Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jeremiah Simple shares some advice about birds

Far from being a staid, information-driven medium (unlike ultra-serious agricultural society memoirs), farm papers could be fun; they encouraged lively, engaging articles and correspondence as a complement to more serious items. A case in point is the popular correspondent to early issues of the American Farmer, "Jeremiah Simple."  Simple, donning the persona of an uneducated but clever farmer, offered a series of novel solutions to typical agricultural problems. The use of sticky paper cones to trap the heads of curious rats and thus control infestations is one dubious example. These solutions would in turn be tested and criticized by other correspondents. J.S. Skinner enjoyed Simple's letters (and, one might conclude, the engaged controversy that ensued).

On July 7, 1820, The American Farmer published a letter from Jeremiah Simple about useful birds. Simple had solved his problem with cutworms in the garden by installing house wren boxes
... I have been troubled with many pests well known to farmers. Cut-worms destroyed my corn...they destroyed my cabbages...worms and insects of various kinds infested my garden, my vines, my orchard, etc....I began to look around to see what was to be done, some remedy, said I, must be applied; for these devils, these natural enemies of mankind, this bane of our happiness, there certainly must be some antidotes, they must also have their enemies, their destroyers; nature never intended that they should remain useless after thus gorging themselves to fatness. While these things were running in my mind I noticed the children and gardener driving away the wrens and blue birds which were hopping about the garden, and as they supposed, picking up the seeds: but in watching more closely, I observed that they were after the insects which infested the plants. I immediately directed twenty or thirty wren boxes to be put up in different parts of the garden, they were soon taken possession of, and their inhabitants are the most useful force employed there, and I have never had a cabbage or any other plant cut down or injured there since they were erected and occupied....
 This recommendation is straight out of Barton, sharing Barton's blind-spot about wrens' often destructive territoriality. Indeed, it is probably too good to be true.

Simple extended his story to blackbirds and crows. How did he protect his corn and vines?
I do it simply by feeding the worms, and inviting the crows and blackbirds; I cannot place houses for them, but I give them every inducement to come, and never suffer them to be disturbed; for they seem to be sensible of their security, for you may see them in numbers following the plough, and picking up the worms from the fresh ground, as it is turned out of the furrows...They [crows] also destroy field mice...but do they not destroy your corn? I answer no? I put plenty of them to eat.
Simple (unlike John Ploughshare Jr., for example) was not being satiric, but neither do I think he was being truthful. Rather, he was referencing a story. Skinner, a couple of issues later, made light fun of Simple's useful bird story, offering that the more recent problem-solving tip might "prove more popular than raising wrens to eat his insects...and crows, to protect his corn."  The idea of bird protection was known but still a novelty.

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