Monday, July 31, 2017

Welcome to Winged Wardens

Welcome to this six-year on-and-off blog project documenting pre-Audubon movement bird protection discourse in the agricultural papers of North America. This part of the project is now complete, though I'm continuing to spin off presentations and articles. I'll be developing a book proposal over the coming months. Meanwhile, new visitors, please start at the beginning with the comprehensive index to links (also on the side-bar to the right).

Friday, July 28, 2017

Epilogue 3. From "Spare the Birds" to the Audubon movement

In an August 1866 article, the American Agriculturist announced that the project of bird protection was complete.
The indiscriminate shooting of birds, formerly so common, allowed insects to get a fine start. The agricultural press, ours among the rest, joined in the cry "spare the birds." The appeal had its effect; insects are much less destructive than they were a few years ago. 
Indeed, pondered the editor, perhaps the project had been too successful. Referencing the debate at the January meeting of the Illinois Horticultural Society, he wondered whether increased bird populations now threatened fruit crops.

Given the wave of legislation in the 1850s and 1860s, it was reasonable to believe that the protection of insectivorous birds had been secured. T.S. Palmer, one of the few commentators about this era of small bird laws, however, believed that ultimately these laws failed in their aim. Compliance was low and there weren't sufficient resources to enforce them. While this probably varied from state to state (there is at least anecdotal evidence of bird law enforcement in Massachusetts), the laws were certainly not strong enough to cope with the plume hunting to come.

"Spare the birds!" however, endured as a rallying cry into the dawn of the Audubon movement. As Caroline Merchant  (2016) notes, George Bird Grinnell, founder of the first Audubon Society, used the language repeatedly in articles about threats to birds published in his sportsmen's journal, Forest and Stream. The elements of Grinnell's famous September 13, 1883 editorial, "Spare the Swallows," should be very familiar (specific millinery threat excepted) to readers of this blog.
SPARE THE SPARROWS.--The milliners now demand the breasts and wings of swallows for decorating ladies' hats. To supply the call thousands of these birds are killed by agents of the millinery taxidermists. The birds that nest under the eaves or fly in at the diamond-shaped swallow hole, ought not to be sacrificed to this new whim of woman. Spare the swallows. Their companionship about the barn is something--it ought to be worth more than the lucre to the fellow who shoots them for gain. If sentiment has no restraining influence there are other considerations; the swallows are insectivorous; their value as destroyers of noxious insects cannot be estimated. The farmer cannot afford to have his fleet-winged allies destroyed by the shiftless ne'er-do-well who shoots them for gain. The laws forbid the killing of insectivorous birds; let the laws be enforced. There are many honest ways to earn a living in this country; shooting barn swallows for millinery shops is not one of them. [my emphases]
The next issue of Forest and Stream (September 20, 1883) featured a poem ("Spare the Swallows") by Isaac McLellan directly inspired by Grinnell's editorial.

A longer Grinnell editorial the following year ("The Sacrifice of Song Birds," August 7, 1884) fleshed out his argument and presented the call to action that would eventually lead to bird protection organizing.
...This is not purely a matter of sentiment. But suppose it were. It is the sentiment of those who are cheered in their pursuit of pleasure and at their toil by the grace and beauty and melody of the birds, a sentiment shared by millions of men and women and children who dwell in the country. For it and for them we propose to proclaim the magnitude of this slaughter, and the enormity of the offense of these bird butchers, who are indecently outraging the rights of country dwellers. There are sentiments more powerful than cupidity. Would that we could array the sentiment of bird lovers in this country against the greed of the league who are waging war on the birds. Unless we have very greatly erred in our estimate of the strength of that feeling, such an awakening of public indignation would end, once and for all, the occupation of the song-bird skinners; and we would not care to ask for the FOREST AND STREAM a more honorable task than to voice the feelings of its country readers on this subject. 
But it is yet very far from being wholly a matter of sentiment. He is an ignorant and sadly deficient tiller of the soil who, in these days, lacks appreciation of the services of the birds on his land, as faithful friends, in their unwearied war upon the insect hordes that prey on tree, and grain, and fruit; but just how many millions of dollars we owe to the birds for such services is not known, nor can be known to the most earnest students of the subject. It is beyond all estimate.
This milliners' campaign against the birds strikes directly at the farmer. Diminution of insectivorous birds is always surely and swiftly followed by an increase in the hordes of noxious insect pets. By one of the immutable laws of nature, destruction of birds means the destruction of crops. The shiftless fellow, too lazy to earn an honest living, who skulks about the fields and woods, killing swallows, larks and pewees, should be treated just exactly as we treat the wretch who burns barns and steals horses. His dastardly work is altogether too expensive. It is a hard price for farmers to pay for feminine feathered finery.
Grinnell announced the formation of an Audubon Society, "dedicated to halt the decline of American birds by arousing public sentiment" in the February 11, 1886 issue of Field and Stream. Two issues later (February 25, 1886), the journal would feature a series of bird protection items including Frank Chapman's famous count of the birds on ladies' hats ("Birds and Bonnets"), a model bill from the AOU for bird protection, endorsements of the Society by the likes of John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Ward Beecher, and another poem by Isaac McLellan, "Spare the Birds."

