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Clark, D. N., D. N. Jones, and S. J. Reynolds. 2019. Exploring the motivations for garden bird feeding in south-east England. Ecology
and Society 24(1):26. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-10814-240126
Exploring the motivations for garden bird feeding in south-east England
David N. Clark 1, Darryl N. Jones 2 and S. James Reynolds 1,3
ABSTRACT. The feeding of wild birds in domestic gardens is one of the most widespread and popular forms of human-wildlife
interaction throughout the Western World. The increasing recognition of the benefits to human health and well-being of contact with
nature, especially in an increasingly urbanized world, reveals the need for a greater understanding of why we engage in bird feeding.
This will undoubtedly result in enhanced benefits of feeding to both people and to the biodiversity it supports. Our study aimed to
explore the motivations behind wild bird feeding in south-east England through both qualitative and quantitative approaches. This
involved a two-phase process: first, the dimensions of involvement were ascertained through semistructured interviews with 30 people
engaged in feeding. Interrogation of their responses was used to construct an online questionnaire. A total of 563 respondents completed
this survey. Analysis of their responses discerned a series of themes with the most salient being based on or directed toward: pleasure,
bird survival, nurture, education of children, and connection with nature. These findings reveal that bird feeding is underpinned by a
complex array of motivations and influences involving both personal and environmental benefits.
Key Words: food supplementation; human-wildlife interactions; qualitative surveys; questionnaire
Although the intentional provisioning of wild birds has probably
been practiced in many western countries for centuries (Cocker
and Tipling 2014, Reynolds et al. 2017, Jones 2018), until only a
few decades ago the practice was largely opportunistic and
spontaneous (Baicich et al. 2015, Jones 2018). Although there is
evidence that a more organized and planned form of wild bird
feeding became established in some parts of the United Kingdom
(UK) following prolonged periods of extreme weather in the late
1890s with the development and use of bird tables and seed
hoppers (Allen 1976, Callahan 2014), the typical practice
remained one of providing kitchen food scraps during winter, the
proverbial “crumbs on the snowy window sill” (Allen 1976). An
interpretation of historical newspaper articles from this period
indicates a clear motivation toward relieving the suffering of the
birds and improving their chances of survival (Jones 2018).
Feeding kitchen scraps to birds is still widespread but bird
provisioning in the UK, the USA, and elsewhere has developed
into a multimillion-dollar industry practiced by millions of
people. For example, approximately 60% of British households
are engaged in feeding (Fuller et al. 2008), providing an estimated
165,000 tons of seed annually to a wide range of species (Clark
2013). The popularity of the practice, actively promoted by bird
and conservation organizations, has led to a proliferation of
products and the emergence of an industry in the UK generating
approximately US$440 million annually (Clark 2013). Bird
feeding practices in the UK, i.e., the availability of seeds, seed
mixes and related products, seasonal versus year-round feeding,
the regularity, and planned nature of the provisioning, raise many
questions about the motivations of human participants.
The collective scale of private gardens in the UK represents one
of the largest of wildlife habitat types (Cannon 1999).
Supplementary feeding in gardens is potentially beneficial for
results/) and with the increasing intensification of land use in rural
areas and concurrent declines in populations of many small bird
species (Siriwardena et al. 2012), the role of gardens in providing
overwintering and breeding habitat is becoming widely
appreciated (Davies et al. 2012). Given its scale and popularity,
wild bird feeding is almost certainly the most important and
potentially malleable form of gardening for wildlife practices
(Fuller et al. 2008, Jones and Reynolds 2008). However, the
practice of bird feeding can also be detrimental to birds, for
example by facilitating transmission of diseases between birds
visiting feeding stations (Lawson et al. 2018). Thus, obtaining a
detailed and reliable perspective on the motivations associated
with bird feeding is timely (Jones 2011).
