Monday, June 29, 2015

Peter Parley, boys and birds.

In 1838, the Genesee Farmer published this excerpt credited to Fireside Education remarking on the bird-killing ways of modern boys:
There is one trait in the character of our American boys which, I think, deserves to be checked; and that is the incessant war they carry on against familiar birds and the lesser quadrupeds. As soon as a boy can hurl a stone, he becomes a Nimrod, and goes forth as a mighty hunter against the blue bird; cat birds, swallows and robins, that venture into our gardens, orchards, and fields. Not even the little wren that comes with his fair offer of a dozen beautiful songs a day for the rent of some nook or cranny about the house, is safe from the whizzing missile. Not even the little sparrow, that would build beneath the window, is tolerated….And when the boy becomes a youth, the same exterminating war is carried on though with a different weapon. With the fowling piece in his hand, he roams the orchard and the field, slaughtering, without discrimination, jays, woodpeckers, sparrows, blackbirds, bob-o-links, and the rest of the feathered family.
This passage would be reprinted in other agricultural papers, including the New England Farmer (1839).

The special role of American boys in the destruction of national birdlife was a perennial theme in bird protection discussions. In this case, however, the passage came from a book on education credited to Peter Parley (AKA Samuel Griswold Goodrich), prolific children's author and publisher. The topic was "Mercy" (shades of Sarah Trimmer). 
Now, is not this all wrong? Does not this partake of cruelty? And, beside, is it not obvious folly? For my own part, I love to see the birds enlivening the landscape. The rigor of our climate drives them away for half the year, but I mourn when they are gone, and rejoice at their return.They are a great resource to those who will observe them. Their songs, however varied, are ever beautiful. Their forms, habits and capacities are themes of interesting study. It is delightful to see them building their nests, rearing their young, pursuing their food, and displaying their various musical gifts. Why, then, should we drive these creatures away? Some of them, it is true, are thieves, and take more cherries and corn than we are willing to spare them, and I approve of necessary scarecrows and suitable pelting in these cases. But why banish the whole feathered race, most of whom are not merely innocent, but absolutely useful in diminishing the number of noxious insects?
Note that the value of birds for Parley is not merely in their utility as insect checks, but in their music, beauty, interestingness, and the way they enliven the landscape. At the same time, they are not entirely innocents: thievery may be justly punished by "pelting." Parley claims that the situation is uniquely American.
It is not so in other countries. In England, birds generally are protected and cherished. I do not speak now of pheasants, partridges, and other game, which are sheltered in the parks, and preserved from all but his lordship's shot; but, throughout the whole country, the sparrows, bulfinches, goldfinches, thrushes, blackbirds, and other little songsters, are permitted to live almost without molestation. They are seen by hundreds in every hedge and field. Many of them are almost domesticated around the house; and even in the cities, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, London, and others, amid the smoke of coal, the din of factories, and the throng of people, you see thousands of these little birds. In the heart of an English city, I have sometimes waked up in the morning, and, from the bursting melody of finches and sparrows around, have imagined myself to be in the country.
Note that actual legal protection of birds throughout England wouldn't happen for decades. The putative contrast, however, allowed Parley to offer a remarkable, for its time (1838!), speculative explanation for American violence against birds:
Why is it that our custom in respect to birds is so different in America? Have we derived from our pilgrim fathers a spirit of extermination? Because the first settlers of this country cut away the forest, slaughtered the Indians, smote the bear and the bison, hunted down the panther and the wolf, have we derived from them a spirit of extirpation, which, now that the monsters of the forest are slain, is given up by men, but lives in our children, and vents itself on cat-birds and sparrows? I know not; but, be this as it may, I mourn over the solitude which is gradually gathering over the landscapes of New England, from the absence of the feathered songsters; and I mourn over that spirit of wanton cruelty which makes man the enemy, instead of the friend, of harmless birds. 
Parley was a bird-lover, publishing in 1832 the Book of Ornithology, for Youth, largely cribbed from Wilson, Audubon and European authors. He believed that the study of birds was an ideal topic for young learners. And birds play a role in his posthumous (1863) autobiography, Peter Parley's Own Story, even if the idyllic moments
I think an apple orchard in the spring is one of the most beautiful objects in the world. How often have I ventured into Uncle Josey's ample orchard at this joyous season, and stood entranced among the robins, blackbirds, woodpeckers, bluebirds, jays, and[45] orioles,—all seeming to me like playmates, racing, chasing, singing, rollicking, in the exuberance of their joy, or perchance shyly pursuing their courtships, or even more shyly building their nests and rearing their young.
are balanced with moments displaying more the "spirit of extirpation," as in his joy at netting dozens of wild (passenger) pigeons.
When at last, with a sudden pull of the rope, the net was sprung, and we went out to secure our booty—often fifty, and sometimes even a hundred birds—I felt a fulness of triumph which words are wholly inadequate to express!
Perhaps Parley-the-boy was a model of the American boy he would later write against. 

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