Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On Birds and their Misfortunes

A classic example of the developing economic-ornithological project is an article published in the (June 9, 1833) New England Farmer, originally run in the Boston Patriot. It was titled, "On Birds and Their Misfortunes," and was highly critical of the 1818 Massachusetts "Useful Bird Act." In short, the Act had encouraged the persecution of undeserving birds; a truly scientific ornithology could set things straight. [Note, this enterprise was very much in the spirit of Alexander Wilson].
We have already intimated our opinion, that the labors of the scientific ornithologist are of far more practical utility than the casual observer might suppose; and that, even in the business of legislation, a regard to his researches might prevent many errors, which may much affect public welfare. The legislation on the subject of birds has been marked by some essential errors, which have led to real evil. By the law of 1817, woodcocks, snipes, larks, and robins, were protected at certain seasons of the year, whilst war to the knife was declared against crows, blackbirds, owls, blue jays, and hawks; these last were treated as a sort of pirates, subject to suspension at the yard arm with the least possible ceremony. It so happens that the character of these very birds has been singularly mistaken; for while the ordinance of legislation has been thus systematically leveled at them, they, on a principle which men would do extremely well to imitate, have been returning good for evil; they have been diligently engaged in extripating all sorts of vermin, while never were the vilest vermin half so ill treated by the human race. 
The author went one by one down the list of persecuted birds, highlighting the qualities that balanced any perceived mischief. Most of these don't require comment, so I will simply present the list, with the name of the bird in bold face.
The crow for example, who is generally regarded as a most suspicious character, has had great injustice done him; in the spring when the ground is moist, he lives a state of the most triumphant luxury on grubs; he eats the young corn, it is true, but it is a necessary of life to which he never resorts, except when his supply of animal food is shortened. After the corn is tolerably grown, he has nothing more to do with it; and in any stage he destroys at least five hundred pernicious grubs and insects, for every blade of corn which he pillages from man. In the Southern States he is regularly permitted to accompany the ploughman, and collects the grubs from the newly opened furrow; his life is thus secured by the safest of all tenures--that of the interest of man in permitting him to live. 
There is scarcely a farm in England without its rookery; the humid atmosphere multiplies every species of insect, and those birds reward man for his forbearance by ridding him of legions of his foes. By a policy like that which dictated the revocation of the edict of Nantes, they have occasionally been exposed to the mischievous propensities of unruly boys, who, as far as utility is concerned, are not to be compared to crows; but the error of this step soon became obvious, and they are now received with a universal welcome.
The hawk enjoys a doubtful reputation in the hen-roost; he sometimes destroys the chickens, but with the consistency of man, does not like to see his infirmities copied by another; and by way of compensation demolishes the fox, which eats twenty chickens, where he eats but one; so that it is hardly the part of wisdom to set a price upon his head, while the fox, a hardened knave, is not honored with a penal statute.  
How the owl came to be included in this black list, it is difficult to conjecture; he is a grave, reflecting bird, who has nothing to do with man except to benefit him by eating weasels, foxes, racoons, rats and mice, a sin for which most housekeepers will readily forgive him. In some parts of Europe, he is kept in families, like the cat, whom he equals in patience, and surpasses in alertness. 
Another of these birds, the blackbird, is the avowed enemy of grubs, like the crow; in the middle States, the farmer knows the value of his company to pluck them from the furrow; and while other less painstaking birds collect the vermin from the surface, his investigations are more profound, and he digs to the depth of several inches in order to discover them. When the insects are no longer to be found, he eats the corn as well as he may, but even then asks but a moderate compensation for his former services; five hundred blackbirds do less injury to the corn than a single squirrel. 
The last upon the catalogue of persecuted birds is the blue jay. Whoever watches him in the garden, will see him descend incessantly from the branches, pouncing every time up on the grub, his enemy and ours.  
We have already seen that the act to which we have referred protects some birds at certain seasons of the year; among others, the robin, who lives on insects and worms, and has no taste for vegetable diet, and the lark, who is extremely useful in his way. The only wonder is that it should have been thought expedient to allow them to be shot, in any season.
On the other hand, some destructive birds didn't deserve the protection they'd been granted.
The quail, another of the privileged class, has no title to be named in the company with the others; in the planting time he makes more havoc than a regiment of crows, without atoning for his misdeeds by demolishing a single grub.  Nor is the partridge a much more scrupulous respecter of the rights of property; though, as he lives in comparative retirement, he succeeds in preserving a better name for honesty.
[Later studies would demonstrate that bobwhite were in fact valuable weed seed eaters and young ruffed grouse, at least, were entirely insectivorous.] In general, songbirds, even bobolinks, deserved more credit than they commonly received.
There are some of our most familiar birds, of which a word may here be said. Every body has seen the little goldfinch on the thistle by the way-side, and wondered, perhaps, that his taste should lead him to so thorny a luxury; but he is all this while engaged in devouring the seeds, which but for him would over-run the grounds of every farmer. 
Even the bob-o-link, a most conceited coxcomb, who steals with all imaginable grace, destroys millions of the insects which annoy the farmer most. All the little birds, in fact, which are seen about the blossoms of the trees, are doing us the same service on their own way.
The author reserved the final word for the woodpecker, with a real-life tale supporting the folly of treating certain birds as criminals deserving destruction:
Perhaps there is no bird which is considered more decidedly wanting in principle than the woodpecker; and certainly, so fare as man is concerned, there is none more conscientious. So long as a dead tree can be found for her nest, he will not trouble himself to bore into a living one; whatever wounds he makes upon the living, are considered by foreign gardeners as an advantage to the tree.  The sound tree is not the object--he is in pursuit of insects and their larvae. In South Carolina and Georgia, forests to a vast extent have been destroyed by an insect, which would seem as capable of lifting a tree, as of destroying it. The people were alarmed by the visitation, and sagaciously laid the mischief at the door of the woodpecker, until they found that they had confounded the bailiff with the thief.
The time for true economic ornithology had arrived.
The injury arising from the loss of a single crop is hardly to be estimated. The experience which is taught us by our own misfortune, is very dearly bought; and we think that if we can derive it from others--if, for example, we can learn from the ornithologists the means of preventing such injury, as in many instances we may, the dictates of economy combine with those of taste, and warn us not to neglect the result of his researches.
This article ultimately found a permanent place in Thomas Green Fessenden's The Complete Farmer and Rural Economist.

No comments:

Post a Comment