The growing appreciation of the many human benefits, both
physical and psychological, associated with various levels of
interaction with nature (Keniger et al. 2013, Cox and Gaston
2016), and a concern that in an increasingly urbanized world these
interactions are decreasing (Cox and Gaston 2018), provide
important perspectives on the need for a better understanding of
the motivations for bird feeding. There are few activities offering
a direct interaction with wild animals as straightforward as the
filling of a feeder in a private garden (Chapman 2015). The
pleasure associated with observing birds at close quarters, as well
as supporting birds, especially in winter, have anecdotally been
regarded as self-evident motivations for feeding birds (Hiesemann
1908, Soper 1965, Glue 1982). Scientific interest in these issues
has gathered pace more recently. Rollinson et al. (2003) surveyed
people feeding wildlife in Brisbane, Australia, and found that they
believed that it benefitted the wildlife recipients. Howard and
Jones (2004) were the first to investigate specifically the
motivations of people engaged in wild bird feeding using both
qualitative and quantitative surveys of the Australian feeding
public. More recently, Galbraith et al. (2014) employed a postal
survey among New Zealand feeding participants, and Schreiber
(2010) an online survey of members of the British Trust for
Ornithology (BTO) in the UK; both studies confirming that a
clear majority of respondents was motivated primarily by the
1School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK, 2Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane,
Australia, 3Army Ornithological Society (AOS), Aldershot, UK
Ecology and Society 24(1): 26
pleasure associated with feeding birds. This latter study also found
that a desire to assist birds to survive through winter, as well as
simply observing the bird’s behavior, were strong drivers.
Similarly, Chapman (2015) used a range of social science
approaches to find that garden bird feeding (again, among BTO
members) involved a strong moralistic element among the
participants, reflecting a duty of care toward the birds and an
attitude of responsibility toward their welfare.
A more detailed study by Cox and Gaston (2016) undertook an
interview-based investigation of motivations among residents
living in three towns near London in the UK. They compared
people who did not feed, those who fed irregularly, and those who
fed regularly, and found a strong relationship between level of
participation and feelings of relaxation and connectedness with
A more complete understanding of the motivations underlying
bird feeding would facilitate communication of best practice
among the bird feeding public while also developing routes for
engagement with nonbird feeding citizens. Thus, the aim of this
study was to attempt a detailed identification and analysis of all
of the major motivations for feeding wild birds that operate
alongside the themes already found. To achieve this, a
combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques was used
to question bird feeding participants in south-east England.
To explore the complexity of patterns and responses associated
with the practice of wild bird feeding, both quantitative and
qualitative approaches were employed (Robson 2002). This
mixed-methods program enhances the possibility of discerning
perspectives that were not anticipated while allowing for
subsequent statistical analyses (Bryman 2006). Both components
of the research were approved by the University of Birmingham
Human Ethics Committee (ERN/13-0160). All respondents were
over 16 years of age and residents of the UK. There was no
discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or social status although
minimum quotas of participants of both sexes and across
different age classes were required in the qualitative study. It was
assumed that respondents in the quantitative study had access to
Qualitative study: survey participants and procedure
The qualitative component was undertaken to understand the
motivations and triggers for feeding birds. Although qualitative
approaches have foundations in health, social, and education
research (Denzin and Lincoln 1998), they are increasingly being
used in conservation research, particularly when interactions
occur between humans and wildlife (Perez et al. 2011). These
approaches allow respondents to be flexible and expansive in their
answers compared to questionnaire data, which often provide
more prescriptive and closed responses to lines of inquiry
(Schuman and Presser 1979). An in-depth format was selected to
allow respondents to be interviewed at home, providing an
informal environment and context for the discussion.
Thirty in-depth interviews were performed during the winter of
2012/2013. Interviews were undertaken with adults who had fed
birds in the last week at their home. Respondents were recruited
using advertisements placed on the London Wildlife Trust (LWT)
website and in Parent and Friends newsletters of primary schools
local to DC in East Dulwich, a suburb within south-east London.
The interviews were split evenly between male and female (15 of
each), and between younger (≤ 50 years of age) and older (> 50
years of age) respondents.
A semistructured questionnaire guide was used to direct the
interviews. Responses to two main issues were sought during the
interviews: (1) the respondent’s practice of bird feeding (including
what was fed, when and how often), and (2) their motivation for
engaging in bird feeding. The duration of the interviews was
between 45 and 90 minutes. This period included a warm-up phase
to allow the respondent and interviewer to become acquainted
and sufficient time to explore the topics fully (Robson 2002). For
each of the interviews, a summary of the original notes made at
the time was completed by DC which included relevant verbatim
Quantitative study: survey participants and procedure
Quantitative information was obtained through the use of an
online questionnaire. This consisted of four sections covering: (1)
the practice of bird feeding; (2) the triggers that lead to it (what
influenced people to feed birds); (3) the possible reasons people
identified as to why they fed birds (their motivations); and (4)
standard demographic details (Appendix 1).
