph and be in the presence of birds. So I’m starting to ask myself one question—why?

I had a college professor who provided me with some insight into this passion. I remember talking to him as he admired a flock of 10,000 western sandpipers swirl in the air. As he stared upward at the mass of birds, he said, “Every western sandpiper in the world could go extinct tomorrow, and we would feel no economic impact of that loss. But what would be lost is beauty.”

Conservationists are constantly trying to put the importance of wildlife, wilderness and nature into economic terms. As though the dollar value of a flock of shorebirds or the birds at my feeders is all that matters.

This, I now realize, is utter nonsense. What makes birds valuable, what makes them worthy of our protection, is their inherent beauty. It is their beauty that enriches our lives, not their economic value. And this enrichment is priceless.

In this age, the noise of televisions, computers, radios, the Internet and automobiles constantly surrounds us. Buried in this cacophony of multimedia, we are far removed from the natural world. Yet, part of me yearns for that connection.

Our genetic history is tied to natural wildness, and in its absence, there is a loss. Birds are my solution to this.

I can admire migrant songbirds moving through city parks, and finches, robins and blackbirds in suburban backyards.

Birds are everywhere. Yet no matter how familiar they may be, they are subjected to wind, rain, snow, cold, predators and the trials of migration. Hold no doubt, birds are wild animals, and through them we can regain a thread of connection to their wildness.

Therein lies the answer to why I participate in this seemingly pointless activity. It is part of a struggle to maintain a connection to the wild. I invite these small, feathered, wild things into my yard and into my life with feeders of seed. I wander into the birds’ real—forests, beaches, mountains and wetlands—to experience their beauty on their terms.

These explorations restore balance to my life, and finding that balance is more reason than I need to justify my passion for birds.

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David Shaw
David Shaw is a science writer, conservation photographer and photo educator living in the heart of Alaska's boreal forest. He is passionate about the world's remaining wild places and creatures. David leads wilderness trips in Alaska for Arctic Wild.