Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Augustus Gould and the protection of useful birds

In 1837 the New England Farmer reprinted a widely circulated letter, signed by Augustus A. Gould, and attached to the Massachusetts Geological survey, urging a full accounting of Massachusetts wildlife. The reason? That farmers might stop destroying useful species, particularly but not exclusively, birdlife. I've included the relevant passage in full below. Attentive readers of this blog will find much that is familiar.
Animals are destroyed, whose natural habits render their destruction of doubtful utility, such as crows, blackbirds, and woodpeckers. It is true that the crow pulls up the blade of corn for the sake of the kernel at its base. But then, he preserves a tenfold greater quantity from the inroad of the worms which he devours. “Why, then should the farmer be so ungrateful,” says Mr. Audubon, “when he sees such services rendered to him by a provident friend, as to persecute the friend, even to the death? When I know by experience the generosity of the people, I cannot but wish that they would reflect a little, and become more indulgent towards our poor, humble harmless, and even most serviceable bird, the crow.”  
History tells us, “that when Virginia, at enormous expense, had extirpated the little crow the inhabitants would have willingly bought then back again, at double the price, that they might devour insects” also, "that when the farmers of New England, by offering a reward of three pence per head on the crow-black-bird, had nearly exterminated them, insects increased to such a degree as to cause a total loss of the herbage; and the inhabitants were obliged to obtain their hay from Pennsylvania and other places.” 
No bird is more universally or unjustly persecuted than the wood-pecker, because of his supposed injury to our fruit and forest trees, when, in truth, he is doing no injury to the tree. He is furnished by a kind Providence with a bill capable of penetrating the bark, and a long barbed tongue to draw out the insects which are destroying the tree 
It is usual to stone the sparrow from our gardens, under the supposition that he picks up the seeds which we have deposited there, when he is really devouring nothing but the grubs and other insects, in which the rich garden earth abounds, and which are the real destroyers of the seeds. It has been calculated by observation, that a single sparrow, with young, devours 3,360 caterpillars in a week, or 480 per day.
Gould defends the common crow, and is the first figure that I can find that uses Audubon (Ornithological Biographies) for bird protection advocacy. Wilson, you may remember, was equivocal about the farmer's just relationship with crows.

The passage about Virginia and "little crows," as well as the story about New England and blackbirds that we've seen before, are usually attributed to Pehr (Peter) Kalm. Kalm, it should be noted, was not necessarily a defender of birds. In his 1770 Travels into North America he repeats received wisdom about crows ("noxious" maize thieves) and red-headed woodpeckers ("pernicious") and his telling of the New England blackbird story is more of an illustration of how hated the bird was than a morality tale about the balance of nature.  I've not been able to find the Virginia example in Travels itself. The source for the passage and the Kalm attribution seems to be Linnaeus himself, via Benjamin Stillingfleet's 1762 English adaptation of Linnaean writing, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Natural History, Husbandry, and Physick. Stillingfleet introduces the story with this succinct statement of the useful bird idea: "Wild beasts, and ravenous birds, though they seem to disturb our private economy are not without their uses; which we should be sensible of, if they were extirpated." Stillingfleet notes in support the practice of farmers in Suffolk and Norfolk to encourage the breed of rooks to control grubs.  (Given my inability to find the Virginia story elsewhere, I wonder if Stillingfleet/Linnaeus confused Virginia with New England and is actually just telling the blackbird story again....)

The final paragraph is a familiar retelling of Bradley's exercise in extrapolation, though a peculiarly sloppy one coming from an esteemed naturalist (Gould's expertise was mollusks, after all). House Sparrows had not yet been introduced to the United States, so the persecuted bird was probably
the completely harmless, and according to Forbush, extremely useful, Chipping Sparrow. Forbush reports one observer counting a single bird consuming "fifty-four cankerworms in one sitting." That would be 4536 caterpillars in a week using Bradley's formula.

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