Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Ought we to kill the birds that eat our fruit?"

The question of birds and cherries, as we have seen, was a crucial one for horticulturalists.  Should farmers (following Addison) pay for birdsong with cherries or defend their property by destroying pilferers? One writer in Luther Tucker's Genesee Farmer (September 8, 1832) sought to explore this issue by means of an imagined dialogue (the fifth in a series of "Conversations on Horticulture"), between a person putatively representing a position guided by sentiment and poetry and another (the preferred position) representing the tough rationality of an economist. The series of conversations was credited to "X." (We will see another "X" in the near future with a similar point of view).

The discussants began with the basic question, which was quickly broadened by discussant  farmer "B." 
E. Ought we to kill the birds that eat our fruit? 
B. If the right to do so is questioned I would ask if we ought to kill the crows that destroy our corn? or the rats that infest our granaries?
E. O, no farmer has any doubts on that score. Self-preservation is the first law of nature; but some doubt the propriety of killing birds that only come to eat our cherries or our raspberries. 
B. Some persons get their bread by raising grain and others by selling cherries and raspberries. Now if self-preservation is the law, it will justify the destruction of the grosbeak for eating cherries as much as it will justify the destruction of the rat or of the crow for eating grain; and the application of the law is just the same, whether we raise the fruit for our own use or whether we raise it for others' use.
Note the invocation of "self-preservation" as an over-riding principle, as well as the (false) consensus concerning the propriety of shooting crows.
E. But do you think it right to kill the innocent birds that come round to sing for us, merely because they take a little fruit?
B. If they were innocent of taking my fruit--or if they only took a little fruit when I had it in abundance and which I could spare without inconvenience, I would think it best not to kill them.  Birds that eat our fruit, however, are of two classes--those that feast on our labors without doing anything in return--as the grosbeak and the cedar bird; and those that destroy many noxious insects and take their pay in fruit--as the robins and the red-headed woodpecker. We are the judges whether they take too much or not. We are to decide whether we can afford to employ them on such terms--Yet I would grant favors to the robins which I would withhold from my enemies, the cedar birds 
E. Birds that only come to that "common feast for all that lives," as [the Scottish poet James] Thomson calls it, ought not to be considered as enemies. 
B. I will not contend about a word; their case differs not from that of the crow, or of the rat, if the property destroyed is of equal value. None of them ever visit us but for plunder; and those who take that view of this subject, appear not to discriminate between the fruits which grow wild and fruits of the garden which requires labor and expense, which are not--and which ought not to be--"common." Our right to the fruit which we cause to grow is as full, and as exclusive, as our right to the corn which we cause to grow; and we have as much right to defend the one as the other, from depredators of every description.
"B" was not a wanton bird killer. He used his judgement when deciding which birds should be destroyed, abstracting the problem and weighing cost versus benefit. In a footnote, the writer acknowledged that the cedar waxwing might eat insects in certain contexts but his own stomach examination studies had shown no insect matter. In other words, he was open-minded but reliant on empirical evidence.
E. Am I to understand, then, that you would spare the robins on the same cherry tree from which you would shoot the cedar birds?
B. I have done so; and would do so as long as I had fruit to spare; but if the numbers were disproportionately great to my quantity of fruit, and I could not spare it, I would not hesitate to lessen their numbers. 
E. That is, you would kill them. O that would be barbarous. 
B. I would only justify myself by the necessity of the case. It would not be more barbarous, however, than to kill chickens; and one chicken for destroying insects, is worth half a dozen robins. 
E. In a garden that might be true, because you confine the chickens exclusively to that place--while the robin feeds in the fields and the woods, and does so little in any one place that his labor is scarcely perceived. Still you ought not to forget his services. 
B. No, I would not forget his services; neither can I forget my own when I grow fruit which he plunders. If he does me more good than harm, I ought to save him. I am fond of robins--that is, I like to have a few to sing for me, just as I should like to have a few Canary birds; and I would agree to a moderate expenditure on both; but in all cases, as soon as they become too burdensome I would lessen their numbers.
Indeed, "B" was not opposed to the Addison idea of paying a few cherries for a song (equating robins with pet canaries) but would change his cost when cost exceeded benefit.  Meanwhile, prejudice and sentiment (not to mention species confusion) guided his opponent: 
E. I can't agree with you. I hold them "sacred to the household gods," as Thomson says, and would sooner give up my fruit than injure them--- [In a footnote the writer suggested that Babes in the Woods had transferred the positive sentiment towards the European robin to the American species] 
B. And give up the chickens which are six times as serviceable to be cooked. I have as much right to kill a robin as I have to kill as chicken. I have as much right to kill a robin that injures me to the full amount of his services as I have to kill a partridge which never served nor annoyed me, and which every man who carries a gun is eager to shoot. If the robin is saved while the partridge is killed it shows that prejudice affords a better protection than innocence.
Even poets, such as William Cowper, saw the big picture here--that utility to humans defined the value of birds and animals. 
E. You think too much of your fruit. 
B. I estimate it no higher than the farmer estimates his grain, and none questions his right to defend his crops. A proper regard to the works of our Great Creator, however, will cause us to spare the life of every animal whose death is not necessary for our comforts. The pious Cowper would not number among his friends
"the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm"
yet he said in regard to inferior animals
"man's claims
Are paramount, and must extinguish theirs,"
adding with reference to their destruction,
"A necessary act incurs no blame."
Christian mercy only extended to the edge of human comfort. [see Sarah Trimmer]. Those birds that displayed no costs, only benefits, deserved full protection:
E. You have surprised me: I did not suspect you would shoot the birds that we all love so much to have singing in our gardens and orchards. 
B. That is a mistake--in part. We have three classes of birds; and to one class no person is more friendly than myself. I protect them as far as it is in my power--have built barriers of sweet briars to keep off the cats from their nests--and would no sooner shoot one than I would shoot a young chicken. 
E. You have not named the class. 
B. True. It contains the birds that never plunder us--such as the swallow, the blue bird, and our whole tribe of sparrows. They are not neutrals, merely abstaining from mischief; they are our best friends, by feeding on our enemies. 
E. You mean noxious insects. 
B. I do. And the man who would destroy one of these birds, for sport, or to show his skill as a marksman, must be destitute of some important moral principles; and I should be apprehensive of his committing other crimes when he could do so with impunity.
The swallow (beneficial) and the robin (mixed) could be sorted into different classes, very much an assumption of economic ornithology.
E. It seems to me that you make too much difference in the treatment of the swallow and the robin. 
B. Not more than civilized nations have generally made between the peaceable citizen and him who takes his neighbor's property without leave. I should be satisfied to banish the robins when they become too troublesome; and would only resort to the gun because it is the only practicable method by which we can reduce them 
E. With your partiality for birds, why do you argue so strenuously in favor of destroying them 
B. I only argue that cultivators may use their right reason. I have mentioned the robin in particular because it is a favorite. I have not killed one in twenty years because they have not visited me as they have some of my neighbors, in destructive flocks.  Yet I would not submit to have all my small fruits from the cherry to the grapes in the garden destroyed by robins--My neighbors ought to be guided by a similar determination; and when birds of any kind become too numerous and ravenous, they ought to assist in lessening their numbers. 
Note the re-framing of "destruction" to "reduction." The rational farmer thought in quantitative terms. Not unlike the bee-keeper, Butler, who was concerned that sentiment (via "poets") could cause farmers to act in ways not in their best interest, farmer B, while well-disposed to songbirds in general, wanted to reserve the right to destroy "pests" (defined as cost exceeding benefit). The general need to protect songbirds could be taken for granted. Farmer B was concerned that this consensus had swung too far in the opposite direction.