The questionnaire was initially tested informally with six local
bird feeding participants and apart from the correcting of
typographical errors, no revisions were made before the
questionnaire was uploaded onto the internet through the Survey
Monkey© (http://www.surveymonkey.co.uk) website. Respondents
were recruited using advertisements placed in publications and
websites of a variety of organizations including Wildlife Trusts,
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) groups, BTO
groups, and resident fora and park-friends groups. Respondents
were then emailed an outline of the project and an invitation to
participate in the survey through an attached link. These emails
also included descriptions of procedures and reassurances of
The motivations section of the questionnaire employed
(Appendix 1) a series of statements (derived from the findings of
the interviews), which respondents agreed or disagreed with on a
Likert scale of 1 to 10 where 1 = strongly disagree and 10 = strongly
agree (Weitjers et al. 2010). All statistical analyses were conducted
in R version 2.11.1 (R Core Team 2010). Chi-square tests were
used to examine differences between groups of respondents split
by age, sex, geographical location, or wildlife group membership.
Fisher’s exact tests were employed when the number of responses
was ≤ 5 at any point on the Likert scale. An alpha threshold of
0.05 was used. If statistical significance was found, posthoc
analyses using the standardized residuals identified differences
between groups. Further posthoc analyses were performed when
necessary to discern statistical significance between groups by
collapsing the contingency tables from 10 × 2 to 2 × 2 (Larson
and Farber 2010). When collapsing tables the Yates’ continuity
correction for one degree of freedom was automatically employed
Ecology and Society 24(1): 26
Upon the completion of the qualitative interviews, a detailed
subjective assessment of the notes was undertaken by DC to
identify themes for development of the subsequent questionnaire.
Identification was based on the language used (e.g., “I feed birds
for their survival” was categorized as “bird survival;” “I like to
see things grow” as “nurture;” “I see them as my pets” as
“companionship;” etc.). Evaluating the responses to the
motivations component of the interviews of bird feeding
participants indicated that many respondents often had several
motivations to which they attached different levels of importance.
Nine major motivational themes were identified from the
qualitative responses and these were incorporated into specific
questions in the quantitative questionnaire. These themes are
outlined here along with indicative quotations from respondents.
By far the most frequently mentioned motivation was that of
pleasure, with almost all interviewees mentioning this (93%, n =
28), a response equally forthcoming across age groups and
I just love watching them (female older A).
I have to say the main reason is really selfish. It’s for my
pleasure (male younger C).
This pleasure appeared to be associated with both seeing and
hearing birds. The movement, behavior, and differences between
the species all added to the response:
When I hear birdsong at the start of the day it gives me
optimism and a spring in my step (female younger A).
If there is more than one species I get engrossed, for
example watching the Greenfinches squeeze their way in
(female older B).
Several respondents spoke of how they become disconnected
from their daily tasks and routines while observing birds at their
I sit at the front watching birds. I can sit for an hour and
then my partner takes over in case I miss something. I
become oblivious to other things...it’s like when you relax
and all the stress goes out of you (male older D).
It’s like staring into a fire or when you look at a fountain
(female older C).
Fifty-seven per cent (n = 17) of respondents spoke in terms of
being motivated to aid and conserve birds, typically in terms of
nourishment, the provision of alternative food sources, or as an
aid to winter survival:
I want species to continue. It is something I can do for
nature. I can’t help out the lions in Africa but I can help
out the birds (female older D).
It is the conservation element. I want them to survive the
winter. I am aware of a need to support them especially
in an urban environment (male older C).
Connecting with nature
The theme interpreted as “connecting with nature” was the third
most mentioned motivation (40%, n = 12) with typical comments
I enjoy wildlife anywhere. It’s like bringing the
countryside to your garden (female younger B).
It’s the closest you can get to wildness (male older E).
A theme encapsulated as “nurturing” was identified as another
dimension of bird feeding:
I live on my own. The children have grown up. I have no
grandchildren. I have no job now that I am retired. I need
something to nurture, to sustain life and watch life grow
(female older B).
They are my babies (female older E).
For interviewees with children it was noted that they often spoke
of wanting their child/children to be educated about birds and
nature in their own family environment. For some this was seen
as part of a family tradition:
[I feed the birds] as education for the children (female
Having a child to pass on the tradition (female younger
Numerous respondents (33%, n = 10) expressed a degree of guilt
as to how humans have treated the environment and suggested
that feeding offered a way of making amends. These feelings
appeared to be particularly prevalent among younger
[Feeding birds is] a way of showing that there is a way
of doing something for what we humans have done (male
Now things have really changed we seem to be losing so
many species and gardens are so different and then there’s
climate change. We have to do something about it (male
We need to compensate for what we humans have done
and do (female younger E).
