Friday, February 25, 2011

New England destroys blackbirds (and pays for it)

In the colonies, as in England, it was more common to have laws requiring the destruction of birds than laws protecting them. Below is a passage from Alonzo Lewis's (1829) History of Lynn.

Lynn was not the only community in New England with such policies. Block Island, for example, put a price on the heads of crows in 1693 and blackbirds in 1717; Dorchester, MA in 1707; Hadley, CT in 1717; Woburn, MA in 1741. And Alice Morse Earle, in her 1894 Customs and Fashions of Old New England, provides this curiously arbitrary example from Eastham, MA.

According to Benjamin Franklin, communities with blackbird destruction policies eventually came to regret it.

This is from a letter to Richard Jackson dated May 5, 1753. (Thomas Harrison Montgomery cites it in his 1906 booklet on The Protection of our Native Birds, but mistakenly addresses it to Peter Collinson). Note: this story of the blackbirds is told in passing as an example of the dangers of messing with Providence (i.e, the balance of nature). Franklin's letter is more generally about the dangers of helping the poor (quite interesting the places the balance of nature idea goes...)

Some additional details are supplied by Peter Kalm in his Travels. Here's the relevant passage:
...As they are so destructive to maize, the odium of the inhabitants against them is carried so far, that the laws of Pennsylvania and New Jersey have settled a premium of three-pence a dozen for dead maize thieves. In New England, the people are still greater enemies to them; for Dr. Franklin told me, in the spring of the year 1750, that, by means of the premiums which have been settled for killing them in New England, they have been so extirpated, that they are very rarely seen, and in a few places only. But as, in the summer of the year 1749, an immense quantity of worms appeared in the meadows, which devoured the grass, and did great damage, the people have abated their enmity against the maize-thieves; for they thought they had observed, that those birds lived chiefly on these worms before the maize is ripe, and consequently extirpated them, or at least prevented their spreading too much. They seem therefore to be entitled, as it were, to a reward for their trouble. But after these enemies and destroyers of the worms (the maize-thieves) were extirpated, the worms were more at liberty to multiply; and therefore they grew so numerous, that they did more mischief now than the birds did before. In the summer, 1749, the worms left so little hay in New England, that the inhabitants were forced to get hay from Pennsylvania, and even from Old England.
Please note, not only was it counter-productive to persecute blackbirds (they eat harmful grubs and worms), they are "entitled" to a little corn as payment for this work.

This passage from Kalm, not unlike Bradley's 3360 caterpillars, was widely cited throughout the 1800s as a case study for bird protection. Here, for example, is Charles Willson Peale addressing "the inhabitants of Boxford Parrish, Massachusetts" in the Columbian Phenix and Boston Review (1800) [please scroll down]:

Note that Peale cites the authoritative zoology of Thomas Pennant for his Kalm story.

In truth, things seem to be a little more complicated than Franklin's story indicates. There was a severe drought in 1749, which is a better explanation in general for the poor hay yield. At the same time, there are various accounts of widespread insect infestation, particularly of grasshoppers. Indeed, the drought, as dramatized in Thomas Prince's widely printed 1749 sermon, resonated with biblical accounts of God's displeasure:

In general, it would seem, it was regular old human sin, not the killing of blackbirds in particular, that was perceived to be the source of the disturbance in the order of things. I also think that while one can surmise that the insect infestations might have been milder with a healthy population of blackbirds (the fact that blackbirds had become quite rare seems likely) there is no real way to prove cause and effect here, especially with the drought itself as an alternative explanation.

I'm intrigued, though, at the way the stories of God's punishment through drought and Nature's punishment through insect infestation parallel each other. This was still an era in which natural history and concepts like the balance of nature were directly connected to Christian cosmologies. (Is it just a coincidence that Kalm's friend Linnaeus first articulated the "economy of nature" in 1749?)

I've also been unable to corroborate Franklin's assertion that enmity among the people towards blackbirds actually abated. As T.S. Palmer (1899) clearly shows, many states maintained bounties on crows and blackbirds well into the 1800s and beyond.

Nevertheless, the story of New England's disastrous persecution of blackbirds provided a powerful moral framework for understanding farmers' relationships with birds, even if it is more legend than hard fact.

Next: "Spare the Swallows!"

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