Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Richard Bradley and Claudius Aelianus

What little I know about Richard Bradley (who turns out to be a very interesting historical figure) is from a short 2006 bio by Frank Egerton in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America (download here).
Egerton (who also cites the "3360 Caterpillars" passage) notes that Bradley, a strong believer in the balance of nature concept, had tried to stop farmers from killing birds in their fields.

Here's the relevant passage, embedded from Google Books:

The passage turns out to be more about insects than birds--Bradley is trying to convince his readers that much of what is considered "blight" is actually the work of caterpillars. By eating the caterpillars, birds are "rather Friends than Enemies." (Note: this is the first explicit utterance that I know to the effect that "birds are the farmer's friend"--a staple of bird protection discourse in the 19th century).

Egerton goes on to suggest that this shouldn't have been news to the farmers in question--that birds eat insects that feed on crops was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. He cites Aelianus On Animals, Book 3, Chapter 12. The passage in question is as follows:
The inhabitants of Thessaly, of Illyria, and of Lemnos regard Jackdaws as benefactors and have decreed that they be fed at the public expense, seeing that Jackdaws make away with the eggs and destroy the young of the locusts which ruin the crops of the aforesaid people. (Aelian on Animals, Scholfield translation, p. 169)
Claudius Aelianus, like most writers on nature into the 18th century, is notoriously unreliable; it should also be noted this protection of jackdaws is treated as a curiosity, not a widespread practice. Nevertheless, here we have it--the first record, in the Western tradition at least, of the kind of bird protection that would be advocated in the U.S. agricultural press in the 1800s.

Next: Responses to Bradley

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