Friday, August 2, 2013

Letters to The New England Farmer #2. Wanton Destruction of Birds.

The second letter we'll look at was credited to "R. Howard, Easton, MA" and published by the New England Farmer on  June 20, 1827. Titled, "Wanton Destruction of Birds," it detailed some of the specific practices of Election Day bird shoots.
Mr. Fessenden--At the 370th page of the current volume of the N.E. Farmer, I find the following statement, and question:--"We have observed several orchards in this vicinity, within a few days, which are almost entirely stripped of their green leaves, by the caterpillar or canker worm. Is there no bird to help man to get rid of these creatures?" 
The question as stated seems to elicit inquiry and I rejoice in the opportunity to bring a subject before the public of so much importance to the interest and happiness of man. 
Howard didn't really plan to directly answer the question (W.D. Peck had, of course, some decades previously) but would use it as an opportunity to tell a "don't shoot the birds" story of his own. That small birds were insectivorous was obvious and needed no elaboration:
The fact being so apparent, that the birds (no one particular species only, but every species of the smaller birds) will greatly assist man in the destruction of insects, that I shall consider the question as answered in the affirmative, without argument; and shall principally confine my remarks at this time to the treatment which these little friends of man have heretofore, and still do receive, in return for the valuable services which they render us.
The present is a period that affords strong indication of general inquiry, and a more refined taste for acquiring moral and intellectual improvement and the consequent enjoyments that are the result of a well cultivated mind; and as our true happiness is inseparably connected with our true interest, it becomes proper for us to duly consider those subjects which are calculated to promote and secure so desireable a boon.
Despite the obvious benefits shown to reason of the "little friends of man," some humans continued to operate against their "true interests":
It has been truly painful, to a humane and reflecting person, to witness the wanton and indiscriminate destruction that has been made of the birds in many parts of this country, for more than fifty years past; and I am sorry to state that the practice still prevails of setting apart one day in each year (usually the latter part of May) for the express purpose of slaughtering as many birds as possible. This deliberate and exterminating warfare is conducted as systematically as the nature of the service will admit. 
Some time previous to the day appointed, the young men and boys (and generally with the sanction of their parents, masters, or guardians) meet in groups at different places (all having the same object in view) and appoint their leaders; the different leaders (or captains as they are sometimes called) then proceed to select from those who are willing to engage in the work of destruction an equal number on each side; an agreement is then made to meet at a certain time and place (usually at some tipling shop) and to bring with them the trophies of their exploits, then and there to be counted off--and the leaders and those under them, stand pledged, each to the other, under a penalty of one or more gallons of ardent spirits, that the party producing the least number of these innocent and unresisting victims, shall be holden to pay the forfeiture. These preliminaries being definitively settled and the day appointed having arrived, the dawn of which is announced by an almost incessant discharge of musketry, so the carnage commences, and generally continues with unabating fury for a number of hours; and thus the birds (not being conscious of any offence to man, but on the contrary would instinctively fly to him for protection) are annually destroyed by thousands, through the folly and indiscretion of mankind.
Note the association of bird hunts with the other vice of drinking. Howard went on to challenge defenses of shooting matches. While he postponed a full elaboration of his argument, the gist was that such attitudes were un-Christian, an attack on the "goodness of the Creator": 
There are two reasons, which I have heard given by the advocates for the foregoing practice and which may be urged in justification of its longer continuance, viz. the belief that the birds scratch up their corn, and that young persons ought to have some days allotted to them for amusement; for they say that "all work and no play will make Jack a dull boy." To both positions, if circumstances permit, I will remark in a future communication, relying on the candour of an enlightened community to shield me from the charge of misanthropy. A mind not perverted, and sunk in sensuality, cannot be insensible to the vocal music of the feathered songsters of the orchard and the grove, but will insensibly be led to join with them in a song of praise to HIM, whose tender mercies are over all his works, and whose watchful care extends itself even to the sparrow, so "that not one of them falls without his notice." The goodness of the Creator is not manifested solely in the creation and preservation of the creature man, but is abundantly displayed throughout all animal existence, from man down to the minutest insect that crawls, as can be fully shown from the adaptation of food and other enjoyments well suited to the varied tastes and capactities of all the distinct species. 
Philosopy teaches us that all parts of creation with which we have the least acquaintance are nicely and wonderfully balanced; nor is this balance discernable only in the planetary system; it may be equally traced throughout the animal part of creation.
Some further remarks upon the beauty and utility of this balance, together with some of the evils which inevitably result to man from having this balance impaired or destroyed many be the subject of a subsequent communication. 
The author, Roland Howard, was a prominent farmer in the town of Easton. I have not been able to find the "subsequent communication" he promised.

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