While bird feeding is clearly influenced by external factors, such as socioeconomic status and having access to a garden, it is also shaped by intrinsic and motivational factors. At its heart, bird feeding may be seen as a humane act, an act of kindness reflecting a wish to help a fellow creature. However, this act may be further shaped by other motivations, such as guilt or a wish to learn. Despite the obvious commercial advantages to be gained by understanding motivations for feeding wild birds, there has been relatively little work in this area and many of our assumptions about why people provide supplementary food for wild birds remain untested (Jones & Reynolds, 2008). Understanding motivations requires a considered and rigorously scientific approach; it is all too easy to inadvertently bias a response from a study subject by asking a question in the wrong way.

The work that has been done suggests that people feed wild birds for a range of different reasons driven by underlying environmental, cultural and philosophical perceptions. Many people derive pleasure from feeding wild birds and in many instances the provision of food is simply a reflection of this. Others feed because they are concerned about wild birds (and other creatures) and wish to nurture and support them. Some provide food because of the experiential knowledge that is gained, while others seek to counter the guilt that they feel over wider human impacts on the environment.

Examination of a random sample of 1,000 participants in BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch scheme found that ‘pleasure’, ‘contributing to the survival of wild birds’ and ‘studying behaviour’ were the top three justifications given by respondents for feeding. ‘Responding to environmental degradation’ and ‘teaching children’ were also given as reasons for feeding. Of course, participants in a citizen science scheme like Garden BirdWatch are unlikely to be representative of the wider UK public; they have sufficient interest in garden birds to have become involved in a rigorous monitoring scheme and will have been exposed to articles delivering information and messages on the practices associated with feeding wild birds. At this point it is just worth noting that the provision of supplementary food is sometimes practised for other reasons; conservation practitioners use supplementary food to enhance the survival and reproductive success of endangered species, while others use it to reduce predation pressure by provisioning predators; some use it to bring animals to sites where they can be observed or even hunted.

The provision of food at garden feeding stations, and indeed the wider participation in wildlife-friendly gardening, may also be a response to peer pressures or the development of a shared social ideal, or to the opportunities provided by having the time and/or financial resources required. The ‘luxury effect’ noted by Hope et al., Kinzig et al. and others, where wealthier neighbourhoods support greater levels of vegetation cover and have a greater richness of vertebrate taxa, may also apply to the provision of food for wild birds. We’ll return to this as we move through the next two sections.

As well as seeking to understand the motivations for feeding, it is also important to understand any concerns that those feeding wild birds may have about the practice. While some individuals may only see feeding as being beneficial – for their own interest or for the welfare of the birds themselves – others may continue to feed even if they have concerns about particular aspects of the practice. The sample of BTO Garden BirdWatch participants just mentioned were also asked whether they had any concerns about feeding and, if so, what these might be. Just under half of the respondents noted that they did have concerns; those highlighted being the risk of disease transmission, the risk of attracting predators, and the risk of attracting unwanted species to the garden.

Garden Birds (Collins New Naturalist Library, Book 140)