Friday, August 16, 2013

Crows on trial

On March 12, 1834, the New England Farmer reprinted an interesting article originally run in the Salem Register.  While both papers treated the issue of crow bounty legislation as humor, the article offers a rare glimpse of actual discourse about bird-related issues in the Massachusetts legislature.
The Salem Register published the following sketch of a debate in the Legislature on the bill for allowing 25 cents for every full grown Crow, and 12 1/2 cents for every young crow, ("children half price,") which may be killed in the State. 
The members took occasion to indulge in a little pleasantry on this subject.
While the debate ultimately took a humorous turn, there is no reason to think the initial remarks (printed below) were not genuine. Indeed the positions taken by speakers closely mirrored sentiments and arguments that we've seen before. The first speaker argued against the bill in favor of the crow.
Mr. [Micah] Ruggles, of Troy [Fall River], spoke in defense of the character of the Crow.  They are the natural scavengers of our Farms--they destroy the enemies of our corn fields, and do much more good than harm. He was always glad to see them. He was himself a farmer and raised 300 bushels of corn a year. He always prevented any one from killing the crows and frequently scattered half a bushel of corn about to feed them. He should be as willing to pay for their services as for any of the laborers upon his farm. He moved to strike out the enacting clause of the bill.
The bill's formulators disagreed.
Mr. [Ethan A.] Greenwood, of Hubbardston, (Chairman of the Committee which reported the bill) defended its provisions, and spoke in a disrespectful manner of the character of the Crow. Every farmer, he said, knows they are great depredators, and some are injured to the amount of 30 to 40 dollars a year. He thought something should be done to encourage their destruction.
Then the "pleasantries" emerged, mixed with some amount of apparently genuine sentiment. For example, there was no need for the law because farmers could easily afford to defend their own corn:
Mr. [Justus] Forward, of Belchertown, thought there were other birds and animals as bad as crows and ought to be destroyed just as much. There was the Chewink and Chipmunk--they too visit our cornfields.  But he would ask any liberal minded man if he would grudge a kernel of corn to a poor Chipmunk when he sees him sitting hour after hour, with tears in his eyes longing for something to eat? If any gentleman raises so much corn as to lose 40 dollars a year by the crows, he can afford to hire a man and find him powder and shot to protect it. If the crows are killed, twice the number would come to bury the dead. 
An old farmer in the gallery said he at first thought this a small subject to legislate upon but he was now in favor of doing something against the crows.  He has known them to pluck out the eyes of little lambs! Would gentlemen let an animal that would do such a deed go with impunity? As to Chipmunks, they could not fly and small children could set squat traps and catch 'em; there is no need of a bounty for them. Gentlemen must possess a very liberal spirit, as well as a great abundance, if they are willing to give corn to such a pernicious tribe as the crows. 
A member moved a re-commitment, to add chipmunks, chewinks, caterpillars etc to the bill. 
Mr. Forward never knew crows to pick out lambs' eyes, but he didn't doubt the word of the gentleman in the gallery, for he once travelled in his part of the country and upon his word he didn't believe there was corn enough raised there for the Crows to subsist upon! 
Mr. Darling, of Marblehead, said he once knew a corn field destroyed by a swarm of Rats--he though they ought to be included in the bill, and that it should specify at what age they should be considered Young rats or Old rats!
Mr. Forward said--the bill didn't point out the size or weight which constitute a "full grown Crow." 
An elderly member asked whether the bill was to apply to the city of Boston?
Mr. Greenwood replied that it would not--no Crow was ever seen in the city except a certain "Jim Crow" and he had no idea of shooting him! 
Mr. Ellis said, there was a member of this House the last year by the name of Crow! He certainly would come under the denomination of a "full grown Crow," and he saw no provision in the bill which would protect him!
Fortunately for crows, the bill did not pass, signaling what was perhaps the beginning of the end of attempts to control crow depredations through bounties.
The House having been amused for an hour by this crow shooting project, and the proposition having been sufficiently ridiculed, the question was taken on striking out the enacting clause of the bill, and carried in the affirmative by a very large majority. 
In the same issue of the New England Farmer there were two other crow-related articles.  The first, mirroring the pro-crow position expressed by Micah Ruggles, interpreted an item from the London news:
27,000 crows were destroyed this season at Dupplin by the demolition of between 11000 and 12000 nests, by contract for 25 pounds sterling....In opposition to this spirit of persecution it is said that nine tenths of their food consists of worms, insects, and their larvae; and by every one who knows how destructive to vegetation are the larvae of the tribes of insects and worms, some slight idea, may be formed of the devastation which rooks are the means of preventing. 
This information above was credited to Loudon's Gardener's Magazine;  it combined a number of separate items from the October 1833 issue.

The second crow-related article reveals that despite the overall positive thrust of the New England Farmer with respect to the "feathered tribe," there was still room in the paper for methods of bird destruction. Titled, "To kill rats or crows," it repeated a novel suggestion from the Genesee Farmer that nux vomica (strychine) applied to corn would make a better pesticide than corn soaked with arsenic.  The writer described his experience using the method. Despite using insufficient amounts of poison, he was still able to turn the situation to his advantage:
...early the next morning after sowing it, I found a crow on the ground, stupid; but on putting him in a cage he revived, and I put him in the field, and confined him to a board by tying his legs on the under side, after boring two holes to put his feet through; and immediately the air was black with crows but no one ventured to disturb the corn...
While this might strike the modern reader as a novel form of cruelty, in fact, the use of individual trapped crows to ward off flocks was a fairly common idea. It is clear though, that even within pages of the New England Farmer, there was no consensus about the usefulness of crows.

[UPDATE. The crow trial was apparently a literary genre. The Farmer's Register in October 1836 published a remarkable account of a "Debate on the Crow Bill, in the Senate of Virginia, February 8, 1826." In verse form.]

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