Thursday, June 9, 2011

Alexander Wilson vindicates the kingbird

Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, published in a series of volumes (one posthumously) from 1808 to 1814, was not only the foundational guide to the birds of the United States but a crucially important set of arguments in favor of bird protection. Wilson's approach to ornithology famously combined close scientific description and reasoning with an overarching moral sensibility. Wilson's mission was not just to describe the birds of America but to "vindicate them from every misrepresentation."

According to Wilson, some birds were unfairly persecuted for reasons of superstition (whip-poor-will, storm petrel) and others because they were perceived as threats to agriculture. Some, such as the catbird and green heron, just seemed to be generally disliked and persecuted for no reason in particular. Of these persecuted birds, Wilson fails to exonerate only the magpie, common crow, and the cedar waxwing, and even these get partial support.

Some of Wilson's methods of argument we've seen before. For example, in defending the red-winged blackbird ("let the reader divest himself of prejudice!"), Wilson points out how many destructive insects a blackbird would ultimately destroy in a year.

Wilson knows, however, that this method will not be sufficient to defend the common crow.
To say to the man who has lost his crop of corn by these birds, that crows are exceedingly useful for destroying vermin, would be as consolatory as to tell him who had just lost his house and furniture by the flames, that fires are excellent for destroying bugs.
So he supplements this line of defense by pointing to the inherent worth of the animal.
The crow is easily raised and domesticated; and it is only when thus rendered unsuspicious of, and placed on terms of familiarity with, man that the true traits of his genius and native disposition fully develop themselves.
Nevertheless, he grants farmers their "honest indignation" against the common crow, asking only that the harmless fish crow not be mistakenly targeted.

For the cedar waxwing, on the other hand, the problem seems to be that its fruit depredations are not balanced by enough positives.
Their usefulness to the farmer may be questioned; and in the general chorus of the feathered songsters they can scarcely be said to take a part.
[Note: while it is true waxwings lack much of a song (I, personally, find their buzzy notes rather soothing) later studies have shown that they are significant consumers of insects].

The most striking example of Wilson's vindications is probably his poetic defense of the kingbird, persecuted for catching honey bees. Wilson's introduction to the poem, "The Tyrant Flycatcher, or King Bird" is worth reading in its entirety:
Great prejudices are entertained against this little bird; I, however, honour him for his extreme affection for his young; for his contempt of danger, and unexampled intrepidity; for his meekness of behaviour when there are no calls upon his courage; but, above all, for the millions of ruinous vermin of which he rids us!
As a friend to this persecuted bird, and an enemy to prejudices of every description, will the reader allow me to set this matter in a somewhat clearer and stronger light, by presenting him with a short poetical epitome of the King-bird's history.
Wilson's claims of usefulness ("I can assure the cultivator that this bird is greatly his friend in destroying multitudes of insects"), are combined with scenes dramatizing the bird's noble and heroic character.

It is a long poem, the kingbird's domestic heroism taking up most of the verses. For our purposes, the most meaningful passage occurs at the end, when a hunter is depicted stalking the bird.
See where he skulks, and takes his gloomy stand,
The deep-charged musket hanging in his hand,
And, gaunt for blood, he leans it on a rest,
Prepared and pointed at thy snow-white breast.
Ah! friend, good friend, forbear that barb'rous deed,
Against it, valour, goodness, pity plead;
If ere a family's griefs, a widow's woe
Have reached thy soul, in mercy let him go!
By anthropomorphizing the bird, and telling of its noble character, Wilson draws the reader's sympathies toward the bird and away from the human hunter. Note, the hunter is not evil ("friend, good friend"), instead a reasonable man who might be moved to show mercy. Indeed, it is ultimately in the hunter's self-interest not to harm the bird.
Yet should the tear of pity nought avail;
Let interest speak, let gratitude prevail;
Kill not thy friend, who thy whole harvest shields,
And sweeps ten thousand vermin from thy fields.
Think how this dauntless bird, thy poultry's guard,
Drove ev'ry hawk and eagle from thy yard;
Watch'd round thy cattle as they fed, and slew
The hungry, black'ning swarms that round them flew;
Some small return, some little right resign,
And spare his life whose services are thine!
But Wilson is a realist, recognizing that some will be unmoved by his pleas. (He also knows that a tragic ending will have more impact).
I plead in vain! amid the bursting roar
The poor, lost King-bird, welters in his gore.
While Wilson's original volumes were far too expensive to have wide-spread impact, it wasn't long until they were published in more affordable editions. These would have enormous influence in public discourse about bird protection in years to come.

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