While Grinnell's own Audubon Society was short-lived, the Audubon movement, aided by the growing sophistication of marketing communication strategy at the turn of the century, would finally achieve its aims of bolstering public sentiment in favor of birdlife and passing national legislation protecting it.

The "useful bird" and "spare the birds" frames lingered into the 20th century. Indeed, the inspiration for Winged Wardens came from my investigations into the history of themes associated with the William T. Hornaday/Thornton W. Burgess Green Meadow Club Bird Sanctuaries campaign in the People's Home Journal. My simple web search for "Birds are the farmer's best friends" turned up stories in agricultural papers, which turned up Bradley's 3360 caterpillars, which led me to Bradley's original story and I was off and running. I hope this blog, and any future published versions, help to fill in the pre-Audubon history of bird protection in the United States.

With that, I will close with an image from the Green Meadow Club campaign. Harrison Cady's (1921) take on the "Winged Wardens" theme.

Harrison Cady, The People’s Home Journal, September 1921.



Thursday, July 27, 2017

Epilogue 2: Spare the Sparrow?

Way back at the beginning of this project, I suggested that "Bradley says a pair of house sparrows destroys 3360 caterpillars a week" helped to change the North American bird landscape, "not necessarily for the better." Here's where the story gets ironic. 

As discussed in an earlier post, house sparrows had been imported to the U.S. in the early 1850s as part of a larger effort to establish British species in America and as a means of insect control. Remember that Bradley's correspondent said that other species were surely more important in this respect than house sparrows. Regardless, in the 1860s importation ramped up. The apparent early success of the sparrow in eradicating inchworms in city parks encouraged their widespread distribution throughout the U.S. in the 1870s, despite protests by some ornithologists. But in the 1880s, they were increasingly identified as an agricultural pest and a threat to native cavity nesting birds such as the eastern bluebird, and the prevailing opinion switched from import to eradication. 


In the agricultural press, discourse about the house sparrow was mixed. While Bradley's "3360 caterpillars" was repeated again and again, an occasional warning about the bird's injury to grain fields in Europe would appear (e.g. "The Hedge Sparrow" in the New England Farmer, November 1855). In March 1862 ("Protecting the Birds") the Horticulturist reported positively on efforts by the Common Council of Brooklyn to import the birds; in September 1862 it reprinted comments by the entomologist Isaac P. Trimble at a meeting of the Brooklyn Horticultural Society strongly warning against importation--the simple examination of their beaks immediately indicated that they were primarily seed eaters. 


But even Trimble (New England Farmer, September 1867) would concede their possible value in the late 1860s, as trees in cities such as New York and New Haven appeared clear of worms. A correspondent to the Gardener's Monthly (March, 1868) exhorted farmers and fruit-growers to import sparrows "without delay." The American Agriculturist (August, 1868) introduced the house sparrow in its "Boys and Girls' Columns" as "Our New Policeman." The Ohio Farmer (Jan 9, 1869) reprinted William Cullen Bryant's "Old World Sparrow" under the headline "A plea for the birds."