A separate, yet closely related, theme to this generalized
atonement was identified as personal atonement, encapsulating
a respondent’s desire to contribute personally to mitigating
environmental damage that they had personally caused:
The whole area of sustainability is important with me to
live within my resources (male older A).
A way of recycling (female younger B).
Ecology and Society 24(1): 26
The potential for some form of interaction or companionship
with birds visiting their gardens was mentioned by several
I am at home most days and they keep me company
(female older E).
To tell you the truth I don’t know what I would do without
them. I have to keep feeding them so I can attract them
(male older B).
Not Wasting Food
Finally, interviewees mentioned the provisioning of kitchen
scraps to birds to not waste food:
My grandma’s austerity is with me today. Because of
rationing and harder times, she did not waste a thing.
Feeding birds was part of this (female older F).
To not waste our food (male younger C).
Influences and Triggers
During the qualitative stage respondents were given the
opportunity to describe the influences and triggers for their bird
feeding by exploring their personal history of the pastime.
Although a large number of these were mentioned, the three most
often reported were: parents (57%), having a garden (53%), and
grandparents (43%), exemplified in the following quotations:
Dad was inquisitive and taught us to engage and look at
things. We were constantly being told about the birds
It was when we got this place. The first time that we had
a garden, it made me think about the birds (younger female).
Participants: demographics and locations
The online questionnaire was available for three months (March
to May 2013) and was completed by a total of 563 people. Of
these, 62% of respondents were female and 38% were male; 57%
were > 50 years of age and 43% were between 16 and 50 years
old. There was a distinct bias toward respondents being “white”
with 87.7% categorizing themselves as “white British” and 8.2%
as “white other;” only 2.2% of respondents described themselves
otherwise (1.9% declined to respond to this question). Although
the questionnaire was open to respondents from across the UK,
the sample was strongly biased toward London (48.1%) and the
south-east of England (29.4%). Respondents self-described their
residence as being mainly in either urban and suburban areas
(76%), or in the countryside and villages (24%). Self-assessed
garden sizes of the participants indicated that 25% had small
gardens, 45% had medium-sized gardens, and 30% had large
gardens (based on the RSPB’s criteria used in the Big Garden
Birdwatch; Chandler 2011). Approximately half of respondents
(47%) were members of environmental organizations such as the
RSPB, the BTO, or local wildlife trusts.
Feeding regularity differed across respondents with 46% stating
that they fed daily, 33% attempting to feed every day without
100% success, and 20% feeding occasionally (Appendix 1). There
was no significant gender difference in regularity of feeding (χ² =
0.84, df = 1, p = 0.66). There was, however, a significant difference
in the regularity of feeding between age groups with older
respondents being more diligent in their feeding habits (χ² = 31.96,
df = 1, p < 0.01) and being more likely to feed every day (z = 2.20,
p < 0.05) than younger respondents. Similarly, member
respondents were significantly more inclined to feed than
nonmember respondents (χ² = 25.17, df = 1, p < 0.01) and also
more likely to feed daily (z = 2.50, p < 0.05). Almost all (98.4%)
respondents fed in the winter with a reduction (to 70.5%) in
feeding during the summer. However, there was a clear majority
of respondents who fed year-round.
Motivational themes: quantitative comparison
Table 1 shows the number of online survey respondents who
answered the questions on motivational themes, and the median
score derived from the 10-point Likert Scale. The relative
significance of pleasure, bird survival, nurturing, connection with
nature, and education of children as motivators for feeding birds
is presented in Figure 1. For each of these themes, over 80% of
respondents gave very high ratings (i.e., ≥ 6). In contrast, the
themes of making amends, personal atonement, companionship,
and not wasting food had more mixed responses with a majority
receiving scores of ≤ 5 (Fig. 1).
Table 1. Median Likert scores from n respondents to a
quantitative survey (Supplementary information, Appendix 1)
investigating the motivational themes for feeding birds by the
general public in south-east England in 2012.
Motivation n Median score†
Pleasure 557 10
Bird survival 557 10
Nurture 557 9
Children’s education 185 9
Connect with nature 553 8
Making amends for environmental
Atoning for personal environmental
Companionship 552 4
Not wasting food 553 3
†The Likert scale was used from 1 to 10 where 1 = strongly disagree and
10 = strongly agree.
