Friday, July 5, 2013

A plea to printers to promote the protection of useful birds

As noted previously, early agricultural periodicals had strong relationships with regional agricultural societies.  Some of those societies had their own publications but these tended to be produced irregularly. Nevertheless, they are clear precursors to agricultural periodicals both in form and content.

 The excerpt above, from the 1818 Memoirs of the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, is notable in a variety of ways. First, it represents the perspective of a "humble ploughman," not the typical "gentleman farmer" reader. Second, it retells the old story of the relationship between the absence of wild birds and the increase in noxious insects. And finally, it represents a genuine plea, addressed not to legislatures but to "printers," that a variety of bird species, including "blackbirds, robins, jays, catbirds, swallows, and sparrows" be spared from sports shooting.

And indeed, some printers were listening. The Alexandria Herald repeated a story that was credited to a "Concord paper" in a column on  July 25, 1817, both accepting the ploughman's explanation and calling not just for special protection for the swallow but for its promotion.
On what principle to account for [the large number of destructive insects] we were at a loss, until the suggestion from an experienced agriculturalist, that the cold season of 1816, either drove away or destroyed those useful birds, particularly the swallow, which appear to subsist on air, but in fact feed on the myriads of insects with which the air abounds....
The swallow claims our protection, not only because it is inoffensive, but because it protects our fields, our gardens--nay, our lives; for who knows that the same insects which lay waste the one, do not generate those diseases which destroy the other? Some farmers are in the habit of shutting up and darkening their barns and outhouses to prevent these birds from building their nests and rearing their young. We think an act of the legislature paying a bounty on the rearing of swallows would be as useful to the community as the passing of a law paying a bounty for killing crows.
Note the typical economic ornithological practice of separating birds into "good" and "bad." Not everyone would be so hard on crows.

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