Sunday, August 11, 2013

The needless destruction of songbirds: Four articles from 1832.

During the spring of 1832, the New England Farmer ran four articles focused on the needless destruction of songbirds. The spring was uncommonly cold and wet and the insectivorous bird mortality rate, particularly among swallows, was very high, making the issue of shooting even more urgent than usual. Following the lead of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, calls went out for more vigorous enforcement of current laws as well as more informal methods of protection, especially from boys with guns.

The first article, published April 11, was drawn from the Salem Observer, with extracts from the Marblehead Register. It called for land-owners to guard their lands against trespass and bird shooters, and for parents to teach their boys about the relationship between birds and the fruit they loved.
The wanton destruction of birds and their eggs, at this season of the year, cannot too forcibly be reprehended. They were made to subserve the best purpose--the destruction of worms and insects that prey upon trees and vegetation generally. Now that our orchards are devastated by that scourge, the canker worm, the subject becomes of great importance; and if nothing else will check this most injudicious and ruinous practice, the strong arm of the law should be made to interpose. Let every land-holder, then, vigilantly guard his grounds in this respect; and punish every interloper and destroyer of birds, with more severity than he would the purloiner of fruit. A correspondent in the Marblehead Register has some sensible and timely remarks on this subject, from which we make the following extract:
The millers or small butterflies, from which the cankerworm is produced, and the worm itself, form the food of all the species of small birds which frequent our fields and gardens; and in every one of these which is wantonly destroyed by boys, we lose an active and efficient friend. So great indeed is the aid which they afford us, that I have heard a gentleman declare that he would give more for a wood-picker [sic] to work in this orchard than for a hired man. The common ground-sparrow and the robin are also of the most essential service in this way. Let parents, then, impress these facts on the minds of their boys, and if no other argument will do, let them appeal to the self-interest of their children and explain to them, that if they like apples, they must not go gunning nor rob birds' nests.
The next article, published on May 2, drew from the Baltimore American and New York American to criticize the laws and attitudes encouraging the destruction of useful birds:
Among the various examples of improvident legislation, (says the Baltimore American) may be reckoned the laws in which our State legislatures sometimes think it wise to encourage, by rewards, the slaughter of birds etc, which have unluckily incurred odium with the farmers. The New York American gives some examples of similar foolish hostility among the people, to these luckless ferae naturae, the effect of which is generally to substitute a greater evil by a supposed removal of a less. The ruinous increase of the Hessian fly some years since, was attributed, and justly, it says, to the great previous destruction of the woodpeckers and other birds feeding on insects. In one district, a war of two or three campaigns was valorously waged against the owls; and straightway the fields were overrun with field-mice. In another, the garter snakes were put under ban, and the consequence was that the grass-hoppers on which the garter snake feeds, infested the fields in clouds. It is not out of a mawkish humanity, but from a belief that nature will manage this matter best in her own way, that we recommend to those who would take it out of her hands, the lines of Southey to the spider--
I won't humanely crush thy bowels out,
Lest thou shouldst eat the flies.
The same journal very properly censures those wholesale hunts, to which bushels of squirrels, rabbits, partridges and other game fall victim to indiscriminate slaughter. 
Note the rejection that this concern, extended to other targets of shooting, was due to "mawkish humanity," (the phantom charge of ignorant sentimentalism again) but rather "from a belief that nature will manage this matter best in her own way." The next item in the New England Farmer, a letter from "Julia," published on May 16, may be more vulnerable to that charge of sentimentalism, focused on the delightfulness and innocence of songbirds, with only a little attention to their usefulness to horticulture:
Of all the inexcusable wantonness of men and boys, that manifested in the destruction of the various beautiful birds which visit us in this delightful season is the most unaccountable. Who can look upon them with pain? To whom can they be offensive? Whom do they injure? On the contrary, who can behold them perched upon the trees, or winging their way from garden to grove and shrub to flower, without inexpressible emotions of delight? What ear attuned to harmony is not charmed with their simple melody? And who that can enjoy a walk or a ride in town or country or that has a taste for beauty and happiness can feel unwilling to see our trees and gardens animated with the presence of these gentle visitors? Why then hunt and destroy them? Why should it be allowed to killed them at any season? 
If they could be protected for two or three years they would become so numerous as to destroy all our most injurious insects, and in that way greatly benefit the community, by increasing the quantity and improving the quality of our fruit. They would also become much more tame and would approach more nearly to our dwellings and public walks. How enchanting would our rural shades be rendered thereby; and how happy would those murderous boys be made to see them playing around our malls and alighting on every shrub in town or country.
Do, Mr. Fessenden, implore the boys, young and old, to obey the dictates of taste, sense and interest and desist from the further destruction of those amiable songsters. 
The fourth article, published on June 6, was taken from the Salem Mercury, and titled, "Wanton destruction of birds." Here again the focus was on boys:
At this season, during the vacation of the different schools, there is a class of boys who are in the habit of treading down the grass of our fields and pastures, and injuring the branches of the fruit trees in the wicked and wanton habit of shooting birds. The insectivorous kinds, viz. the swallows, martins, redstarts, kingbirds, etc, which, previous to the wet weather of the last fortnight were abundant, have many of them perished. 
The few that now remain are of infinitely more use than we have opportunity to discover, by the destruction of grubs, worms, and eggs of vermin. The black birds, or grackles, will at this season follow in the furrows of the plough and catch up large quantities of the yellow-headed grub worm; and of those birds complained of by the industrious farmer, for the mischief committed on this corn, one of the most correct observers of nature [Wilson] remarked, that "were he placed in his situtation, he should hesitate whether to consider these birds most as friends or enemies, as they are particularly destructive to almost all the noxious worms, grubs, and caterpillars that infest his fields, which, were they allowed to multiply unmolested, would soon consume nine-tenths of all the productions of his labor, and desolate the country with the miseries of famine." But with regard to a great proportion of our summer birds, they are insectivorous, destroying countless multitudes of destructive bugs and caterpillars, that infest the fruit trees in spring and summer, preying on the leaves, blossoms, and embryo of the fruit.  The oriole, or golden robin, destroys hundreds of them without offering the slightest injury to the fruit that may encompass his nest. 
I would therefore caution every boy against trespassing upon our fields and pastures with this murderous intent, particularly, as at this season birds are so engaged in the business of incubation and by cruelly taking away the parent they destroy a helpless brood of young.
I trust, therefore, that every honest farmer and horticulturalist will avail himself of the law of trespass, should he find young men shooting upon his lands, and thus put a stop to the indiscriminate slaughter of this beautiful part of animated nature, particularly this spring, as their services are much needed in destroying the small traveling caterpillar, which is now in great abundance. 
The use of the law to prevent trespassing was perhaps the most effective means of protecting birds at this point in time.  Indeed, the posting of no-trespassing signs on the borders of farmland appears to have become a commonly adopted practice by the 1830s. 

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