Friday, August 9, 2013

Ecological Allies or Horticultural Enemies

In 1830, an interesting exchange happened in the pages of the New York Farmer, highlighting some points of contention between those who regarded birds as ecological allies and those who believed some of them were enemies needing to be destroyed.

The plum curculio is a common insect in orchards and, until the age of insecticides, its control presented a great puzzle to orchard owners.  In early 1830, a horticulturalist, identifying herself as "a patriotic lady in New Jersey," [almost certainly Mary Griffith] wrote to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society proposing a premium for their destruction.  This letter was in turn circulated to other horticultural societies and then published in associated periodicals (The New England Farmer, e.g., on May 21, 1830).

While the horticultural societies eventually gave the plan their blessings, they had some misgivings. The New York Horticultural Society put theirs in writing. A report of the "Committee of the New-York Horticultural Society on the proposition of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society respecting a Premium for destroying Insects," published in the May 1830 issue of the New York Farmer, articulated what was really a proto-ecological argument against the plan.

Broadening the discussion to the questions of insects and fruit trees in general, the report asserted that the search for "cures" to the problem of insects was misguided, forgetting "the limited nature of our own powers." Indeed,
The genial sun, and the mild atmosphere on which the maturity and fine flavor of our fruit depend, are equally propitious to the hosts of Insects which are sustained by these fruits, and which are destined to prevent the intended monopoly of man in the bounties of creation. 
Horticulturalists should not expect to control the situation through a war-like attitude, but might take advantage of natural forces to diminish the harm. 
It is a fact, also, worth noticing, that the war of extermination is not to be waged indiscriminately against the whole race, since even among these minute beings there exist carnivorous tribes which prey exclusively on the weaker species...and thus render essential service to man in destroying his foes.
In general, one might rely on the birds for some help:
But the most useful auxiliaries of the horticulturalist against his insect enemies, are the Insectivorous Birds. The number which a single individual of the feathered race will destroy in one year far exceeds all that could be effected by the utmost stretch of human power; and hence it is the obvious interest of every one concerned in the cultivation of fruit to cherish and protect from injury those useful servants, to encourage them, as much as possible, to frequent the orchard and garden, and increase the numbers of those which are capable of domestication. 
The "patriotic lady" [Griffith] made a vociferous reply, printed in the October 1830 issue of the New York Farmer (originally published in the National Gazette). She focused on the bird argument in particular, asserting that birds, for example, avoided hairy caterpillars:
If a single bird, or as the New York committee express themselves, "an individual of the feathered race," which they say, "can effect more than what can be accomplished by the utmost stretch of human power," why do not the countless numbers of birds which inhabit the farmers who never allow a gun to be heard on their premises--why do they not, in return for the quiet they enjoy, relieve his trees from caterpillars? The truth is this--birds never, under any emergency, prey upon these horny, hairy, slimy caterpillars. I have known them to abandon their nest, when the tree has been polluted with them, and rather than do this, so strong is their attachment to their offspring, even before they are hatched, they would certainly prefer to destroy these vermin, if it were not so repugnant to their instincts. 
Birds, including barnyard poultry, may be useful for the agriculturalist but not for the horticulturalist:
Those, therefore, who so strenuously recommend poultry and birds for the extermination of the curculio and caterpillar talk of what they do not understand. Barnyard poulty can get at but few of the grubs or larvae of insects because their instinct impels them to secrete themselves below the reach of such assaults. In a soft, moist soil, the fowls scratch about and pick up ground worms and such small chrysalids and seeds as lie near the surface; but this does not amount to much, for the field of action is confined to favorable spots, always in broad sunny places--never under the shade of trees, and when they do go there, it is to retreat from excessive heat. I have carefully watched their operations, and I know that a hen rarely leads her young under trees which are bare of weeds and grass (as all orchard trees should be) to search for food. 
To agriculturalists, who generally have but small kitchen gardens, well enclosed by a paling fence, poultry can be very servicable, for they destroy a great number of grasshoppers, crickets and field butterflies. But to the horticulturalist, I say it again, they are positively injurious, and indeed useless, for as the horticulturalist raises no grain nor grass, he does not fear the ravages of the cricket or grasshopper, insects that only harbour among weeds and grasses. I am as fond of seeing poultry on a farm as any one, and if I consulted my own pleasure I would never allow a bird to be destroyed; but I am now advocating the extensively beneficial scheme of providing cheap and delicious fruits for the young and aged, the sick and the poor, as well as to insure profit to the orchardist. How can I accomplish this, unless I can root out ignorant prejudice and false sensibilities?
Indeed, birds were enemies of the orchard, the garden, and the honey bee. 
I have upwards of one hundred cherry trees of the finest varieties, but never think of getting any of the fruit, for the birds and the curculio carry off and destroy it all, and in districts where the curculio is never seen, birds devour all the fine cherries. They likewise strike their bills into the ripe peaches, thus making an opening for wasps and ants, who quickly demolish the fruit, which but for the first puncture would have been safe from their attack. Birds are as fond of grapes as of cherries, and if they are not disturbed, they will soon eat up all the early kinds, and gardeners know how difficult it is to prevent them from destroying lettuce seeds, and other small seeds. They are very destructive to bees--the cat-bird, the martin, the blue jay, and king bird will stand in a convenient place in an apiary and devour bees by the dozen; and the worst of it is that many of the destructive insects, which might fall a prey to the voracity of birds, only make their appearance at night, when the birds are at rest. 
Horticulturalists, and, above all, those who have formed themselves into a society for the especial purpose of advancing the interests of horticulture, should direct all their efforts to the destruction of those insects and birds which destroy flowers, vegetables, trees, and fruit, and leave it to the agricultural societies to guard their craft from the depredations of those birds and insects which commit such havoc upon the grain, grasses and cattle. 
In short, countering the "live and let live" attitude of the New York Horticultural society, she maintained an aggressive program of destruction, both of insect and bird enemies. 

As might be expected, the New York Horticultural Society did not accept her accusations quietly, responding in an equally vociferous response in the November 1830 issue of the New York Farmer.  Unfortunately, for our purposes, the writers didn't address the specific charges made against birds, choosing to make a general attack on her essay and expertise, which contained "marked disapprobation of the views of the committee" and represented "new-fangled strain of sentiments, so totally different from every other writer on subjects connected with horticulture" as to be dismissible.  Note the mutual charges of "ignorant prejudice and false sensibilities," the kind of rhetorical impasse that would ultimately make the relative objectivity of economic ornithology research a practical necessity.

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