Way before writing was invented, people knew birds as harbingers of spring. In the crude agriculture of the remote past, recognizing when to start planting gave farmers a schedule that allowed them to take advantage of the growing season. The earliest written records, around 3000 B.C., cite birds in the fields. Temple priests utilized such records of occurrences to help forecast times for planting. The shamans were the custodians of such traditions, and observing the first arrivals of particular species of birds led easily to putting out food and other attractions to draw the omen-birds in sight. Even today, primitive folks almost everywhere in the world observe such natural events as the first arrivals and last departures of migrating animals as a means of checking seasons or scheduling farming activities.
Birds are apparent in Stone Age rock drawings, in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian carvings, and in Greek and Roman art, where they are depicted being fed by humans. In the Middle Ages, people of Europe put food for birds in evergreen trees to receive the birds back from the warmer south—an exercise that may have led indirectly to our modern’ practice of adorning Christmas trees.
By far the more common reason for feeding birds now is that it offers a handy way to observe and enjoy them. For the amateur bird watcher, feeding offers an entertaining means to learn how to discover different species. For the more sophisticated birder and for the ornithologist, attracting birds to a feeder supplies a natural environment in which to study bird behavior. At the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University, for instance, amounts of feed are shoveled out each day during the year. This is made partly to be sure there are birds to entertain visitors to the Cornell Laboratory and partly to improve its bird sanctuary as a living laboratory. Most bird sanctuaries keep feeding stations to attract birds, even where natural food is normally plentiful during winter.
When you have identified a bird at your feeder, create detailed notes of the shapes of its tail and wings, bill, feet, and eyes. Could you guess from these characteristics how the bird makes its living? A good way to check is to read its life history. Get the habit of identifying these features not only for species around home but likewise for species you see on walks along the beach and across the fields and woods. You will soon detect species sharply different from those that come to your feeder; in short, birds that have developed different styles of living would be found in various habitats.