The statistical comparisons for the four variables of gender, age,
location, and membership status are summarized in Table 2. There
were significant differences in responses between groups split
according to these four variables: females were more likely than
males to express nurture and education of children as motivations;
members were more likely than nonmembers to express bird
survival, connecting with nature, making amends, personal
atonement, and companionship as motivations; both older
respondents and London respondents were more likely than
younger respondents and non-Londoners, respectively, to express
companionship as a motivation.
Ecology and Society 24(1): 26
Table 2. Summary of Chi-squared tests comparing frequency distributions of support for the 10 Likert scale levels for gender (male vs
female), age (< 50 years vs > 50 years), location (London vs non-London), and memberships status (member vs nonmember) in
explaining the motivations of the public feeding birds in south-east England in 2012.
Motivation Gender Age Location Membership
Pleasure NS†NS NS NS
Survival χ² = 20.14, df = 9, p < 0.05 NS NS χ² = 25.46, df = 9, p < 0.01
Nurturing χ² = 22.23, df = 9, p < 0.01 NS NS NS
Connecting χ² = 18.63, df = 9, p < 0.05 NS NS χ² = 29.30, df = 9, p < 0.01
Education NS NS NS NS
Making amends χ² = 22.71, df = 9, p < 0.01 NS NS χ² = 26.15, df = 9, p < 0.01
Personal atonement χ² = 23.35, df = 9, p < 0.01 NS NS χ² = 28.45, df = 9, p < 0.01
Companionship NS χ² = 40.91, df = 9, p < 0.01 χ² = 25.53, df = 9, p < 0.01 χ² = 32.34, df = 9, p < 0.01
Not wasting food NS NS NS NS
†NS is not significant at an alpha threshold of 0.05.
Fig. 1. Frequency distributions of respondent scores on a
Likert scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 = strongly disagree and 10 =
strongly agree) when asked about the importance of various
motivational themes (a) to (i) in their bird feeding participation
in south-east England in 2012.
Influences and triggers
There were similarities with the qualitative results in that gardens
and parents were important influences in triggering their
willingness to feed birds, indicated by 81% and 40% of
respondents, respectively. The influence of grandparents,
however, was much lower, mentioned by only 8% of respondents.
Significantly, conservation organizations, particularly the RSPB,
were nominated as the second most important influence by exactly
half of all respondents.
Continued urbanization potentially decreases opportunities for
residents to interact with nature through loss of green habitat,
breaks in connectedness of habitat, and the increasing focus on
indoor urban living (Bratman et al. 2012). Furthermore, there is
a growing concern that this disconnect leads to an extinction of
experience in future generations (Soga et al. 2015) and
environmental generational amnesia (Hartig and Kahn 2016).
This is at a time when access to nature is increasingly regarded as
a critically positive element of mental health and personal well-
being (Keniger et al. 2013, Soga et al. 2015, Cox and Gaston 2016,
Reynolds et al. 2017, Jones 2018), reducing human stress levels
(Hartig and Kahn 2016), and benefiting human cognitive
performance (Berman et al. 2008). Furthermore, human health
is arguably the most important element of ecosystem services
(Sandifer et al. 2015). Despite the continuing pressures on green
spaces in urban environments, gardens continue to be a significant
part of the total urban green area (Colding et al. 2006) with even
the smallest urban gardens able to attract birds (Burton 2000).
Birds act as a mobile link species between gardens and other green
spaces such as urban parks, helping to sustain bird populations
(Blair 1996) while adding to their value through the provision of
a diverse range of ecosystem services (Lundeberg et al. 2008).
Within this context, our study demonstrates that bird feeding has
the ability to provide a straightforward means of providing access
and connection to nature and highlights the link between gardens
and bird feeding. No other home-based activity enables regular
and direct engagement with nature with relatively little financial
investment (Jones 2011).