In recognition, though, of the species's potential for trouble, a ghoulish sub-theme began to creep into discussion about the bird. On May 13, 1869, the Cultivator and Country Gentleman included advice from northern Italy: One means of leveraging insect consumption during the breeding season while limiting grain destruction would be to "destroy all broods after fledging until the last one." A correspondent to the same journal ("What should we do without the birds," May 5, 1870), suggested that "we should eat them" when their numbers grow too big. The editor of the Gardener's Monthly (November, 1871) noted "that when the time comes for them to put on airs, as come it will, 'a new departure,' can much more easily be inaugurated for them than for other troublesome things." These are the places a wholly utilitarian perspective on birdlife will take you...


By the mid-1870s there were warning signs that house sparrows were not going to be easily managed. The introduction of house sparrow into Australia, for example, was not going well. The Cultivator and Country Gentleman (June 11, 1874) reported that "
native birds, many of them insect eaters, have been driven away from gardens by the the pugnacious sparrows, through the rapacity of which, small fruits are devoured in a manner not before witnessed." A Brooklyn farmer, in a paper read before the New York Farmer's Club, called them "altogether the most unmitigated pest with which I ever had to contend" and cursed "the person who first suggested the idea of importing these birds [to] be doomed to an everlasting itching, without the benefit of scratching." (Rural Carolinian, September, 1874)


As anti-sparrow opinion, led by the ornithologist Elliot Coues, increased, rhetoric used in the earlier bird protection movement was deployed in defense. Henry Ward Beecher, early supporter of bird protection legislation, in one of his "Star Papers" in The Christian Union ("Sparrows to the Rescue," August 8, 1877) accused Coues of "treason" and warned that he would "be known in the kingdom of birds as a public foe."  T.M. Brewer, Coues's chief ornithological nemesis, called for "Justice for the Sparrow" in a December 1877 letter to the Boston Advertiser. Robert B. Roosevelt (Teddy's nature-loving uncle) implored readers to "Spare the Sparrow" in an October 10, 1878 Forest and Stream article. While the pro-sparrow side may have won the so-called "sparrow war" in the short-term, ultimately state-level laws promoting the sparrow's eradication emerged. 

A perfect example of the ways in which the mythical "killing birds causes insect apocalypse" narrative was used uncritically in support of the house sparrow comes from an article in the New York Times (July 9, 1883)
It is not impossible that the old story so charmingly told by LONGFELLOW in his "Birds of Killingworth" may be repeated with variations when the present warfare upon the English sparrows is pushed to the bitter end. There has been so much said for and against this little feathered alien that it is useless now to continue the discussion. Several communities are trying the experiment of exterminating the unpopular birds, and facts must eventually be cited in place of theories. The first return from the sparrow side of the controversy comes from the region of Reading, Penn., where the farmers complain that since the slaying of the birds, under the authority of a legislative enactment, there has been a marked increase in the ravages of the Hessian fly and wheat worm. The farmers say that the sparrows ate the destructive insects which now prosper under the new dispensation. The theory of the anti-sparrow people is that the native birds have been driven away by the quarrelsome strangers. If this be true, the farmers must wait until the natives find out that their foreign enemies are destroyed. Then they will return in jubilee. Meanwhile, the Hessian fly and the wheat-worm must be endured by way of concession to native Americanism in ornithology. 
The Reading Times (July 10, 1883) responded caustically:

Of course there is no ground whatever for the story. The farmers are not making war upon the sparrows, the wheat fields are not materially injured by the Hessian fly and wheat worm, though there is no telling what might happen were the sparrows exterminated under the new law which only received the signature of the Governor a few days ago.
The idea, however, that persecution of the house sparrow might have been driven in part by nativist prejudice, has re-emerged in critical theory circles as part of the general rethinking of the concept of "invasive species." Populations of house sparrows have declined so rapidly in England that nesting boxes are built just for them. Populations are also in decline in the United States, and it is an interesting question whether we will miss them if they disappear altogether. Meanwhile, this is probably the right time to admit that the image of European starlings in the background of this blog is altogether intentional. Winged Wardens indeed.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Epilogue 1: American Entomology and "The Bird Question" (Prairie Farmer 1860s)

