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). 




Monday, April 3, 2017

Children's songs and bird protection in the mid-1800s.

In 1859, the editor of the American Agriculturist, estimating 200,000 child readers in the paper's audience, ran a regular feature, "The Editor and his Young Readers." For the February issue, an artist had been commissioned to provide a wintery image to accompany the column. The editor was impressed by the quality of the resulting engraving, but not the theme: "Trapping Birds." Clearly the publication's bird protection message had not reached everyone...
[W]e confess we don't like the subject of the picture. We don't like the looks of those boys trying to catch the innocent little snow birds. If the birds knew, wouldn't they be off? One little fellow, not quite under the trap, seems to be a little suspicious of danger. He is peering about to see if any harm is near. Don't you hope he'll fly away and scare the rest too? 
The editor then turned to the children depicted in the image:
Do you quite like the appearance of the boy who holds the string, and is no doubt the head of the party? With his coat off, his trowsers tucked into his boots, and his hat set on one side, we think there is a "don't care" look about him that is not very promising. "Don't care" is a bad beginning for any boy to make. If the truth could be known, perhaps we should find him one who has left his threshing in the barn, the roof of which you can just see over the fence in the background, and taking the grain screen, he has coaxed the other boys who should be at school, to go out with him to trap the snow-birds. A boy that would trap such innocent little fellows, that do no harm and that are useless when caught, would be likely to do such tricks. 
The image provided a pedagogical opportunity. Bird trapping was a sign of poor moral character in general. These boys should not be emulated. But there was hope even for boys like these.
Some one should sing to him that sweet little song "Chick-a-dee-dee,"--written by our "Uncle Frank,"--to soften his hard nature a little. 
"Uncle Frank," occasional contributor to the Agriculturist, was Francis C. Woodworth, who published books for children and the periodical "Woodworth's Youth's Cabinet." The official title of the song, published by the periodical in 1852, was "The Song of the Snowbird." The editor strongly believed the song could work magic. The following February (1860), he inserted the entire eight-verse song and its melody in the Children's section, asserting, "We can hardly believe that any boy who sings or even reads these words, would ever after try to kill these innocent birds, as we have seen some do before now. "
click on image to see larger version

I have provided a MIDI version of the melody below for the benefit of those who can't sight-read music. 


The song, while dramatizing the bird and its cordial relationship with children, really says little directly about bird protection. Rather it expresses a common religious theme: "Creation" in its wisdom provides for even the smallest creatures. 

But there was a song, or to be more accurate a poem with a variety of musical settings, that was ubiquitous during the mid-1800s and directly advocated bird protection: "Don't Kill the Birds," by Daniel C. Colesworthy. The poem had shown up in agricultural periodicals as early as 1843 (Southern Cultivator) and was a common selection in children's readers and songbooks well into the 20th century. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (1893) noted in his obituary that the poem was said to have had "great influence in arresting the slaughter of those innocents by inculcating in the minds of children a sentiment of mercy towards them."

From 1852 reader Songs for the Little Ones at Home
I've found three completely different musical settings for the poem, which I've embedded below in MIDI piano versions. 

The first is from Baker's American School Music Book (1845), music credited to E.L. White.


The second is from The Teacher's Institute (1874), music credited to "E."




The third is from The normal music course (1893), compiled by John W. Tufts. 


While I assume the first setting is the one most children knew, I don't have full confidence that it was any of these. Regardless, children sang it. By 1869, when some horticulturists were searching for relief from the bird laws, it had become a point of irritation for at least one writer in the Cultivator and Country Gentleman (May 20), who invoked "The tow-headed boys and freckle-faced girls who, in their musical moments, have piped forth in plaintive tones--"Don't kill the birds, the pretty birds, Which sing around our door" as a component of his frustration. 

Incidentally this is a different poem/song than the "Don't Kill the Birds" that had a place in Mormon hymnals for many years. 
from Tune book for the primary associations of the children of Zion
That poem seems to be from the pen of Clara F. Berry. Mormons had a special regard for insectivorous birds dating from the Miracle of the Gulls in 1848. I've found at least one writer who regrets the hymn's eventual disappearance from the repertoire, claiming it had an impact on him as a would-be boy hunter.  

I've embedded the MIDI piano version below.



[UPDATE]

One more example:

In the July 1861 issue of New England Farmer, a correspondent told the following tale about the effectiveness of a song:

I have been led to place [a] high estimate on stories, songs, or other articles more especially adapted to attract the attention or interest the feelings of boys, in consequence of having been made acquainted with the fact that the singing of a song called "The Farmer's Best Friends," [A. Holloway, Mt. Brydges, C.W.] which was printed in the Genesee Farmer during 1859, seemed to one who takes a deep interest in the rising generation to have very certainly exerted quite an influence on the singer himself, and on a squad of boys with whom he used to associate. They left off, at all events, both last year and this spring so far, the two practices which are so common with many boys, namely, the shooting of birds and the robbing of their nests.
He thus recommended it to the readership of the New England Farmer:

