Thursday, August 8, 2013

An enthusiasm for ornithologies

During the early 1830s there was a growing public enthusiasm for works of American ornithology. Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology became available in affordable (if still expensive) editions, Thomas Nuttall would publish his own Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada, and John James Audubon's adventures in bird collecting were covered by farm and general newspapers alike. The ornithologies provided content for agricultural periodicals, who published them with the intent of teaching farmers to be more discriminating and just in their relationship to birds.

The New-York Farmer and Horticultural Repository began running extracts from Wilson's Ornithology in February, 1830, supplied by a correspondent who had parted with a significant sum to buy the work.  Indeed, a rationalization of the cost was featured in the extract's introduction:
To an intimate friend, I spoke of my intention to buy a copy of this work. "Why will you lay out so much money on a book?" Because I intend it as a part of the education of my children. We are eight in family--the price is forty dollars--that is five dollars a piece to give them a new interest in every bird that visits our fields or woods; and to render every walk in the verdant season a new source of pleasurable sensations. "Only forty dollars! Oh! I should like a copy at that price myself." [$40 in 1830 is estimated to be around $1000 today; note that Audubon's Birds of America cost over a $1000 in 1830s dollars!]
Over the next year or so, the correspondent regularly copied out and mailed in extracts, beginning with the brown thrasher, continuing with the robin and bluebird, and then in the April issue, the king-bird and purple martin, introduced as follows:
The design on these ornithological notices is to make our farmers and gardeners better acquainted with their feathered FRIENDS. 
None names the wren, the blue-bird, the barn swallow, and some others, without kind feelings; and the robin, although he visits the cherry tree and the currant bush, is welcome at any other season. There are birds, however, whose services are as eminent as these, whom I fear we treat with injustice and even cruelty, because the indulgence of their taste slightly interferes with the indulgence of ours. 
Without inquiring whether birds have any rights or whether all right is founded on power I appeal at once to the good sense of the cultivator, strong in the hope that he will not persevere in a course discountenanced both by self-interest and benevolence; but that he will at least calculate the benefits as well as the injury which he receives from birds; and as it is supposed that resentment is a stronger impulse than gratitude, that he will, on this score, deliberately and properly make the necessary corrections. 
The birds selected for this number of the New-York Farmer are charged with the same vice, that of eating bees. I know not that they interfere in any other manner to the injury of our rural economy; neither, of all our domestic animals, do I know one whose trespasses at times we do not sensibly feel, and yet forgive.
Note the reference to, and quick move away from, the question of birds' natural rights [that this was even a question suggests an advance in animal rights discourse]. The purpose of the extracts from Wilson was to allow the cultivator to make informed decisions (and to counter the biases of writers like Butler).

In 1832, Thomas Nuttall published his Manual with the explicit intention of producing a book that, unlike those by Audubon or Wilson (or Wilson's successor, Bonaparte), was both "portable and cheap." Excerpts were run by the New England Farmer (January 18, 1832), introduced as follows:
A work entitled, "A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada" by Thomas Nuttall...has just been published...A work of this kind, well executed, is of more importance to Cultivators than by some may be apprehended. The feathered bipeds, which compose the most beautiful part of the animal creation, are mostly either adversaries or coadjutors of the Farmer--they either help him or annoy him. A knowledge of their natural history, habits, manners, beneficial and mischievous propensities, is as useful as it is amusing and every rural economist ought to be able to take advantage of the one and counteract the other...
As in the case of the Wilson in the New York Farmer, the recommendation of Nuttall by the New England Farmer was not necessarily designed to create sentiment supportive of bird protection legislation but rather to provide factual information useful for farmers.

John James Audubon, meanwhile, had become America's first ornithological celebrity. General notices of Audubon's work began appearing in newspapers in 1827 (he had been collecting and painting for two decades already by that point) along with sample extracts from his companion work, the Ornithological Biography, especially his chapter on Wild [Passenger] Pigeons. In 1829, with his work displayed in the New York Lyceum of Natural History, notices began appearing calling his Birds of America "the most magnificent work ever ventured individual enterprise." Favorable reviews, such as one run in the July 1831 issue of Blackwood's furthered his fame. By 1832, news stories of Audubon's latest American adventures, supported by regular correspondence from Audubon himself, became a common newspaper feature. (Note that it was the travelogue aspect rather than the ornithological information that was the probably the chief appeal). In 1835 the Genessee Farmer began running excerpts from Audubon.

According to the 1831 story in Blackwood's, a parallel development had been happening in Great Britain--a rage for bird books.
How we come to love the Birds of Bewick, and White, and the two Wilsons, and Montagu, and Mudie, and Knapp, and Selby, and Swainson, and Syme, and Audubon, and many others, so familiar with their haunts and habits, their affections and their passions, till we feel that they are indeed our fellow creatures, and part of one wise and wonderful system! 
Note the presence of Wilson and Audubon on the list. Readers who wish to be absorbed in British bird books, early 1800s-style, are invited to use the links below.

Thomas Bewick: History of British Birds  Vol 1. (1797 ed.)  Vol 2. (1804 ed.)

Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selborne (1829 ed.) 

George Montagu: Ornithological Dictionary (1802 ed.)

Robert Mudie: The Feathered Tribes of the British Islands Vol 1. (1835 ed.) Vol 2. (1835 ed.)

John Knapp: The Journal of a Naturalist (1829 ed.)

Prideaux John Selby: Illustrations of British Ornithology Vol 1. (1833 ed.) Vol 2. (1833 ed.)

William Swainson and John Richardson: Fauna Boreali-Americana; or the Zoology of British America, Part Second, THE BIRDS.  (1831 ed.)

Patrick Syme: A Treatise on British Song-Birds. (1823 ed.)

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