W. Conner Sorenson, in his 1995 book, Brethren of the Net: American Entomology 1840-1880, highlights the role of agricultural periodicals in the development of entomology as a practical science. He argues that the most successful entomologists of this era were skilled writers and public speakers, able to effectively communicate the importance of their field to farmers, legislators, and the general public. Sorenson notes that the rise of destructive insects was probably due to the practice of monoculture (insects feeding on a particular crop would multiply when that crop became abundant) and the weakening of soil (and the subsequent weakening of plants' resistance) by continuous intensive farming. Some basic changes in farming practices might have, by themselves, helped reduce insect depredations.

Nevertheless, the foundational "balance of nature" thinking among both entomologists and editors of agricultural papers gave a special place to the insect-bird relationship. Sorenson calls this "the bird question" and implies this locution was in popular usage; as far as I can tell, however, it wasn't widely used. This was essentially the project of economic ornithology, driven by debates in horticultural societies about the destructiveness of certain bird species.


By 1860 Illinois was the leading agricultural state in the U.S. Its bird law passed in 1859, protecting by name: "blue bird, swallow, martin, mosquito hawk, whippoorwill, cuckoo, woodpecker, cat bird, brown thrasher, red bird, hanging bird, rice bird, sparrow, wren, hummingbird, dove, goldfinch, and mocking bird." The Prairie Farmer, operating out of Chicago, covered the region and quickly became a major voice in agricultural circles. During the late 1860s, the Farmer hosted a vigorous debate about useful vs. destructive birds stimulated by a particularly bird-hostile report to the Alton Horticultural Society (south-west Illinois) in 1865. Some would "protect all birds" the report stated, but with fruit growers "it is a matter of dollars and cents." The group on a motion voted to "destroy the Baltimore Oriole, Cherry Birds, Cat Bird, Jay Bird, Sap-sucker, and his kindred." (November 18, 1865).

In 1866,Frank Starr of Alton made his case before the Illinois Horticultural Society. Contrasting "poetical" vs. "practical" farmers, he argued that the "poetical" side had been too influential in informing policy and that practical sense about birds and their depredations should receive more consideration. The "practical" farmer, for example, did not believe in the "harmony of nature," but nevertheless, recognized most species of birds as useful friends. If careful study showed, however, that certain species were on the whole harmful to fruit, those deserved to be destroyed. The ensuing debate was published in full in the Society's Transactions and in part in the Prairie Farmer (January 20, 1866).

George Washington Minier of Tazewell, who had published previous defenses of birds, strongly questioned Starr's conclusions. He demanded that Starr identify the birds marked for destruction. For his part:

I know there is a utilitarian principle that would destroy everything that does not minister to the immediate necessities of man. But it strikes me that there are other things quite as important as that, which minister to our necessities here…I know very few birds that I would be willing to pronounce sentence against. I love the birds--I love their songs. I never enjoy myself better than when with them. I know they destroy the cherries, but I planted those trees partly for them.
E.S. Hull of Alton, who had made the original motion, repeated the destructive bird list and detailed the depredations done by the species listed. Some members condemned the motion, threatening to leave the Society if the motion passed. F. K. Phoenix of Bloomington, claimed

I do not believe there are any resolutions like this, any where, gotten up by any intelligent body of men, outside of Alton. (Laughter). I would hate to belong to such a body of men. Do not let us go butchering the birds in the name of this Society. If the gentlemen of Alton wish to go to killing the birds, do not let them ask me to do any thing of the kind, and for one I cannot vote for such action. 
Frank Starr was offended by this response and other members supported the shooting of depredators, even suggesting other birds (robins) go on the list. The debate stalled and Hull moved that the Society study the matter for an additional year before voting. While the Illinois Horticultural Society ultimately found some birds on the Alton list to be on the whole beneficial, it now framed the usefulness of birds as an open question. 

