Thursday, July 11, 2013

Response to the "Bird Law" Part 2

On May 1, 1818, the New England Galaxy and Masonic Magazine ran the following letter to the editor concerning the Bird Law:
Mr. Editor,
   I have been what we call a young country sportsman. In the spring of the year, as soon as Robins, Larks etc appeared, I was out betimes with my gun, in pursuit of them, much to the disturbance of the neighbourhood, and to the regret of my father, who wished, and still wishes, to bring me up a plain, honest, industrious farmer, like himself. But I found, as I frequented the Boston vegetable market, a bunch of birds would frequently help me to some odd change; so that, at Election, I had enough to spend decently, pleasantly and even foolishly.
   When I saw the late Bird Law, as we call it, I was struck with sorrow and anger. I threw out many invectives against our legistators, and said, in my father's hearing, that they would be better employed in making laws for the regulation of themselves and their constituents, of which the makers would not be breakers.
   My father told me, if I would go to work in his garden, which is considerably extensive, I would earn much more, with less labour, in the hours usually allotted to sporting, as I called it. He also promised, if I would do it faithfully, that he would give me a new, complete suit of clothing for Election, a competent supply of money to spend on that day, and a further sum in addition to dispose of, in such a manner that it might be accumulating. I closed with the proposal and have followed his advice every pleasant day, with which we have since been favoured.
   Having laboured several hours this morning, I am now seated in a comfortable arbour at one end of the garden, to inform you and your readers, that I highly approve of the law abovementioned. I find the birds more numerous, than was usual at this season, when every urchin that could lift a musket was frightening them away, if he could not hit them. Their morning and evening songs seem to be addrest to the Maker of them and of us, with as much harmony, melody, and I fear I may add with truth, as much devotion, as ours, in too many of our churches. I find them much more tame than formerly, and as they hop about me, while at work, and gather for their food the worms and insects, which would be detrimental, if not fatal to the fruits of my labours, I look upon them, as I do upon my tame poultry; I consider them, as preparing to produce a young brood, which I shall be at liberty to dispose of as I please, so soon as they shall begin to make depredations on our currants, cherries, strawberries, and other salutary fruits.Thus on or soon after the 4th of July next, you and some of your customers may expect to be furnished with materials for a bird pie, in much greater abundance, than could have been done had this law, under consideration not been enacted. I think the Law, however, deficient in one respect. I believe there is no section forbidding the destruction of the eggs of the protected birds. The cruel practice of taking these has been, and I fear, continues to be prevalent among us, and calls for legislative attention.
   [signed] John Ploughshare, jun. [He concluded by introducing and including a poem, apologizing for his lack of education]
This story was evidently intended to be humorous, parodying the sanctimonious tone of bird defenders (down to the "morning and evening songs...addrest to the Maker"), and winding up to the punch line about bird pies. (The law doesn't even really protect birds--it just creates more to be killed).  A modern audience might feel the suggestion about including egg destruction to be a serious amendment to the Bird Law.  I suspect, instead, that this detail was meant to reinforce its outlandishness--that an uneducated boy would ever give up his egg-stealing ways.

That the above was intended to be humor is supported by a response, published on May 15 in the same paper, that was titled "Rural Amusement."
Mr. Editor,
I have read my neighbour John Ploughshare's observations on the Bird Law with pleasure and profit. Being myself in a similar situation, as to education, employments, and character, I was, perhaps, more forcibly struck with them, than most of your readers. I presented them to my father; and he very readily made me the same offers, that Mr. Ploughshare senior, had made with his son.  Neighbor John and I have had a consulation, and proposed to our young comrades in the neighbourhood to form a society for the purpose for promoting sobriety, economy and industry. We have agreed, at the approaching Election, not to play at bowls, or any other game, for money, to be moderate in our expenses on that day, and to return to our labours the day following. We intend to save a portion of what my be given us for spending money and all that may be allowed for an accumulating fund, to deposite in the SAVINGS BANK. We have also agreed to inform against all persons whatsoever within our knowledge, who shall infringe on the Bird Law. We hope that the young Bostonians will wait patiently, till the time shall have expired, during which the Birds are to remain unmolested; and then be careful not to mistake tame poultry for that which is wild...
[signed] HENRY HARROW, jr. [He also concluded by enclosing a poem]
My sense (and I may very well be mistaken about the tone) is that both letters reflected an attitude at the time (which would be explicitly articulated by critics) that the Bird Law was high-minded and foolish legislation because its success ultimately relied on the compliance of an uneducated class that was as likely to follow its rules (and inform on rule-breakers) as create a club for promoting sobriety and deposit money in a savings bank. 

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