Feeding the birds

On our way home from the vets last week we stopped in a café to break the journey. While sitting with our sandwich we noticed that there were groups of sparrows and robins watching us expectantly. We duly obliged by tearing off bit of bread for the birds to enjoy. It was clear that the local bird population had learnt that this was a good place to hang out as it was pretty likely that they would be fed.

Looking beyond the birds, who were tame enough to eat out of your hand, I noticed the faces of the other patrons of the café. It was clear that everyone else, old and young, were enjoying doing the exact same thing. Everyone was sharing their lunches with their feathered friends and thoroughly enjoying doing so. This is a long-standing pastime which has pleased people through the ages. Feeding the ducks is a common way to spend a pleasant afternoon in the park for town dwellers and Julie Andrews sang about the pleasures in the song “Feed the birds (tuppence a bag)” in the film Mary Poppins.

It lead me to think; “Why do we enjoy feeding the animals?” This is not the same as feeding farm stock, or pets. There is clear necessity to feed these animals and there are clear rewards also in terms of produce or affection. However, we seem to get pleasure from the simple act of feeding animals. I am aware that feeding often allows us to appreciate the beauty of these animals up close, and more easily than if we did not feed them, but I think it is more than this. These were sparrows which were capturing the attention of the cafe-goers not finely plumed, exotic birds of paradise.

I think the song gives us a clue as the reasons for our pleasure. In the song we are encouraged to spend money to feed the birds because :-

Come, buy my bags full of crumbs;
Come feed the little birds,
Show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry
Their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds,
” that’s what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

The pleasure we get from this activity is primarily being able to act well, being able to be kind and benevolent. In days when the media tends to spend an inordinate amount of time reminding us how badly people can behave it was pleasant to watch people revealed a truer aspect of our nature. As a species we have an inbuilt tendency and nature to want to help and care for others; not just for ourselves, our family and friends, but of all other people and even for animals of other species. It is in our nature to do this and it is very important to us. We need to be thought of as good we can not exist without it.

When I worked as a doctor I saw many people coping with a whole variety of differing illnesses. I was struck by how well people endured these. No matter how painful and distressing, no matter how disabling or disfiguring, the vast majority of people soldiered on bravely. Thoughts of suicide, and requests for euthanasia, were remarkably rare. On the other hand when I attended patients with depressive disorders the situation was much worse. When these patients were troubled by ideas of guilt or shame, when they felt isolated and removed from the affections of others, when they no longer felt themselves to be good people thoughts and acts of suicide became distressingly common.

As a species we need to feel that we are viewed as good. We need to know we are worthy of affection and love. We gain a lot more pleasure from being benevolent than through gratitude, as they say, it is better to give than receive. Feeding the birds reminds us of this important side to our nature. It is probably true to say that without the knowledge that we can be ‘good’ life is not worth living.


I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Acts 20:35

3 thoughts on “Feeding the birds

  1. I see the same thing on everyone’s faces when we have a Baptism at our parish. The child is brought down the center aisle and no matter what everyone has a huge grin on. That is a lovely little bird, not common here.

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