Entomologists were in a good position to help answer this question, and showed little patience with over-generalizations and what they perceived to be sloppy science.  On May 9, 1868, the editor of the Prairie Farmer made a strong "spare the birds" plea, citing an 1862 exhibition in Paris of bird stomach contents as evidence that birds were useful. The influential Illinois entomologist, Benjamin D. Walsh, would have nothing of it. Writing in direct response on May 30, Walsh complained that such stomach content studies were useless if the insects found were not sufficiently understood. He characterized the typical fallacious reasoning as follows:
Bugs are all of them a nuisance. My birds kill bugs. Therefore my birds are all little Angels of Light.
But in fact, entomological study had shown that not all insects were harmful and many (dragonflies, e.g.) were themselves insect destroyers. The best evidence of the flaws in the French study was the fact that birds' consumption of spiders was regarded as a positive. He concluded
neither with birds nor with bugs can we lay down any infallible and universal rule....As with human beings, the characters of most kinds of birds are of a mixed nature, partly good and partly bad...
Even if aesthetic aspects were included, birds were not necessarily more beautiful than insects, they were just easier to see. 

As economic ornithology matured during the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s, it would take these entomological insights into consideration. Nevertheless, in Forbush's crowning report in 1905, there were no bird species marked for destruction. Even the yellow-bellied sapsucker was spared, not because it wasn't on the whole harmful but because it didn't breed in Massachusetts, the locus of the report.

The "usefulness" argument for protecting birds was a strong one that appealed to audiences whether they "loved" birds or not. As Dorsey (1998) argues, the perceived importance of insectivorous and weed seed-eating birds for the nation's food security during World War I was ultimately responsible for the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and its approval by the Supreme Court. But it is a precarious argument in an era defined by pesticides. While recent studies in the area of "ecological services" have demonstrated that, in fact, even by modern scientific standards, some species of birds can be shown to be effective in controlling some species of harmful insects in some contexts, there is no returning to blanket statements about birds' usefulness. It is important in coming years that new strong arguments with broad appeal are developed in support of bird protection that don't rely on this concept alone, lest the Migratory Bird Treaty Act itself become history. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Longfellow's "Plea for the Birds" (1863)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's highly anticipated Tales of a Wayside Inn was published on November 25, 1863. Among the poems in the collection was "Birds of Killingworth," from which this blog gets its name. We have finally arrived at the end of this project (though there will be a few epilogue-style posts to come).

In celebration of this fact, I have prepared an annotated version of the poem, making links between it and various posts on this blog, via the open-source annotation service, hypothesis. One point of note: historians of the poem have assumed that Longfellow was accurate when recalling the inspiration of poem. He reported that it was based on legislative debate in Connecticut about a bounty on blackbirds. In fact, I am convinced that the inspiration was debate on the small bird law in 1851. Please read the annotations for details.

Annotated Birds of Killingworth.

The poem, which also appeared in the December issue of The Atlantic, was immediately recognized as a major contribution to the bird protection effort. The editors of Well's Commercial Express, a statistics-oriented Chicago paper, printed a long excerpt on December 9. The front page announced this fact:

This paper is not much given to poetry, but such a strain as that in which the ripe scholar and truly American poet LONGFELLOW pleads for the birds (see page 7) should find readers in every human habitation. An article of bare fact and no poetry, which may therefore operate more strongly with some minds in favor of the birds, will also be found in our columns this week.
The factual article was a piece on British economic ornithology drawn from the American Agriculturist, titled "Looking into birds' stomachs." On page 7, the paper reprinted 7 1/2 stanzas from "Birds of Killingworth" under the headline "Plea for the Birds." The extract comprised the speech the preceptor gives before the town committee advocating the protection of birds: from the middle of the 12th stanza ("From the ballad-singers and the Troubadours") to the end of the 19th stanza ("And crying havoc on the slug and snail"). In other words, the poeticized, fictional plea based on decades of "spare the birds" stories was drawn into the very public sphere it depicted. 

