Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bird Protection and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, formed via a notice in the New England Farmer in 1829, held a special meeting on June 5, 1830. One of its items of business was to discuss Mary Griffith's proposal, and the Society agreed, with reservations (a cure for the curculio was unlikely to be found), to support a premium of $200 via subscription. At the same meeting, a committee was formed "to consider the expediency of recommending some measures to prevent the wanton destruction of useful birds."

On September 10, 1830, Zebedee Cook, the first president of the year-old Society, made its anniversary address. Quite lengthy, the New England Farmer published it across four issues, starting December 31, 1830. Near the end of the address (printed in the January 21, 1831 issue), Cook turned his attention to useful birds:
The protection and preservation of useful birds is a subject I would propose for your particular consideration. To those whose souls are attuned to the harmony of their music, who delight to listen to the warbling of nature's choristers, little need be urged to insure them security in the peaceful possession of their accustomed haunts. But if this consideration is not sufficient, there is another view in which the subject may be presented, that cannot fail to render them the objects of our care and watchfulness. We must either encourage them, or resign our gardens and orchards to the overwhelming ravages of innumerable insatiate insects. We must preserve them and consent to tolerate their minor depredations, or suffer them to be destroyed, and with them all hopes of preserving any portions of our fruits. 
It is asserted upon competent authority, that nearly all the food of small birds from the commencement of spring to the middle of June consists of insects; and that a pair of sparrows during the time they have their young ones to provide for, destroy every week about three thousand three hundred caterpillars. By a wise and judicious enactment of the legislature of Massachusetts, the protection of law is extended to the preservation of certain kinds of birds that are enumerated, and a penalty provided for every infraction of its provisions. Let this association unite in giving efficacy to the laws by enforcing its operations upon every violator, and thus shall we subserve the public interests, protect our property, and preserve those innocent and useful colaborers, who amply repay us in the aid they afford, and in the gratification we derive from their presence, and in listening to their inspiring and animating melody.
These were familiar arguments, but Cook's prominence gave them particular force, particularly in the face of some (such as Mary Griffith, an honorary Society member) who would destroy all fruit-stealing birds. Cook's charge to the society was not for new legislation, necessarily, but to join forces in the enforcement of the 1818 Act.

Immediately following the useful bird remarks, Cook proposed that the Society create a cemetery in the style of Pere la Chaise. Mount Auburn Cemetery, effectively the first public bird sanctuary in the United States, was the result. New England Farmer editor and Society member, Thomas Green Fessenden, who would die suddenly in 1837, was among the first generation to be buried there. 

Cook's remarks about bird protection were supported by a letter published in the New England Farmer on May 11, 1831, credited to a "Cultivator" from Brookline.

As had many before, the writer focused on the negative effects of "wanton" bird shooting. 
Mr. Fessenden--Permit me, through the medium of your highly useful journal to call the attention of our farmers and horticulturalists to the wanton practice of many young men from Boston and its environs, of shooting the birds in this vicinity.
It is a well known fact that the alarming increase of worms and insects in making ravages upon our fruit trees and fruit, not only paralyzes the efforts and disheartens the hopes of the cultivator, but threatens total destruction to many of the most delicious kinds.--So extensive are their ravages that but very few of our apricots and plums ever ripen without premature decay from the worm generated by the beetles which surround our trees in the twilight of the evening in great numbers when the fruit is quite young.  And when the produce of our apple pear of peach trees is small, but few of these escape the same fate.
I attribute the rapid and alarming increase of these worms and insects wholly to the diminution of those birds which fall a prey to our sportsmen, which are known to feed upon them and for whose subsistence these insects were apparently created.
In addition to the important usefulness of these birds, their musical notes in the twilight of the morning are peculiarly delightful; awaking the cultivator to the sublime contemplation and enjoyment of all the infinite beauties of creation.
In vain will be all our toil and labor, in vain the united efforts of Horticultural Societies for increasing and perfecting the cultivation of the most delicious varieties of fruits, unless we can increase, or at least cease to diminish these useful and melodious birds.
Unlike Cook, who referred to the existing 1818 Act, the writer sought both enforcement and additional legislative protection. (Remember that the existing statue offered protection among songbirds solely to the robin and meadowlark, and then only during breeding season.)
If we have a Statute in this Commonwealth providing for the protection of these birds, let us unite our efforts to arrest this wanton destruction of them by enforcing the penalties of the law in every instance of its violation. Our Horticultural Society can scarcely do a greater service in promoting the objects of its organization than by making a spontaneous and vigorous effort to this effect.
If there be no Statute for the protection of these invaluable creatures, I would earnestly, yet respectfully suggest to the Horticultural Society the propriety and even necessity of their petitioning our Legislature at their next session for such an act.
It would take the united force of the Society to enforce the laws through to conviction but it was the members' moral duty.
It is a common practice with these sportsmen through the summer to range the groves and orchards, in this vicinity, almost every pleasant day and more numerously on holidays, and to shoot every bird that comes within their reach.
It is not, however, a small nor an easy task for one individual, to get their names, residence, and the evidence necessary for their conviction; but it requires the united efforts of all who are immediately interested. Already have these sportsmen commenced their wanton destruction of these useful creatures, even before they had time to build a nest for rearing of their young--Birds that have survived the dreary winter in a more genial clime, having now returned to bless our efforts by their industry and to cheer our days with their melody, are scarcely permitted to commence their vernal song, ere they must fall victims to a WANTON IDLENESS that is as destitute of moral feeling, as of useful employment.
The identity of the "cultivator" from Brookline is unknown, though Samuel Cabot, a naturalist and early member of the Society, is a possible candidate. Cabot's bird identifications were instrumental in the production of the first Massachusetts geological survey. Thomas Green Fessenden reprinted the letter in his Complete Farmer and Rural Economy in a section devoted to useful birds.

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