The most noteworthy general outcome of our study was the depth
of feeling expressed by participants, both interviewees and survey
respondents. This detection of a significant emotional component
of what is a popular and familiar pastime suggests a strong and
enduring engagement on the part of participants. During the
interviews, highly charged emotional comments such as: “I don’t
know what I would do without the birds” (female older E); “It’s
just something I do. It is part of me” (male younger D); and “I
have no-one left to nurture. They are life to me” (female older B),
were expressed. These statements are strongly indicative of the
Ecology and Society 24(1): 26
personal and positive impact of bird feeding on the lives of many
Two motivations were central to these strong sentiments expressed
in our study: the fundamental principle of the pleasure derived
from feeding, a finding common to previous studies from a range
of countries including the UK (Schreiber 2010), France (Clergeau
et al. 2001), the USA and Canada (Horn and Johansen 2013),
and Australia (Howard and Jones 2004); and the apparently
positive enhancement on bird survival, again confirming findings
from other research (Schreiber 2010, Galbraith et al. 2014,
Chapman 2015). The primary contribution of our investigation
was, however, a more detailed articulation of the various
motivations underlying participation in bird feeding in south-east
England, a capacity based on the effective combination of
qualitative and quantitative methodologies.
An important element of our approach was to attempt to elicit
the historical background to feeding from interviewees. Attitudes
toward animals are typically influenced by traditional practices
(Meng 2009) and, for some participants in this study, bird feeding
was regarded as a component of a British cultural identity.
Comments such as “I used to look forward to feeding the chickens
and then see all the little sparrows coming down” (female older
G) and “I don’t have caged birds anymore. Now they come into
my garden and see me” (female older H) displayed a personal
historical aspect to their bird feeding associated with the practices
of themselves and their own families. The keeping of domestic
fowl (Gallus domesticus) and caged birds, in particular, had been
a popular activity in the UK historically (Shaw and Fisher 1963).
Between World Wars I and II, approximately three million caged
birds were kept in the UK (Messent 1977), leading to a large
expansion in the availability of commercial birdseed mixes
conveniently purchased from supermarkets (Callahan 2014). This
commercialization and commodification of bird food for caged
birds led directly to the first products packaged explicitly for wild
birds (most notably, Swoop Wild Bird Food, which appeared in
1958; Callahan 2014). A further historical perspective was
revealed by some older respondents in our study who referred to
the motivation of not wasting food, a consequence they
recognized from food rationing in World War II and the
subsequent period of austerity (Callahan 2014).
Motivations such as companionship (initially associated with
pets) are distinctly anthropocentric compared to the more
ecocentric attitudes, which are focused on concerns for survival
or nurture (Kellert and Berry 1987). The main driver of feeding,
i.e., pleasure, is unequivocally self-orientated, yet appears to
accompany numerous other motivations. Central to the dynamic
of anthropocentric and ecocentric motivations is the expression
of a need to be close to nature. This yearning for some form of
interaction with wild-ness is rapidly emerging as a critically
positive element of mental health and personal well-being,
especially with respect to increasing levels of urbanization
(Keniger et al. 2013, Soga et al. 2015). Our results revealed that
having access to a garden was a primary trigger for feeding birds,
emphasizing the importance of gardens in facilitating access to
Furthermore, for some interviewees the practice of gardening
itself was closely connected to feeding birds and a reflection of
the nurture motivation. For instance, some respondents stated: “I
see it as part of my whole little ecosystem that I have developed
in my garden. It’s not just about the birds but growing things that
work together” (male younger E), and “I put my time and energy
into creating little habitats rather than just adding bird feeders...
more planting that is good for the birds such as berries” (male
older C). Gardening has been widely reported as important for
birds and other biodiversity (Cannon 1999, Lawton et al. 2010,
Goddard et al. 2011). Britain has been described as a nation of
gardeners (Moss 2011) with an acceleration of interest in the
practice since World War II (Constantine 1981). There are,
however, growing concerns about how householders carry out
gardening activities (Gaston et al. 2007). The tradition of having
tidy gardens, regularly mown lawns, and the removal of all weeds
and other organic material, limits the food sources and shelter for
wildlife (Yucel 2013). In response to this, Smith et al. (2011) noted
the need for wildlife-friendly garden design and practice, and
many environmental organizations and agencies are now
providing detailed advice on best-practice for this type of
gardening (e.g., Toms and Sterry 2008).
Our study also found that children’s education was an important
motivator for respondents with children. Beck et al. (2001)
reported a relationship between increased knowledge and interest
in wild birds and parental involvement; there is strong evidence
that positive attitudes toward nature in general can be formed by
experiences in childhood (Cheng and Monroe 2012) and by the
frequency of these experiences (Thompson et al. 2008).
Furthermore, a childhood interest in birds can lead to an
enhanced concern for conservation in adulthood (Cannon 1999).
