Friday, July 26, 2013

Following the British example

As we have seen previously in the case of swallow protection, American farm papers, as well as agricultural societies, occasionally reprinted British material. Given the difference in agricultural conditions between the two countries, this wasn't always to Americans' advantage, and could (as in the case of the robin) lead to confusion, especially during a time when first-hand knowledge of the British context was beginning to fade. A case in point is the following example, from a 1822 issue of New England Farmer (originally published in Plymouth's Old Colony Memorial) in which the writer identified the "insect that has annoyed us so extensively" with the larva of the "cock chaffer," a notorious European pest. (It was probably actually a june bug that was causing the problems in the United States).

Nevertheless it was yet another opportunity to talk about birds as a control mechanism and this time, given the putatively European origin of the pest, the writer could resort to British encyclopedias for help. 

In Rees' Cyclopedia, for example, he found this passage:
[The larva of cock chaffers] are eagerly sought after and devoured by crows, rooks, and other birds, as well as animals; it is the larva of this insect that is so frequently turned up in ploughing, and in quest of which the crows are often seen following the track of the ploughshare.
Despite the fact that the American crow and the European carrion crow are different species and that the U.S. lacks rooks, he could draw a reasonable parallel and suggest that American crows "following the plough" had the same function as their British counterparts. Thus they should be protected, for our own good:
   In the first place, I will suggest the policy of ceasing our hostility to the crow, and the rest of the feathered tribe which subsist on the larva, and grubs of such insects of such insects as prey on our fields; and even extend to them the protection of legislative provision.
   It is true they are an impudent and mischievous race, and are frequently trespassers on the cultivated fields of the husbandman; but their mischief is limited to a few days after planting, and seldom extends to the ripe corn, as they have at that time other means of subsisting; and should they be driven to resort to our corn fields when nearly ripe for the harvest, is it not far easier to guard against the ravages of an enemy, tangible and that announces his approach by the sound of trumpet, than against the one which is invisible, is preying at the roots of all our hopes, of all our means of subsistence, and in such "innumerable multitudes as no man can number."
The crow was a better enemy to have than the worm. [Remember that his call for legislative protection ran completely counter to the law at the time, which tended to reward crow killers.]

Here again he drew on the Cyclopedia for support:
the crow feeds on grain and sometimes trespasses on cultivated fields; but his good services overbalance these little depredations, in the extirpation of the maggot of the Chaffer Beetle, which feeding at the roots of the corn, would oftentimes destroy whole crops, were they not destroyed by these useful birds
The Cyclopedia was not unique in its perspective. The writer pulled another passage, from William Marshall's (1787) Rural Economy of Norfolk showing local support for birds often considered pests:
the method of frightening rooks in practice there, is simply to stick up a tall bough in the field infested, and to fire a gun near the place; this simple expedient seldom fails of being effectual; they being seldom shot at in Norfolk; where a notion prevails, that rooks are essentially useful to the farmer in picking up worms and grubs, especially the grub of the Cock Chaffer, which it is believed is frequently injurious to the meadows. This opinion also prevails in other districts, as they are often seen to follow the plough close, to pick up such grubs.
The writer didn't believe birds were a total solution; skunks, e.g., also ate the grubs and regular ploughing helped. Nevertheless, British advice was relevant and useful for the current situation.

Another widely disseminated article making use of British material was published July 20, 1827 in the New England Farmer, titled "Usefulness of Birds," and credited to P. (Pemberton) Musgrave, "a practical gardener," who had "treated the subject of vermin in a scientific manner." Musgrave, in short, called for gardeners to be more discriminating in their destruction of birds in the garden:
It is a too common practice amongst gardeners to destroy without discrimination, the birds which frequent their gardens. This, in my opinion, is bad policy. Although I am aware some of the kinds of birds are great enemies to some crops, it certainly must be a trifling crop indeed, that will not bear the expense of a person to watch it, or a net to protect it, until it is out of danger; thus the gardener preserves the birds to perform a double office,--eating up the vermin from the trees, and the seeds of weeds and eggs of insects from the ground. I have often stood and observed the male bird, while the female was sitting upon her eggs or her young, fly to the spot with his bill full of caterpillars to feed his mate or young; and when the young ones become so strong as to accompany their parents in quest of food, it is really astonishing the number of caterpillars they destroy. I can say, from my own observations, that if it was not the cast that the birds destroy a large number of caterpillars, our trees in general would exhibit nothing but bare stumps, for the insects would become as numerous as the locusts of Spain and America. It is from that circumstance that we find so few flies in comparison of the great number of caterpillars. I one day followed a nest of young ox-eyes [tom-tits], which had just flown, in order to see how the old ones acted. I saw them fly from branch to branch, and pick from the curled leaves the caterpillars, with which they flew to their young to feed them. From these considerations, it is my opinion that should the gardener, instead of pursuing a system of indiscriminate warfare against the feather tribe, avail himself of the services of these useful allies, he might, with their exertions and his own united, soon rid himself of those insects that have hither-to set his efforts at defiance.
This passage is from the Memoirs of the Caledonian Horticultural Society (1825) and comprised the closing remarks of a paper, "On the destruction of the moth that infests fruit trees," originally read in 1823.  The source of the passage for the New England Farmer was likely J.C. Loudon's An Encyclopedia of Gardening, which reprinted it verbatim in a section titled, "The feathered enemies of gardens." Regardless, these two examples are useful reminders that the American agricultural and horticultural scenes were still very much influenced by discourse in the British scene.

Incidentally, for a sense of how economic ornithology progressed in the British context, it is interesting to compare the passage above with the entry on birds in the 1834 version of the same encyclopedia
"Feathered enemies" is now headed "Birds are both injurious and beneficial to gardens," and instead of Musgrave's global recommendation based on anecdotal evidence the encyclopedia makes clear distinctions, between the likes of Hedge Sparrows (completely desirable), Robins (currant plunderers), and Bullfinches (raspberry thieves). Musgrave was quoted simply in support of the tom-tit. 

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