The call to "lessen the numbers" of cedar waxwings was repeated a couple of years later in an 1834 letter to the Genessee Farmer:
Although many of our cherries were destroyed by the snow storm, we should still have had a comfortable supply, had it not been for the voracious Cedar birds. I find no way to deal with them so good as with small shot. This we have done to some considerable extent, and have thinned their ranks for the time being; but so numerous have they become in this country, and so scarce is the fruit this season that they will not allow a cherry to ripen; and unless carefully watched, they devour all the best of the strawberries. They have also begun already to eat the scarcely colored berries of the Tartarian Honeysuckle. 
If all those who have cherry trees would do their part and kill their proper share of these marauders, the task would not fall so heavy on others who mean to defend their property. I am satisfied that were we to let the Cedar birds come and go unmolested, we should never see a ripe cherry; but many people, strange as it may seem, are not used to ripe cherries--eating them in a half-matured state, which gives them a better chance to compete with these mass devourers. We have no fruit however, that is more unwholesome than the cherry when eaten in that state; and certainly in flavor it is miserably deficient.
Note the call for all cherry tree owners to "do their part." No bird, by the way, was exempt from the cost-benefits analysis. Even the Baltimore oriole could be intolerable:
The Baltimore Oriole or Hanging bird is also voracious, but very different in its character. So far in the season, we have not had much cause for complaint; but when the raspberries begin to ripen, we shall hear from him. When on a plundering exhibition, his note is very sharp and shrill. On pears and apricots, which will not fatten him this year, he is more destructive than the Cedar bird. He is too bad to be tolerated, though a fine bird in some other respects.
Note the detail that the oriole's call was "sharp and shrill" when "plundering." Sentiment was still hard to extract from hard economic analysis.

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