Providing access to nature and thus creating positive
environmental attitudes may be critical in improving the prospects
of urban biodiversity and human well-being (Cheng and Monroe
2012). The challenge is dealing with a potential decrease in
positive regard for wildlife associated with loss of contact with
nature and changes in the amount of freedom children have to
engage and explore outdoors (Balmford et al. 2002). Bird feeding,
therefore, provides an accessible and home-based means for
children to be exposed to nature (Cannon 1999).
This study found several significant differences between men and
women in terms of their motivations to feed birds. One possible
driver may be the increased need to nurture in women recognized
as a key difference between the genders in many studies (e.g., van
Esterik 1997, Stark 2002). Women were also more expressive in
describing their emotions toward bird feeding being more likely
to “forget what they are doing” (according to several respondents)
and more likely to describe the experience in quasi-spiritual terms,
findings, which coincide with many studies highlighting women
as being more emotionally expressive than men (e.g., Stark 2002).
The differences found for the bird feeding motivations of pleasure,
bird survival, connecting with nature, and atonement for
individual environmental damage may also be partly explained
by men being more likely to display a use of less expressive
language toward the environment (Kellert and Berry 1987,
Cooper and Smith 2010).
Although participation in bird feeding has been found to be
associated with age (Galbraith et al. 2014), it may be more
appropriate to study motivations at different stages of life (e.g.,
establishment of first home, having family, retirement) rather than
at predefined age boundaries. The age discriminators in this study
were determined by simply dividing equally our qualitative
Ecology and Society 24(1): 26
interviewees into two broad age categories. We found that
differences in motivations between these age cohorts were not as
pronounced as between the sexes. There were also no differences
between age cohorts in the principal motivations of pleasure, bird
survival, nurture, children’s education, and connection with
nature. This concurs with other environmental studies (Buttel and
Flinn 1978, van Liere and Dunlap 1980, Samdahl and Robertson
1989) in which age was not a good discriminator. There were
differences between other motivations in which the older age
cohort was more likely to feed for companionship and atone for
individual environmental damage. Although not explicitly
investigated during our study, it is plausible that older respondents
were more likely to be living alone. Thus, the desire for
companionship was more keenly felt in this age cohort of
respondents. Older respondents were also more inclined to feed
compared to younger respondents. There were much poorer
response rates from the age groups up to 30 years of age and thus
age as a discriminator was almost certainly undermined. Given
the expected influence that younger people will have societally
and politically in the future, we concur with many others (e.g.,
Cheng and Monroe 2012, Keniger et al. 2013, Soga et al. 2015)
that further research is urgently required within this younger age
There was little difference in motivations between respondents
residing in London compared to elsewhere although the latter
were more likely to report companionship as a motivator, perhaps
indicating their perceived or real degree of isolation. However,
there were marked differences between respondents who were
members of environmental groups and those who were not.
Member participants were significantly more motivated to feed
birds for pleasure, to assist bird survival, to connect with nature,
to atone for societal and individual environmental damage, and
We found the motivations for feeding birds to be
multidimensional, involving nine major motivational themes:
pleasure, bird survival, connecting with nature, nurture, educating
children, making amends, personal atonement, companionship,
and not wasting food. Garden bird feeding in south-east England,
and, we would contend, throughout the UK, has deep complex
cultural roots, which have been formed through historical
relationships between humans and birds through domestication,
pet ownership, garden stewardship, and an innate need to be close
to nature. Our motivations to feed reflect this complexity
displaying both altruistic and selfish motivations expressed in
ecocentric and anthropocentric terms. Understanding these
motivations is particularly pertinent at a time when human society
is becoming more urbanized and apparently distanced from
nature. We believe that the practice of bird feeding is an important
part of the cultural aspect of ecosystem services and is a
comparatively simple way of connecting with nature. We also
demonstrated the usefulness of combining qualitative and
quantitative techniques in enhancing the depth of responses
provided by its participants. We acknowledge that further
research is required with younger respondents both qualitatively
and quantitatively, that life stage rather than age per se would be
a more appropriate discriminator and that there is a need to
understand in greater depth the meaning of pleasure in relation
to wild bird feeding.
Responses to this article can be read online at:
We are grateful to Professor Graham Martin, Dr. Dan
Chamberlain, and Dr. Richard Burkmar for advice and guidance.