From this point on, Longfellow's poetic condensation of bird protection discourse would be deployed as a resource by advocates and would need to be taken into account by opponents. For example, a correspondent to the Country Gentleman (O.H. Peck, "Bird Shooting," September 14, 1865), invoked the poem to endorse his own religious-based condemnation of "he who sacrilegiously murders God's forest choir." In the same year, a revisionist fruit-grower at the Illinois Horticultural Society invoked Longfellow's poem in order to dismiss its conclusions as "poetic license," representative of the "poetical...beauty-filled" farmer not the practical farmer. (Prairie Farmer, March 4, 1865). 

Eventually "Birds of Killingworth" would be canonized as a key poem for school children to recite during "Bird Day" in the Audubon movement era. (see Angela Sorby, 2011). 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"Every farmer should be an ornithologist" Country Gentleman (1859-1860)

For the April 14, 1859 issue of the Country Gentleman, assistant editor Samuel Lane Boardman, of Brookdale Farm (near South Norridgewock), Maine, contributed an article on "The Wild Goose." Fascinated by the topic of migration, he noted with dismay a surprising lack of knowledge and interest among his fellow farmers about birdlife.
There is no class so ignorant in regard to the history and habits of birds as are our agriculturists. A lover of ornithology who is obliged to be shut up amid brick walls, and whose only knowledge is derived from works on natural history, may envy the farmer who has so excellent an opportunity for obtaining information—whose whole life, it would seen, is passed amid the songs and birds, and whose daily employment is with them and their habitations. And one would think that a person spending so much time in the country, would be well informed in all matters that pertains to birds. But it is not so…The great majority of our farmers…know but little of birds. They can indeed tell a crow, but do not know the song of a robin from a wren, and hardly can tell between a blue jay and a wood-pecker. They know that birds leave our cold New-England in winter, and return in summer, but at what time they come go and come they know not. In fact, the farmers of our country pass the whole summer in the midst of the songs of birds, from morn till night, not a moment but what some songster is warbling for the praise of his Creator; and yet they don’t hear it. Every farmer should be an ornithologist…
Indeed, Boardman believed that farmers, just by keeping an account of the comings and goings of particular species, could make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. He cited Samuel P. Fowler ("a writer of considerable note on ornithology"), who had recently returned to contributing articles to the New England Farmer.

In the spirit of increasing ornithological knowledge and enthusiasm among farmers, Boardman, writing under the initials "S.L.B." contributed regular articles about North American birdlife to the Country Gentleman throughout 1860, including accounts of winter birds, the usefulness of wrens, and birdsong. While he drew descriptions of birds from personal experience, his accounts were largely based on existing written sources. This would get him into trouble.


One problem was nomenclature. The name "snow bird," for example, which Boardman, drawing from Wilson Flagg, associated with the chickadee in an article on winter birds, was often used for the junco. Indeed we have seen this confusion before in which an image of boys trying to catch "snow birds" (juncos) brought to mind the song about the "snow bird" (chickadee). One reader, writing on April 26, was befuddled. Which was which? Were the birds he knew as snow birds (juncos) really called "chickadees?" Then what should he call the tiny bird in the following story?


When I was but a few spans high in stature, my old grandfather used to tell me a great many stories about the chickadee, and their sending presents of cake to little boys & girls &c., &c., and then he used to bring me chickadee cake, which verily looked much like grandmother’s make. This gave me an interest not yet obliterated, in these little birds. 
Boardman tried to make the nomenclature issue clearer in a short reply on May 24, but not before another writer calling himself, "A Student" contributed a long essay about the difference between the birds (published on May 31). In addition to clearing up the name issue, the writer answered other questions, about, for example the migration patterns of juncos. He closed:

Thus has the writer answered your correspondent’s interrogation—“which of these is the Chickadee?” —in so demonstrative a manner, that it is hoped he will feel satisfied. In doing this, in addition to observation, which is the study of the subject without books, the best authors have been widely consulted, and their testimony combined with personal knowledge.
Boardman had competition.

It was, however, a pair of articles (May 31 and June 21) about swallows that finally drove Boardman from the amateur ornithology business. He drew his accounts from British sources (including Gilbert White). This might have been appropriate for the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica, which he called the "house" or "chimney" swallow) and the bank swallow (the same species as the old world "sand martin") but it certainly was not for the house martin (h. urbica), which doesn't live in North America. Moreover his account of the "swift" was of the European variety, not the native chimney nester. 

