Monday, August 12, 2013

Bird shooting and the True Sportsman

We hold it to be an axiom, that no true sportsman will demean himself by shooting small birds of any kind at this season of the year, and there are but few who will at any time level their guns at robins or any of the smaller birds. --Worcester Aegis, reprinted in New England Farmer, April 27, 1831.
According to Michael Bellesiles, in his 2000 book Arming America, hunting in the United States, unlike Great Britain, was considered disreputable for the first half century or so of its history. By 1830, however, the ideal of the "true sportsman" had begun to gain some traction in the United States, assisted by none other than John S. Skinner and his new periodical, The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine.  One might expect Skinner's readership to have been at odds with bird protection advocates, and there were, at the beginning, some gripes expressed, but generally speaking the "true sportsman" ideal was highly complementary to agricultural bird protection; correspondents showed concern for such topics as sustainable bag limits and reasonable (and enforceable) close seasons. At the same time, a glimpse at prevailing attitudes can reveal why the more sentimental arguments against the shooting of songbirds fell on deaf ears.

The best example of the resentment of hunters felt over their perceived disrespect can be found in a letter to the Turf Register published in the February 1830 issue.
[Several years back] there were but few sportsmen here, and what few there were, were solicitous not to be known as such, and were sportsmen as it "were," by "stealth;" fearing it should it be known that they took a day's recreation in the "field," (where their minds would be unbent from serious thought; and human life cannot proceed to advantage without some measure of relaxation) it would injure their credit with our monied institutions....There were also at that period, among us, some self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees, who looked upon all persons who indulged in this manly and rational recreation, as but idlers or drones in the hive of society...
Moreover, the policy of closing farmland to hunters violated basic natural principles. Note the way the writer (and editor) positioned no trespassing notices as undemocratic.
As to our landed gentlemen, [the editor notes: "sometimes upstart arrogant Englishmen"] putting up "finger boards" and advertisements warning sportsmen not to trespass! On what, Mr Editor? On their old fields that have been thrown out of cultivation for more than twenty years--that I attribute to their ignorance of natural law, a principle of which is, "that nothing should be made exclusive property, which can conveniently be enjoyed in common." Now, I think, birds, with their fine expanded wings, and their powers of volition and locomotion can conveniently be enjoyed in common, and so nature intended. Our landed gentlemen will be candid enough to acknowledge that they are not afraid we will kill their birds, which their ignorance of natural law induces them to consider as much their personal property as their cows and horses, whereas they are the common property of all--exclusively in their wild state, belonging to no one, notwithstanding whose land they may happen to be on. It is true they may sue us for trespassing on their land, but not for shooting birds; and what damage or reparation could a jury award to the farmer? 
By and large, however, criticism was reserved for fellow hunters who did not live up to the standard of the true sportsman. One sign of being a sportsman, for example, was having an acute sense of appropriate open seasons that went beyond what was legally allowable. See, for example, this comment about woodcocks published on February 1830.
In July they are considered sufficiently grown for the sportsman, but it is not uncommon in that month to find many too young to be without the care of the mother, which is always indicated by the action of the old bird when flushed, called hovering. The true sportsman, in such cases, withholds his fire and spares the imploring mother and her young...
(Note that this letter also refuted the myth of the unsentimental sportsman)
I have frequently felt something like remorse, when, on picking up a wounded [woodcock], I have met the forgiving expression of its full and bright, yet soft hazel orb. How many of the beauties who dazzle and enslave us would be proud of such an eye.
One recurring topic in the early years of the Turf Register was the question of appropriate seasons for rail shooting. Here's a particularly vitriolic sample from June 1830:
Rail shooting ought not to commence before the middle of September, and for one excellent reason, viz: they are entirely useless for any known purpose, being so wretchedly bare, that none but a connoisseur in bone eating would think of troubling the cook with their miserable carcasses. Notwithstanding this fact, I am sorry to say, that some gentlemen of our city are terribly guilty of destroying these poor little birds by wholesale long before that period, for no other purpose that I can imagine, unless to have a convenient opportunity to examine minutely their anatomical structure, or to boast of the quantity of crime they may have committed.
Another sign of being a true sportsman was shooting for a purpose (food) rather than points in a competition. See this July 1830 letter about the destruction of grouse that denied the label "sportsman" to those who violated the principle:
[Grouse are] almost annihilated in consequence of those who call themselves sportsmen, commencing the murder of the young birds about the first of August...Their object is to boast of having killed so many birds. They conceal their being young birds that could not fly, or get out of the way, and, as your correspondent justly terms it, "might have been killed with the ramrod." 
The same writer (who named himself "ranger") made the case that sportsmen themselves should and could effectively enforce closed season laws: 
Some honourable sportsmen, who I am acquainted with, hearing of [poachers] having gone down, applied for warrants for them, and, with a peace officer, waited for their return. About one or two o'clock in the morning the sportsmen drove up to the tavern in high glee. After the common salutations the officer served warrants upon them for the penalty of killing game out of season. They were much surprised indeed that sportsmen should be thus treated and at first were disposed to be obstreperous but on more mature reflection and finding the Jerseymen resolute and determined, they became composed and a compromise took place, they agreeing to pay twenty dollars, with a promise never to be guilty of the like offence again...
Make no mistake. The goals of bird protection were not in perfect synchrony with those of sportsmen.  Love of the beautiful singing of songbirds, for example, was not a sufficient reason not to kill them. One could enjoy both their song and their flesh. This is shown most dramatically by the following account of the bobolink (called the "ortolan," after the French delicacy), reprinted in the October 1829 issue.
At this season, the amateur of nature's melodies can be as much gratified with their delightful notes as the gourmand will be with their flesh in the autumn. Their notes are few but the intonation is more distinct than that of any other bird; it resembles the tones produced by a musical box more than any other thing to which I can compare it. But, after all, the music produced by the knives, forks, and plates at a table, honoured by the presence of these little gentlemen, is incomparably superior to any other we have ever heard; nay the very sight of them, strung up in dozens on the stalls of the Jersey market, early in a September morning is delightful. To see their little yellow rumps (ready picked for inspection) protruding between their wings, like lumps of amber, is indeed a great temptation; but when we come to the eating of them, then it is that we need not much wonder at the extravagence of the poet...who paid a guinea, which had been given him in charity, for one of them.  In short, no man can say that he has tasted all of the best things, which a kind Providence has bestowed upon us, until he has eaten a dozen or two of these little birds nicely dressed.
And in contradiction to the sentiment expressed at the top of the page, small birds were not completely off the shooting list.  Here is an extract published in June 1831:
In learning the use of the gun, the first object is to get the better of trepidation or apprehension at the instant of discharge...His first game must be small birds, particularly sparrows, which, in the manner of their covey and flight resemble partridges; and, as it has been well observed, the too common custom of practising upon the swallow tribe should be abandoned both because those birds are not only harmless but highly useful for the destruction of insects; and besides, too difficult for the aim of a beginner. It is in this sparrow, or small game novitiate, that the novice must, as far as possible, divest himself of that flutter of the spirits and almost paralytic eagerness...
This extract was actually from a British publication (not uncommon in the early days of the Turf Register), Scott's British Field Sports. Note the sensitivity to the status of the swallow as a harmless, useful bird. The (house) sparrow, on the other hand, despite Bradley's worm destruction numbers, could be shot for practice.

