A Cardinal sitting on a bird feeder

A Cardinal sitting on a bird feeder (Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash)

HELSINKI, Finland — When you set up a bird feeder in your yard, you might think you’re simply providing a meal for your feathered friends. But a fascinating new study reveals that these seemingly simple devices have a complex history of design influenced not just by humans but by a cast of unexpected characters, including rats, squirrels, and even bacteria.

Researchers from the University of Helsinki and Aalto University in Finland have uncovered the surprising evolution of bird feeder design over the past century. Their study, published in the journal Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, shows how unwanted visitors to bird feeders have played a crucial role in shaping these devices’ architecture and technology.

The team examined Finnish newspapers and magazines from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, analyzing images, design descriptions, and articles about bird feeders. What they found was a story of constant adaptation, as humans tried to create the perfect feeding station for birds while keeping out a host of uninvited guests.

“We argue that it is vital for environmental humanities scholars to study artifacts and technology and, vice versa, for design studies and science and technology studies scholars to examine non-humans,” the authors write in their report.

Their work bridges the gap between environmental history and the history of technology, showing how nature and human-made objects are often more intertwined than we realize. The study identifies four major shifts in bird feeder design over the decades, each prompted by a different set of challenges:

  1. From simple planks to roofed structures: Early bird feeders were often just flat boards. But rain and snow ruining the food led to the addition of roofs, creating house-like structures.
  2. Hanging feeders: To keep out cats, rats, and squirrels, people began hanging feeders from wires or attaching them to long poles.
  3. Narrower access points: Larger birds like crows and pigeons were sometimes seen as unwelcome guests, leading to designs with smaller openings.
  4. Preventing birds from sitting above the food: Concerns about salmonella in the 1980s prompted designs that kept birds from defecating directly onto the food supply.

These changes reflect more than just practical concerns. They also reveal shifting attitudes about which animals we welcome into our spaces and which we try to exclude. The bird feeder, it turns out, is a microcosm of our complex relationships with urban wildlife.

The first birdfeeders were made in the 19th century, and their design rapidly evolved during the 20th century.
The first birdfeeders were made in the 19th century, and their design rapidly evolved during the 20th century. (CREDIT: Heta Lähdesmäki)

Methodology: Piecing Together a Century of Bird Feeder History

To uncover this hidden history, the researchers employed a method called “close reading” to examine a wide range of historical documents. They searched through digitized archives of Finnish newspapers and magazines, looking for any mentions of bird feeders (known as “lintulauta” in Finnish).

Their search yielded 4,808 hits, which they then narrowed down to 102 articles that included photographs, drawings, or detailed descriptions of bird feeder designs. These sources ranged from national newspapers to children’s magazines, showing how widespread the practice of bird feeding had become.

The team analyzed these materials chronologically, paying close attention to how bird feeder designs changed over time and what reasons were given for these changes. They looked not just at the devices themselves but at the language used to describe them and the context in which they were discussed.

This approach allowed the researchers to trace the evolution of bird feeder design while also gaining insights into the cultural attitudes surrounding bird feeding and urban wildlife in Finland over the course of a century.

Results: A Century of Innovation in Bird Feeding

The study’s results paint a picture of constant innovation in bird feeder design, driven by a variety of factors:

Early designs were simple, often just flat wooden boards. These were easy for children to make, which was important as bird feeding was initially promoted as an activity for young people.

As bird feeding became more popular, designs became more complex. Roofs were added to protect food from rain and snow. This change was so important that even in the late 20th century, magazines were still reminding readers of the necessity of a roof on a bird feeder.

Concerns about cats and other predators led to hanging designs and feeders mounted on tall poles. A 1916 article described rats as “disgusting” visitors to bird feeders and advised placing feeders where such “enemies” couldn’t reach them.

In the mid-20th century, there was a shift towards excluding larger birds like crows and pigeons. Designs featured smaller openings or were made to be too small for larger birds to use comfortably.

Perhaps the most significant change came in the 1980s when concerns about salmonella led to a complete rethinking of bird feeder design. New models prevented birds from sitting directly above the food, and materials shifted from wood to more easily cleaned metals and plastics.

Throughout these changes, the researchers found that bird feeders often mimicked human architecture, with many designs resembling miniature houses complete with gabled roofs.

Limitations: A Narrow View of a Global Practice

While this study provides a fascinating look at the evolution of bird feeder design, it does have some limitations:

The research focuses solely on Finland, and practices may have differed in other countries. The study relies on published materials, which may not fully represent all bird feeder designs in use at any given time.

The researchers note that they focused on feeders called “lintulauta” in Finnish, which are used for seeds, nuts, and food scraps. Other types of feeders, such as those for suet balls, were not included in the study.

The availability of source material may have influenced the perceived importance of certain design changes. For example, the emphasis on salmonella in the 1980s might partly reflect increased media coverage of the issue during that time.

Discussion and Takeaways: Rethinking Our Relationship with Urban Wildlife

This study offers more than just a history of bird feeder design. It provides a new lens through which to view our relationship with urban wildlife and the objects we create to interact with nature.

The researchers argue that by studying these everyday objects, we can gain insights into larger questions of how humans decide which animals to welcome into our spaces and which to exclude. The evolution of bird feeder design reflects changing attitudes towards different species – from the initial focus on helping small birds survive harsh winters to later concerns about keeping out “nuisance” species like pigeons.

Moreover, the study challenges the traditional separation between environmental history and the history of technology. The bird feeder emerges as a “multispecies technology” – an object shaped not just by human designers but by the behaviors and needs of various animal species and even microscopic organisms like salmonella.

This perspective invites us to reconsider other objects in our environment. How might other seemingly simple technologies be shaped by complex interactions between humans and non-human actors?

The study also highlights the potential for cross-disciplinary research. By combining approaches from environmental history, design studies, and science and technology studies, the researchers were able to uncover a rich story that might have been missed by any single discipline.

Finally, the evolution of bird feeder design serves as a reminder of the unintended consequences of our interactions with nature. Every attempt to solve one problem – keeping out cats, excluding larger birds, preventing disease transmission – created new challenges and spurred further innovation.

“We argue that a birdfeeder is not essential for feeding birds, as food can simply be thrown on the ground. Birdfeeders were designed to keep unwanted guests, such as rats, corvids, or salmonella, away, so that small-sized birds can obtain more food and are kept safe,” concludes study first author and postdoctoral researcher in cultural history Heta Lähdesmäki from the University of Helsinki in a media release.

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