A note from "Martin" on August 2 was the first to correct the house martin mistake. "A Student" followed with two responses, the first (August 16) criticizing Boardman for not including the full range of swallow species that North American farmers might encounter (what of the cliff swallow, or the violet-green swallow etc.?), the second criticizing the confusions with European birds. "A Student" didn't mince words:

[Boardman's] descriptions are singularly defective, leaving the impression on the mind of the reader, that it is hard to conceive how a farmer, who observes birds as common as the swallow tribe, could have made so many positively erroneous statements concerning their habits and appearance... 
Hence it will be seen that the importance of this department, alluded to by your correspondent at the close of his articles, will depend upon statements of facts and not upon copying descriptions from old unscientific works of a foreign country, given of birds then and there that are not known here, and applying them to birds here that are unknown abroad.…The writer has already corrected some errors that have incidentally crept into this department, prompted by the love of the subject and the desire to diffuse useful knowledge, touching one of the most interesting departments of study and observation. 
On October 4, the Country Gentleman published Boardman's (passive aggressive) response.
If the publication of an error leads to the establishment of important facts and truths, not perhaps before unknown but withheld, which confers the greater benefit, him who commits the error, or the one who corrects it? Should a writer regret the imperfection of his work, if it but gives another the opportunity to display his own learning—even if it is given in an ostentatious manner? 
"Thanking" his correspondents for their corrections, he ended 
May our STUDENT live long enough to correct the errors of such an ignoramus as “your eastern correspondent,” if ever he should again furnish an article for the “Naturalist Department” of the Country Gentleman.
Boardman would soon leave the staff of the Country Gentleman to join Ezekiel Holmes on the editorial team at the Maine Farmer.

Lest it appear that farm periodical ornithology was still generally in a primitive stage, it is important to note a series of articles that appeared in the New England Farmer under the heading "Birds of New England" from 1860 to 1862. These articles were organized taxonomically, from Vultures (#1) to Goldfinches (#24), and offered detailed anatomical and behavioral accounts of New England birds within those families. They were signed "J.A.A." These were in fact the work of a very young J. A. Allen, (1838-1921), who would soon begin his studies with Louis Agassiz at Harvard and eventually co-found the American Ornithologists' Union.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Bird Music and Agrarianism

In a July 1858 letter to the New England Farmer, "T.A.S. of Westboro'", one of the robin defenders who so incensed N. Page Jr. of the Essex Agricultural Society, directly connected love of birds and their songs to the ideal farming life:
It is strange that after so much dissemination of a broader, deeper, and more benevolent philosophy in regard to the value of the "sweet warblers of the grove," that there should be any person living under the influences of a genuine New England rural home, who can deliberately advocate the destruction of birds, especially "robin red-breast."
While there were strictly economic reasons to protect the bird, those reasons did not exhaust the robin's value.
[W]hat man is so dead to the spiritual teachings of animated nature, whose soul is so unstrung to the "music of the birds," as to find it in his heart to ruthlessly shoot them down for the paltry reason that they partake of some of the bounties of their Creator…. He who has no heart for the companionship, the joy of life and gladness with the song of birds, should forthwith seek the crowded and dusky haunts of city life.
People who couldn't appreciate bird music should leave the country.

Hagenstein, Gregg, & Donahue, in their 2011 volume, American Georgics, note that agrarianism described the fulfilling farm life in contrast to commercial motivations. Farmers focusing too much on the commercial side, too dependent on particular cash crops (like many fruit growers were), risked perverting the agrarian lifestyle. Agrarianism, unlike Romanticism (whose representatives didn't appear very often in farm papers), was nevertheless thoroughly utilitarian. Birds "cheered" farmers in their labor and provided interest and aesthetic appeal. But in T.A.S.'s account there was something more--a sense of connectedness with "Creation," a unified existence in which birdsong was not just a pretty addition but something essential and defining.