Having good assurance that this particular song has had so happy an influence on one squad of thoughtless, if not positively cruel and mischievous boys, I have been induced to copy it for use in your columns, for the very natural and confident hope that what has done good in one instance may do a like good in a great many other instances. Some of your subscribers can persuade good singers to commit it to memory, and can get it sung on suitable occasions; and wherever there is any goodness in the heart-soil upon which such seed is scattered, surely there must be a harvest of more or less value.
The "song" was a poem (no musical setting) but one that could be recited in a "musical" way. It began:
Destroy not the birds;
They're the farmers' best friends;
For the little they spoil
They make ample amends. 
Some fruit they will eat;
But grudge it them not;
For the good that they do
Should not be forgot.
They keep down the insects,
Whose rapid increase
Would injure our harvests
Till harvests would cease.
With their songs they amuse
Our wearisome hours,
And their presence enlivens
The shadiest bowers. 
Then forgive their slight faults;
They make ample amends;
And do not forget
They're the farmer's best friends.
Unlike "Don't Kill the Birds," this song would not endure. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Bird Protection in Cross-cultural Perspective (1857-1861)

In its June 1857 edition, the New England Farmer included the following passage in what was otherwise a standard "spare the birds" story:
In Japan the birds are regarded as sacred, and never under any pretense are they permitted to be destroyed. During the stay of the expedition at Japan a number of officers started on a gunning excursion. No sooner did the people observe the cruel slaughtering of their favorites than a number of them waited upon the Commodore and remonstrated against the conduct of the officers. There was no more bird shooting in Japan by American officers after that; and when the treaty between the two countries was concluded, one express condition of it was, that the birds should always be protected. 
When it came to the treatment of birds, the United States compared unfavorably.
What a commentary upon the inhuman practice of our shooting gentry, who are as eager in the pursuit of a tomtit as of an eagle, and indiscriminately shoot everything in the form of a bird which has the misfortune to come within the reach of their murderous weapons. 
In Japan birds were not just protected, they were nurtured:
On the top of the tombstones in Japan, a small cavity or trough is chiseled, which the priests every morning fill with fresh water for the use of the birds. Enlightened America should imitate these customs of the barbarous Japanese, if not by providing fresh water for the feathered warblers, at least by protecting them from the worthless louts who so ruthlessly destroy them. Unless something is done, and that speedily, our insectivorous birds will be wholly exterminated…
I've looked at this particular passage in depth in a longer working paper. Suffice it to say, such comparisons were opportunities to reflect critically on bird protection at the level of the nation, not just state or local community. Even the "barbarous" Japanese knew how wise it was to protect birds. America had to change its ways.

As we've seen, England was a common object of comparison (and confusion). C.N. Bement, for example, in his 1858 entry in the Rural Annual, "Birds both useful and injurious to the farmer and horticulturist," relates the Japanese story above and joins it to the story of the British rook:

In England, says a writer, there is scarcely a farm without its rookery; the humid atmosphere multiplies every species of insect, and those birds reward man for his forbearance by ridding him of legions of his foes. By a policy like that which dictated the revocation of the edict of Nantes, they have occasionally been exposed to the mischievous propensities of recreant, unruly boys and loafers, who, as far as utility is concerned, are not to be compared to crows; but the error of this step soon became manifest and they are now received with universal welcome. 
The editor of the Rural Annual, incidentally, was not as well versed in U.S. and British birds, and thus labeled an image of a blue tit, a "creeper." 

A February 1857 article in the New England Farmer drew attention to the "peculiar habits and manners of the Dutch," one of which was a "peculiar veneration for the stork." The author also noted more general legal protections for birds:
Stringent local laws are in force in all the provinces to protect the nightingales and other singing birds, which are quite numerous, from harm and molestation and any infraction of the laws is severely punished.
In July 1858, the American Farmer decried the peculiarly American "War on Birds," 
[T]he people of no other country in the world are so barbarous and cruel in their warfare upon birds, as the people of this. The little sparrows are found in great numbers in every village and city in Europe; no one ever disturbs them, and among the Turks so tame are the sea-birds that they will scarcely move from the prow of the light caique; and shall we "do that, Which Heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?" [Shakespeare, Othello]
Note that such protections could go hand-in-hand with efforts to import insectivorous birds, already identified and protected as "useful" in other countries.

So Germany could be considered a model for national bird protection laws,  as "G.H.B." observed in an 1861 article in The Horticulturist
When we go to Europe, especially to western Germany, we are surprised at the multitude of birds there, in comparison with those of our own land; and the cause of this scarcity with us is generally considered to be the wanton destruction committed on the feathered tribe….
and its useful birds would be useful to have and protect in the United States
[I]f circumstances had permitted, we should have tried long ago to import from Europe some of the moth-snapper varieties of birds…; also the grub-destroyer, King Sturnus, or starling, who follows every plow in the field….
The importation of house sparrows had just begun. The European starling would come a bit later. Both were initially valued as "useful" birds. Their protection in the U.S. would not endure.