Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Judgement from Heaven

On September 6, 1826 the Baltimore Patriot and Mercantile Advertiser collected the following items related to bird protection:
Thirteen hundred woodpeckers were killed in the vicinity of Connersville, Indiana, by a hunting party of twelve. The practice of destroying birds until the species becomes extinct is extremely hazardous; the experiment has been made in different sections of the country, and almost invariably, some destructive insect has multiplied to such an extent as to do tenfold more injury to the crops than the birds were capable of doing. Even the woodpecker in some parts of the country may be a protection to the farmer.  
A writer in the Massachusetts Yeoman, ascribes the excess of flies, worms, bugs, and grasshoppers to the general destruction of birds. And gives an instance of very great benefit experienced by an individual encouraging robbins in his garden.
The Patriot used the items to express a very clear and practical "useful bird" message, but stripped away the rhetorical gestures that made the originals compelling.

The event behind the first item had been celebrated in the Pittsfield Sun on August 31, 1826 (as well as other papers) more for its novelty than the hunting expedition itself, written in the tongue-in-cheek style of the grand squirrel hunt.
The orchards in the vicinity of Connersville, Indiana, being infested with a large banditti of woodpeckers, arrayed in white and scarlet uniforms [red-headed woodpeckers], twelve gentlemen turning out in defence of the settlement, completely armed.  They met their enemies a few miles from town, where a bloody engagement took place, which lasted all day; at length it ended to the great joy of the inhabitants in the part gaining the victory, having slain thirteen hundred of the rogues without receiving a solitary scratch.
The story referenced in the second item from the Massachusetts Yeoman was reprinted in full in the September 1, 1826 edition of the New England Farmer. Credited to "Amicus" (a popular pen-name), it was titled, "Flies, Bugs, Worms, and Grasshoppers." Note below how it used precise military language to describe the insects' "war" against vegetables. [I will address the use of war tropes in future posts].
Much has been said and written, this season, on the destructive operations of the foraging parties here introduced.  In the early part of the season the plants in the gardens surrendered at discretion to the three first Divisions above-named. Since that time, the field has been stormed and taken by the light-horse or flying artillery, in the rear--a sort of corps de reserve. Sword, famine and pestilence never made such ravages among the race of men, as these have made among the vegetables in some southerly parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, and the northern parts of Massachusetts, where every green thing has been devoured.  
The explanation for this pestilence? An old one. This was a judgment from Heaven.
But while every tongue has been employed in uttering useless complaints, I...have been "thinking to myself," the result of which is, the belief that the unusual number of those destroyers is occasioned by the destruction of those feathered tribes which were designed by the Creator as a check upon the increase of insects and worms, by making them an article of food. In other words, I consider those insects as a judgment from Heaven upon the land, for the wanton cruelty of its inhabitants in shooting and killing birds.
The writer didn't suffer from this pestilence because he lived in harmony with Creation.
Illustration. My neighbors expressed their astonishment that every thing in my gardens should look so thrifty and flourishing, while every plant and vine in theirs was cut down and destroyed, almost as soon as out of the ground, by the bugs and worms; and begged to know how I preserved mine from these devourers. "O, Sir, I have no concern about it; my robins see to that." I preserve these from their enemies, the boys and cats; and they preserve me and mine from the enemies before mentioned. In one corner of my garden near my dwelling, is a tree on which a couple of these friends of mine have reared their little families for eleven successive years. 
There has ever been a harmony between my birds and me. The dawn of day is ushered in by the song of praise to their Creator, much to the delight and instruction of the humble instrument of their protection. The inference I would draw is that birds are intended by the great Author of Nature as a double blessing to man, by enlivening the scenes around him by their melodious songs, and by feeding on those insects which devour the fruit of his labour. By killing birds, man preverts and contumeliously rejects his blessings and thus brings upon himself a curse 
One bird will destroy ten or twenty small flies or bugs in a day [an editorial footnote suggested the number was surely larger]. Grasshoppers, in the early stage of their existence, and for some weeks after their appearance, are not larger than small flies: and ten or twelve birds would clear a whole field of them before they would be large enough to do any considerable injury. Parents, as you value property, or the blessing of Heaven, prevent your boys from shooting birds.
The explicit religious framing of the bird protection issue was relatively common during this period but it would not endure, replaced by the more practical "balance of nature" argument, that nevertheless maintained a touch of the religious frame, at least implicitly.

Note that the idea that songbirds sing in order to praise God is a notion dating back to Psalms (148:10 is the usual reference), and reinforced in the Christian tradition by the tales of Francis of Assisi and John Milton's account of the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost.  That birdsong was intended by God for the pleasure of human beings can be found in one of the earliest British bird books, Eleazer Albin's A Natural History of English Song-Birds.
They were undoubtedly designed by the Great Author of Nature, on Purpose to entertain and delight Mankind, who, for the Generality, are well pleased with these pretty innocent Creatures. 
This, indeed, was another "useful" feature of songbirds--their home entertainment value. In addition to describing characteristic attributes of each species, Albin provided detailed instructions for capturing and raising wild songbirds.

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