Despite the efforts of the Turf Builder and its readership, the "sportsman" would continue to be the butt of jokes and satires for a while longer, particularly when it came to the shooting of songbirds. The following parody, credited to the Connecticut Herald, was widely reprinted (it appeared in the New England Farmer on June 20, 1832).
Sport for Gentlemen
Take a double barrel fowling piece, with a shot bag and pouch, go into the fields and shoot the little birds that destroy the worms on the trees and the insects upon the plants. If by your success the field birds should be killed off or frightened away, set yourself down upon a bank and try your hand upon the useful and harmless swallows who are skimming the meadows on their swiftest wing. It will show your skill as a marksman and the pleasure of their dying scream will be greatly enhanced by the reflection that their unfledged offspring will die of starvation in their nests. It would be excellent employment at least. We know of one gentleman who makes it his sport.
On September 10, 1934, the New England Farmer ran the following more general satire, credited to Spy.
Hints to Sportsmen
This being the season for shooting birds, cows, and other animals, not excluding sometimes full grown children, a few general hints for the department of the field may be serviceable--so here they are: 
If you are going more than a mile from home, and there are three of you, take a gig--it cuts a dash, and saves shoe leather. 
Carry plenty of salt with you, for such game as Muscovy Ducks can be caught by sprinkling it upon their tails. 
Be sure and let the muzzle of your guns project a quarter of a yard each out of the gig, to show all the people on the road that you are sportsmen, and know a thing or two.  
On no account shoot game until you have got beyond the outskirts of the city, for the game may be diseased. 
Take aim with both eyes shut--for the birds thinking that you cannot see them, will not take the trouble to fly away. 
Take care that you do not shoot a cow or hog, instead of the sparrow you aim at. 
If a tom-tit should stand in your way, do not shoot it, for powder and shot cost money; but knock its brains out with the butt-end of your gun 
The guns of least repute among our common sportsmen are the best, those that scatter their shots the widest, as there is more chance of hitting the object; for if one won't, another will.
Good ducking may be had near any of the farm houses. If a farmer should attempt to expostulate with you, give him a little of the science
In the choice of dogs be very particular--The bull dog and common cur are the best, the one for defending you against intruders, and the other for keeping away the shot. 
Pay no regard to orchards and gardens, fruit and vegetables are worth nothing now, and a sparrow is not to be sneezed at.
It would not be long, however, until the sportsman was less a target of jokes, and more a target of gun marketing. 

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