Thursday, August 1, 2013

Letters to the New England Farmer #1. Bird Shooting.

While John S. Skinner of the American Farmer was receptive to the bird protection message, it wasn't central to his mission. Indeed, by the mid 1820s, Skinner was more interested in providing advice to sports shooters than protecting birds and he eventually left the American Farmer to publish one of the first American periodicals aimed at sportsmen, the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. (Indeed, some credit Skinner with popularizing the sportsman ideal in the United States). Thomas Green Fessenden of the New England Farmer, by comparison, was practically a bird protection activist, regularly publishing "useful bird" and anti-shooting letters from correspondents.

The next few posts will feature some of those letters.

The first is the following from an un-named Pennsylvania correspondent published on May 1, 1824 under the heading, "Bird Shooting."
The approach of mild weather has brought with it that most charming delight of the season, the music and twittering of the smaller birds--but it is no trifling deduction from the pleasure it affords to hear the surrounding hills reverberate with the reports of guns that wanton insensible persons are aiming at their lives. Perhaps no amusement (if it deserves that name) is so lame in defence as this. Few are willing to acknowledge themselves hard-hearted or savage enough to be pleased with the dying pangs of a poor beautiful little bird, which can answer him but a trifling purpose after it is dead; and as an economical mode of procuring food it is wholly indefensible, for the cost of powder and shot used by the most expert gunner (unless on a chance occasion) would procure double or treble the weight of good fat mutton or beef at the butcher's stall as he can possibly obtain in birds--and if their little limbs be a delicious variation for his palate yet he must have an inharmonious soul who can exchange their continued heavenly notes for such a momentary gratification. The exhibition of skillful shooting, or practising to attain it, is a poor plea.  Our riflemen in the absense of Indians and bears content themselves with shooting at a square inch of paper and sleep just as soundly afterwards as if they had taken a dozen slaps and so might one of your blue bird gunners.
Killing small birds, according to the writer, was not only inhumane and disruptive, it was indefensible. Moreover, such killing degraded agricultural production and rural beauty: 
But the destruction of a robin, chip, blue, or black bird is not all; with every individual of them the sporting wretch destroys at least a bushel of corn, apples, or other fruit; for in the course of the season each bird devours as many caterpillars and other insects as would by the time of the ingathering prevent the earth's productions to the amount: and no doubt to such cause is to be attributed the enormous increase of marauding insects which the papers from every quarter detail through the summer season--however, it serves the sufferers right; they should prevent it in nature's way--So extensive has their destruction been that the many beautiful summer walks adjoining this town have been deprived of half their sweetness, in the almost total absence of birds which formerly abounded, and their place occupied by swarms of caterpillars on the ravaged ragged looking trees.
The writer then invoked game laws, suggesting that some Americans resisted such laws because they historically benefitted the upper classes at the expense of the common man.  He also suggested that game laws accounted for the lack of "extensive destruction by insects" in England. 
The game laws of England and other places are subject of great scorn in this country and perhaps much cannot be said in defence of the reasons for their adoption that would be agreeable to republican notions, as it was, undeniably, to reserve that sport for the richer classes; though all may partake by purchasing licenses for specified times--Nevertheless they are attended with immense advantages to the farmer.  The smaller birds are abundant and we do not remember ever to have seen an account of extensive destruction by insects in that country; to which add the preservation of their crops from the wandering feet of wanton gunners and the gaiety of their dwellings from the music of little songsters; for we would sooner see ten dozen gunners toiling on the tread wheel than forgoe this last consideration. 
As had James Worth previously, the writer called for property owners to join together to prevent hunting on their properties (invoking Buck County). He also suggested that there was a public safety angle as well:
