Monday, July 22, 2013

Election Day Bird Shoots and Grand Squirrel Hunts

From the Hallowell Gazette, June 22, 1825:
Useless destruction of animal life; otherwise called SPORT.--At a recent squirrel-hunt in Paris, Maine, the following animals were killed: Squirrels, 466; woodpeckers, 48; crows, 36; foxes, 7; bobalinks, 74; pigeons, 64; woodcocks, 23; hawks, 10; woodchucks, 49; owls, 4; skunks, 12; partridge, 1. Whole number, 794.
Anti-hunting sentiment among proponents of the bird protection movement was not simply aimed at naughty boys, misguided farmers, and week-end marauders from the city. One especially pernicious form of hunting, in which regimented teams of hunters competed to see who could kill more of some target animal, was the common target of objections. In New England, the customary occasion for mass bird shooting was "Election Day," one of the few holidays for young men, held at the end of May or the beginning of June.

Edward Jarvis, in his "Traditions and Reminiscences" of Concord, Massachusetts, provides some details:
...[F]or the boys, it was a day of great expectation and exhilaration. They looked forward to it with fondness and yet with anxiety lest the weather should be unfavorable to out-of-door sports. A large part expected to go hunting birds in the woods and fields, or fishing in the ponds and rivers. The bird hunting was the most attractive and exciting. Most of the boys 14 and over owned or borrowed guns and powder horns, or flasks and shot and pouches. These were prepared for a day or days before, and early on the Election Day they went forth on their cruel and wanton amusement....This habit had the sanction of age, and the oldest and gravest did not condemn it....Sometimes these hunters formed themselves into an association and divided themselves into two parties to test their skill by trial on this day. Two of the larger boys were made captains...They chose sides...With some rude discrimination, the birds were divided and classed according to their supposed value, each having its assigned rant. The crow was considered the highest, afterward the hawk, and down to the smallest; the eggs were counted lowest. Each hunter was to go to his work in this own way and place, to kill as many as he could and also to rob all the nests of their eggs. In the afternoon all were to assemble with their ill-gotten trophies at some appointed place...There the birds of each side were laid in separate heaps and sorted out and their individual and collective value determined and the sum total of each side ascertained. That [team] which had the most was considered the victor.
Jarvis notes that the Election Day shoot died out during the 1820s, in Concord at least. But the Election Day shoot lived on as part of a larger and more enduring practice: the organized (or "grand") squirrel hunt.

Here's a collection of items from the Connecticut Centinel on September 7, 1807, to help readers understand the scale of such events, as well as the sometimes tongue-in-cheek nature of their coverage in the news.
First Bulletin of the Grand Squirrel Hunt.
On Election day, June 3rd, twenty five of the inhabitants of Langdon joined in hunting Squirrels and such birds as destroyed the productions of the farmer. At night on counting the game, it was ascertained that they had killed, during the day, 1668 squirrels and birds. -Walpole Paper
Second Bulletin of the Grand Squirrel Hunt.
At a Squirrel-hunt in this town on Thursday last there were upwards of 3000 killed. This number, together with those which have been destroyed at several previous hunts within a few weeks, in this town and Brookfield, amount to very near 7000.-Randolph Paper 
Third Bulletin of the Grand Squirrel Hunt.
On Thursday morning last, at sunrise, agreeably to a previous arrangement, a number of citizens of this town, consisting principally of young men, set out for their amusement to scour the adjacent woods of that species of vermin of the desert which infests our cornfields. They attacked this formidable enemy with that firmness and intrepidity which became soldiers--They returned at the setting of the sun with their fallen foes. The number killed amounted to about 3000, inclusive of many of the feathered tribe which appeared to have been in alliance with the Squirrels.--Thus ended the campaign.
--Rutland Paper
Agricultural communities generally considered squirrels, whether gray, red, or striped [chipmunks], to be destructive vermin. Massive squirrel hunts worked to solve perceived agricultural problems as well as to provide amusement for hunters (and spectators). One popular format pitted teams from one town against teams from another with prizes (cash, bushels of corn, a squirrel barbeque) going to the victorious team. Results of such squirrel hunts (kills in the thousands and sometimes tens of thousands) were commonly written up and sent to area newspapers (sometimes with detailed statistics) with the aim of encouraging other towns to set up squirrel hunts of their own. Indeed, the squirrel hunt notice was such a common news item that it became a kind of emblem of the news to be found in rural papers.

Generally the notices were run as public services or amusements, though sometimes the paper running the notice explicitly disapproved. The most dramatic (jaw-dropping, really) example I have found is the following from the New Hampshire Sentinel on December 1, 1821, commenting on a squirrel hunt in Rutland, Vermont which had destroyed
...4961 of these pretty animals, who asked no higher privilege than wisely to prepare for a cold and merciless winter. For this, their lives are taken with as little ceremony as white animals of a different species would throw overboard a cargo of diseased or disabled black ones.
It is worth remembering there was some overlap between anti-cruelty activists and abolitionists...

For our purposes, the significance of the grand squirrel hunt is its overlap with massive bird hunts. Birds perceived as agricultural pests were commonly added to kill totals. Here's another example, from the Providence Patriot (May 19, 1824) reporting on a squirrel hunt around Craftsbury, Vermont:
There were killed, 4370 squirrels, 1135 woodpeckers, 124 bluejays, 99 pigeons, 53 blackbirds, 18 woodchucks, 15 crows, 10 owls, 10 skunks, 2 mink, 1 weazel, and 1 hawk--making a total of 5838.
Due to this kind of hunting pressure (competitive squirrel hunts happen to this day though at a much smaller scale) gray squirrels became somewhat scarce by the turn of the century in many parts of the country. Eventually gray squirrels joined the ranks of "useful" animals when foresters recognized their value as "planters." 

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