Neil Gladner, Vice President of Wild Bird Centers America,
Washington, D.C., USA, Dr. David Horn at Millikin University,
Decatur, IL, USA, Dr. Diane Kuehn of the SUNY College of
Environmental Science and Forestry, Albany, NY, USA, and Martin
George at CJ Wildlife, Upton Magna, UK all furnished useful
information and provided encouragement. Matthew Coles and
Sophie Johnson at HPI Research, London, UK provided useful
advice about the research methodology. The London Wildlife Trust
(in particular Mathew Frith) and the BTO (in particular Penny
Williams) were instrumental to the success of the project in
providing access to their members. Finally, we thank all of the people
who kindly took part as participants in the study.
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Appendix 1. Quantitative research questionnaire.
1. This questionnaire is for people who have fed wild birds at home in their gardens or
on their balcony in the last 6 months in south-east England.
It takes around 10 minutes to fill in and is part of a scientific thesis centered on
Your participation in the research is voluntary. You may choose not to participate and
you may withdraw participation at any time. There are no penalties for not
participating or for withdrawing at any time.
Protecting your privacy is paramount and no participants will be identified within the
research; names and addresses are not required. Once the survey questions are
submitted you will not be able to withdraw from the study and by completing the
survey you will have consented for the data to be included within the study. If you are
interested in receiving a summary of the research findings after the dissertation is
completed (i.e. after the end of August 2013), please contact the researcher Mr David
Clark at: email@example.com.
Clicking on the `agree` button below indicates that:
You have read the above information
You voluntarily agree to participate
If you do not wish to participate then please click on the `disagree` button.
When do you feed birds in your garden / on your balcony?
Tick All That Apply
How often do you feed the birds in your garden / on your balcony?
I try to feed every day but not with 100% success
What do you feed birds in your garden / on your balcony?
Please Tick All That Apply
Sliced fruit and / or vegetables
Your own prepared food for the birds
Other: Please Specify
Who or what was the most important influence for you in starting to feed birds in your
Please tick one box
RSPB/ BTO / Wildlife Trust / conservation organisation
Newspapers / television / magazines
Having a garden
Other: please specify
Were there any other influences for you in starting to feed birds?
Tick as many as that apply
RSPB/BTO/Wildlife Trust/conservation organisation
Newspapers / television / magazines
Having a garden
Other: please specify
How long have you been feeding birds in your garden?
Less than 5 years
More than 5 years
Nearly all of my life
These statements are about finer details of feeding birds. Please indicate how much
you agree with them where:
10 = strongly agree
1 = strongly disagree
I have a duty to feed the birds that come to my home
There is something spiritual about feeding the birds
Feeding birds is my way of making up for all the damage we humans have done to the
Feeding birds is part of what I am and do
Feeding birds is a way that I can connect with nature
I like to think of the birds I feed as my birds
I feed birds to help them survive
Feeding birds for me is a way of not wasting food
Feeding birds is a way of making up for any damage I am doing to the environment
Feeding birds gives me pleasure
Sometimes I think that I would be lost without the birds, they are my friends
I like to nurture living things
If you have children at home, how much do you agree with the following statement?
10 = strongly agree
1 = strongly disagree
If you do not have children at home please go to question 10.
I feed the birds for my children to be educated about natural things
Thinking about your feelings about feeding birds, how much do you agree with the
10 = strongly agree
1 = strongly disagree
It makes me feel grown up feeding the birds in the garden
It’s not so much the type of bird but how many birds that I attract which makes me
It gives me a warm glow inside
I have no strong feelings about feeding birds; it`s just something I do
Seeing many different types of birds in the garden makes me feel happier than how
I sometimes forget about what I am doing when I watch the birds in my garden
I get excited seeing a new type of bird in my garden
I feel proud that I have done something for nature and the environment
Which three birds do you most like attracting by feeding?
Please list three
Which three birds do you least like feeding?
Please list three
Do you feed any other animals in your garden or on your balcony?
If so please list which animals
Male / female
16 – 19
20 – 30
31 – 40
41 – 50
51 – 60
61 – 70
How large is the area in which you feed?
Small from balcony size to around 10 × 12 metres
Medium up to 10 × 25 metres
Large above 10 × 25 metres
Which best describes where you live?
An urban centre
What is your postcode?
Are you a member of the BTO / the RSPB / a local Wildlife Trust?
Please indicate to which occupational group the main income earner of your
household belongs, or to which of the groups they best fit.
Please tick one
Owner or director of business
Administration / clerical
Skilled manual work
Semi and unskilled manual work
Student / full time education
To which of these groups do you consider you belong?
White - other
Black - Caribbean
Black - African
Black - other
Would rather not say
Other: please specify
Thank you for your time and efforts in completing this questionnaire. They are much