It is urged by the sportsmen that if they do not, others will! Though this is no excuse to each, yet let adjoining farmers unite to prevent it by perserveringly prosecuting every one who enters their premises on that errand--No one has a right to shoot on any land without the owner's leave and are also fineable for doing so within a considerable distance of any public road. In parts of Bucks County and elsewhere this is done and the farmers find their accounts bettered by it--neither do so many accidents happen by leaving loaded guns standing about the house.
At the same time, the writer did not want to be considered "anti-hunting." Rather, he was in support of close seasons and the targeting of specific birds (unlike Worth, he did not bend on hawks and crows). 
We do not mean to say there may not be proper times for shooting, though it should be confined to a season; and perhaps hawks, crows, etc are lawful prey (it) at any time. 
This letter, a particularly well-developed example of the "don't shoot the birds" story, received a published response.  On July 24, 1824 the New England Farmer printed the following from Henry Putnam of Brunswick, Maine, identified as the author of Touches on Agriculture (which had been heavily excerpted in previous months). In the midst of a rambling description of agricultural life in Maine, Putnam turned to the birds:
   A few days since, a Cuckoo struck on a tree, where I had burned off a caterpillars' nest, when the inhabitants were not all at home.  These industrious Muscovites soon began to repair their ruined castle. They worked four days and I could hardly find a heart to disturb their labours.  The bird sought the nest, perforated it in three places and in a moment took every lodger for her dinner. I should advise thumb and finger caterpillar squeezers to purchase a few of these valuable birds for domestic use...
   Many men of literary acquirement, deem it beneath the dignity of soaring minds to descend to the examination of the minutiae of nature; and many farmers as well as unfeeling sportsmen, seem totally ignorant of the value of small birds that sweetly carol around them. I am led to these reflections from the recollection of an excellent dissertation on wanton bird-shooting in the New England Farmer.
Putnam offered experiences with birds of his acquaintance, dramatizing the sometimes difficult decision to label a bird "useful" or noxious.  In this case, it was the house wren, Barton's premier useful bird, that was on trial.
I have had a wren (the smallest of birds, I know, except the humming bird) that has been imprisoned 30 hours, denounced as a nuisance to society by all the neighborhood. I gave her latitude and departure so that she might traverse two windows in the room. After the agitation arising from the confinement was over I drove the flies in the room to the windows within her reach. She soon made a conquest of them all. A neighboring farmer has just informed my that four young robins lay dead in their nest and charges wrens with the murder. Doubts whether the favorite robin falls a victim to such a little bird induce me to prolong confinement for further information. It is thought by many in Maine that many large birds fall victim to the apparently insignificant wren. The nest of a wren has just been found containing five feathered young. By an unanimous family vote of the robin losers, they have been order to execution, my arguments not prevailing. 
He also joined the chorus of farmers supporting martins and swallows, particularly as controls on "musquetoes:"
The martin is truly a domestic bird, build it an habitation near your own and it will be filled with inhabitants. The swallow seeks your barn. Some years since I was usually situated where musquetoes were abundant; many stagnant pools around. From a close examination of the movements of the swallow, I conclude one will take at least two thousand of these...neighbours a day; and fifty of them may give the farmer not a little trouble in a hot night.
And he finished with a rather provocative story, linking the "don't shoot the birds" story with an episode from Boston's past:
I recollect a notice in the Boston Centinel some twenty-five years since, that there had been a famous blackbird hunt in a town but a little to the northward of Boston on Election day.  1940 birds were taken. Some good cause thereunto moving they spared the Parson's meadow.  It was a year of canker worms. The Parson disliking this cruel sport, spent the next day in his orchard, and calculated, that a blackbird, whose nest was fifty rods distant, carried as many worms to her nest that day as the sportsmen had killed birds the day before.
I have not been able to find that particular story in the Centinel, but I have been able to find the event he  referred to: a massive blackbird hunt on June 5, 1800 (reported on June 10 by the Newburyport Herald) in Boxford, Massachusetts.  That hunt and its widespread dissemination in the nation's newspapers was the impetus for the address by Charles Willson Peale on blackbirds cited in a previous post

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