Monday, July 15, 2013

Response to the "Bird Law" Part 4

This, the last post about the Bird Law of 1818, collects four news stories that commented on some aspect of the Act in operation.

On September 18, 1819, the Boston Intelligencer suggested that the law was working, serving one of its intended purposes--to make game more plentiful during hunting season.
Snipe and Woodcock shooting has been a source of great amusement the present season to the sportsman and of emolument to other persons, and those birds have been extremely abundant. Partridges and Quails also will be plenty--thanks to the protection afforded by the late act of the legislature prescribing the periods for killing various kinds of game. Partridges as an article of food ought to be regulated by law.
Note the last line. Market hunting was largely responsible for decimated populations of game birds (and would contribute to the extinction of the passenger pigeon). Here the call was for more laws, not fewer.

Reporting one community's use of the Act's suspension clause, the New England Galaxy (March 31, 1820) had a little fun:
 Small Birds, Look out.
The town of Milton, we understand, have taken advantage of the Proviso in the far famed Bird Law of this state, which authorised any town at its March meeting to suspend the operation of the prohibitions and restrictions of said law for one year. In consequence of this measure, the sportsmen of the vicinity are busy in preparing their fowling pieces against the approaching fastday, and it is said that several new licences have been granted for retailing powder and shot. Robbins, woodcocks, snipes, and some other long-legged fowls, having got an inkling of this business, are on the wing, and removing to the neighbouring towns.
Other towns, such as Stockbridge, were also reported during this period voting to suspend the Act. Note the recognition that the law was "far famed."

By 1824 there was a sense that compliance with the law was not quite universal (probably due to a lack of real enforcement). A writer in the Columbian Centinel on June 23 threatened to use the power of the press to adress the problem:
The laws prohibiting the killing of Woodcocks, it is believed, are known to all sportsmen, to be in force from the 1st day of March till the 4th of July, every year; yet for some time past, they have been almost daily violated. It would seem that a sense of humanity, even in the lawless, might be sufficient to protect these birds, till the expiration of the operation of the Law, as the destruction of the old ones, so early in the season, must necessarily cause many of their young to perish. Several person, well known to the writer of this article, have been in the habit of thus transgressing in Malden, Medford, and other places during the past week, a repetition of which, will cause them to be prosecuted, and their names made known to the public. 
Unlike the faux threat in the Johnny Ploughshares, Jr. story, this one was clearly serious. It is assumed the law-breakers changed their ways (their names were never reported).

On April 25, 1825, a writer in the Essex Register appealed to the editor to reprint the law as a public service to the community (and robins). While robin populations, generally, were relatively robust, boys and young men continued to break the law.
Mr Palfray--
    It is in the power of every man, without exception, to do good--in your situation particularly so. Men of talents are sent for round the country to deliver orations, addresses, etc and premiums are sometimes offered for poems at the opening of a Theatre--and what does it amount to?
   To some, the innocent and harmonious note of the chorister of the forest, is as pleasant, particularly since the spring has come in, with the time of singing birds, especially Robins, of which I have noticed of late more than a small number in our gardens and round our doors--whether owing to the mildness of the late winter and spring, or the late law for their preservation, I do not know, possibly in part to both. But I have been mortified to see the boys pelting them with stones, and young men, who ought to know better, shooting them in their songs, chaunting forth their maker's praise, and expressing their gratitude with more pathos for the mildness of the season and other good things than their assassins ever did. What must be the feelings of those persons whose hearts are thus callous, admitting there was no law to restrain them?
The writer goes on to provide a cultural history of the robin (confusing the American bird with the beloved British counterpart and claiming that one's reaction to the sad ending of "Babes in the Wood" is a child's first test of humanity). Showing faith in the power of the written word, he hopes that the problem is simply a lack of awareness:
The trial by jury is considered important in our Courts--but the anticipation or preventing of crimes is a procedure we have not yet learned, or attended to, although practised in France, Turkey, and some other countries, for many years past.
Possibly it is not known that the Bird Law is in existence with us. For the information of those who are heedless, and are not restrained by principle, I request you to publish the following extracts from "an act to prevent the destruction of certain birds," passed Feb 12, 1818. [The Register complied and printed Sections 1 & 2 of the act]. 
If the 1818 Bird Law was ultimately inadequate, it was, nevertheless, a milestone in American legal history and pointed the way to more legal protection for bird life in the future.  

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