Saturday, August 17, 2013

The slaughter of marsh birds

In its April 29, 1835 edition the New England Farmer reprinted an article from the Boston Daily Advocate decrying the over-hunting of marsh birds. This had been a concern for many years; indeed, marsh hunting (except for landowners) had been prohibited between March 1 and September 1 in Massachusetts since 1821. Nevertheless, the more recent "wanton destruction" deserved further legislative consideration.
A petition for an act to prevent the wanton destruction of marsh birds was taken up in the House yesterday. It is a subject well deserving attention. The petition states that these birds, the plover, red-breast, and curlew etc (which afford such delightful sport to the gunner, on the great marshes of the Cape, in the month of August) come here from the South, in April or May, when poor and unfit for food. That the people near where the birds find their roosts, kindle fires on the marshes, towards which they fly and are knocked down and destroyed in immense quantities. One person alone, in one night, murdered 2400 of these birds, in this wanton manner. It is apparent that if this wicked slaughter is continued the whole species will become extinct. 
The citizens of Barnstable and Plymouth counties are deeply interested in preventing this kind of bloody massacre. One of the greatest inducements for strangers to visit that healthful spot, the Cape, in summer, is the amusement of shooting on the marshes--a healthful exercise, which is alike captivating to as great a mind as Daniel Webster's or as little a one, as ordinary summer loungers carry with them when they travel. 
This attraction is a source of profit as well as pleasure and we earnestly hope that the Legislature will pass the act desired. To kill a bird is a fair shot on the wing, and for purposes of food, is warranted on every principle which justifies the use of meats in any case; but to decoy whole flocks of them by holding out false lights, that at the same time may destroy the mariner, and then knock them on the head, is cold-blooded, wanton, savage--bird slaughter.
This reaction was clearly in the tradition of the "true sportsman," and it paralleled discussions about the over-hunting of rails in the Turf Register. There was nothing wrong with a little shooting; Cape Cod's tourism, in fact, depended on it. But hunters were making the sport unsustainable.

Given the levity shown towards bird-related legislation in the previous post about crows, it may appear  doubtful that such legislation would pass, but in fact 1835 saw a new law in Massachusetts prohibiting the night shooting of plover, curlew, dough bird [eskimo curlew] , or chicken bird [ruddy turnstone] between April 20 to September 1 (a general close season ending July 1 would become law in 1849). The following year saw the official prohibition of the sale of marsh birds during the close season.

The killing of shore birds at levels justifying the "bird slaughter" description did not stop. The eskimo curlew, formerly abundant at passenger pigeon levels, was effectively extirpated in Massachusetts by the end of the century and is likely extinct today. Indeed, the eskimo curlew became a symbol of the folly of unrestrained market hunting, and along with the passenger pigeon, helped to spur anti-market game regulations. That the eskimo curlew was insectivorous, especially during its stops in Massachusetts, makes it a "useful bird" that Massachusetts ultimately failed to protect. 

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