By the early 1860s, the general celebration of birdsong had taken a natural history turn. Farmers might enjoy being able to identify bird species via their distinctive songs. The Country Gentleman's prolific amateur ornithologist, "S.L.B.," for example, recommended a program for learning songs, in which one would first learn to distinguish birds visually and then focus observations on one species at a time until each song was thoroughly absorbed (1860, May 17). "Ornithologist, Bedford, Pa" (June 28) added that it was useful to observe time of day and habitat, as well as special songs sung "on-the-wing."  On May 31, "The Naturalist" cribbed a passage from Wilson Flagg (now writing regularly about birds for The Atlantic) extolling the varied repertoire of the song sparrow (Flagg's transcription of seven song sparrow themes embedded below). A few years later, C.N. Bement, (May 1863) contributed a series of articles to the Gentleman in which he sketched the vocalizations of song sparrows, song [wood] thrush, brown [thrasher] thrush, the [American] robin (don't harm them!), and the bobolink, as well as writing about the mimicry powers of the blue jay and chat.


For those who already knew the birds and their songs (e.g,"Acer", 1860, May 31), birdsong, particularly when English phrases were used as mnemonic devices, was a source of some humor.
Birds, like human beings, seem to have a great propensity for medical prescription. I have heard a Baltimore oriole very distinctly and repeatedly assert, "creosote, creosote, cure cure tooth-ache!"--and another which I now hear from my open window where I am writing, repeatedly assures me, "Liquorice, extract, cure cure cough!" The late Dr. King, who resided in the western part of New York, said that nothing was more common than for robins to perch upon the stalks at the roadside, and shout to him as he passed along on his medical visits, "kill'em! kill'em! cure'em, cure'em! give 'em physic, physic, physic!"
Sometimes the celebrations of bird music verged on the romantic. S.L. White (South Groton), writing in the New England Farmer (1862 June), integrated birdsong into the larger sonic landscape of the rural life.
The red-winged blackbird is one of our earliest, and, in my estimation, one of our best musicians. Although his song when alone is not remarkably musical, yet, when a large flock sing in concert, as they generally do in the early spring, there is a great richness in their lively and gushing melody. Flocks of these birds often sing during a rainy day in March or April, and their sweet chorus mingling with the rushing sound of the waters in the swollen streams, with the pattering of the rain-drops upon the roof, with the whispering of the warm south wind among the swelling buds of the trees and flowers, falls
"Upon the spirit like a dream
Of music on the hour of sleep." [George. D. Prentice "Morning in spring"]
Bird music was not the only nonhuman music available to soothe and interest the farmer's ear. There was also the "music of insects" (Flagg, Hovey's Magazine of Horticulture, September 1855), "frog music" (Country Gentleman, May 17 1860), and even "cat music" (Country Gentleman, June 14 1860).  Note: while the latter was discussed for its humor and cruelty ("cat organs") it did reference an interesting bit of early animal communication speculation by M.S. de Vere from his 1858 book Stray Leaves from the Book of Nature. Here's a relevant passage from that book:
Birds alone, and especially singing birds, have a genuine ear for music. As the eye may see, and yet not be able to distinguish colors, so the ear of most animals hears, but cannot discern the depth and volume of tone. But birds are the true musicians of the animal kingdom. They have, what many men lack, a genuine talent to learn and appreciate musical notes and melodies. You sing, and they will repeat, bar after bar; others listen with eager attention to a hand-organ, and, little by little, learn whole tunes; the ablest of all even imitate the songs and voices of others. (p. 253)
This quality would inspire at least one attempt at direct interaction between a farmer and birds, mediated by music. "Z.", in a letter to the Horticulturist (May 1854) wrote:
Birds love music. As I sat under a tree in front of the house, this morning, I took my flute and commenced playing a lively air. I noticed a couple of robins on a tree a few rods distant, who, as I continued playing, flew to the ground, and hopped along, stopping occasionally to listen, till they got within a few feet of me; and there they stood, turning one side of their heads toward me, and then the other, till I put up my instrument, when they flew away.
Others were content to exchange whistles with their local bobwhites. (Country Gentleman, September 10, 1863).