Sunday, July 26, 2015

A prejudice in favor of birds?

Volume One (1842) of the Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society featured an article by David Thomas of Cayuga County, titled "The Fruit Garden." This article was reprinted in other agricultural publications, including the Farmer's Register (June 30, 1842).  Among Thomas's remarks about the cultivation of fruit trees were some comments criticizing the bird protection cause. 
Many people have a prejudice in favor of birds [my emphasis] that no well balanced mind should entertain. "Denizens of the air," have no more right to our property than denizens of the earth. Plunderers on two legs are not more respectable than plunderers on four legs; and cedar birds are entitled to no more regard than rats, unless personal beauty can atone for moral deformity.
This prejudice had biased the perceptions of bird-lovers.
Ornithologists often become partial to the subjects of their study, and side with them against the farmer and the gardener--magnifying their services [my emphasis] and overlooking their trespasses. The laborer, indeed, may drive the geese from his cabbages, throw stones at the crows, and even shoot a hawk--but not the birds that devour his cherries?
As critics previously had asserted, it was important to be judicious in one's targets. 
An amiable writer [Robert Manning], in reference to such visitors, says, "Such has been the security they have felt in our grounds, and so great their increase, that not only cherries, gooseberries, and currants, but apples, pears, and plums, have been ravaged; and it may become a matter for serious consideration whether in continuing our protection, we do not risk the total loss of some of the most desirable appendages to the dessert." Now if called into council, our advice would be prompt and brief: Treat them according to their doings. Make pies of the robins, orioles, and cedar birds [my emphasis]--one chicken is worth a dozen of them for business; but save and protect the blue birds, warblers, and sparrows--these are always our friends.
Note that Robert Manning, who we've heard from previously, was actually more tolerant of the depredations of cedar waxwings than Thomas suggests.

Thomas's remarks against bird protection did not go un-noticed. In an otherwise positive review of the article in the August 1842 Cultivator, L.A. Morrel drew attention to them. 
I must take an one of friend Thomas' recommendations, which is not in keeping with his kind and benevolent nature, for which he is so much distinguished, namely: destroying birds which pilfer our fruit. He say, "treat them according to their doings. Make pies of the robins, orioles, and cedar birds…"Now I am not distinguished for "womanish" feelings [my emphasis], but I declare I have not the heart to kill a bird of any sort; no, not even crows, for they are useful to the farmer, and can easily be prevented or deterred from doing any mischief to our corn fields, by suspending twine at intervals along and within the enclosure. When seeing the cedar bird nibbling at the cherries, often have I said to myself there is enough for us both; and with Uncle Toby, when he let go the fly, there is, also, "room in the world for us both." No, spare the birds, "nature's songsters," and the farmer's best friends.
Note: "Uncle Toby" was a character described in Laurence Stern's Tristram Shandy. The relevant passage is as follows:
My uncle Toby had scarce a heart to retaliate upon a fly.—Go—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzz'd about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,—and which, after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him;—I'll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going a-cross the room, with the fly in his hand,—I'll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.
This character,  like Cowper and his worm, became a standard reference to (perhaps unreasonable) benevolence toward "inferior beings." I've emphasized Morrel's reference to "womanish" feelings--in this case denied--as one more piece of evidence of the gendering of bird protection.

In the September 1842 issue of the Cultivator, "A Fruit Man" responded to Morrel's criticisms, once again under the heading of "Spare the Birds." As with Thomas, the implication was that bird protectors were biased in their emphasis of one part of creation, allowing for depredations that would never be tolerated coming from other sorts of animals.
I observe in the last number of the Cultivator, that your interesting correspondent L.A. Morrell, has taken up the cause of the birds, and objects, "in all cases whatsoever," to their destruction. In controverting, however, the recommendation of the writer of the essay to which he alludes, I should have been better pleased had he given the reasons with that recommendation. Can he object to the writer's logic, where he says, "Denizens of the air" have no more right to our property than denizens of the earth. Plunderers on two legs are not more respectable than plunderers on four legs…" If birds, who destroy whole crops of fine cherries, are to be protected; then I wish, will all respect to your correspondent, to ask him, if the dogs that destroy his sheep, are not also to be protected? I ask him to permit me to copy one part of his communication, only altering the word, "bird," to that of dog: 
"Now, I am not distinguished for "womanish" feelings, but I declare I have not the heart to kill a dog of any sort; when seeing them gnawing at the sheep and lambs, often have I said to myself, there is mutton enough for us both; and with Uncle Toby, when he let go the fly, there is also, room in the world for us both." 
I should hardly think, that even your correspondent would approve of carrying the theory and practice of protection so far as this; but I really for the life of me, cannot see why they are not as applicable in one case as in the other. … Are dogs, who equally fulfill their animal instinct in destroying sheep, with birds in in destroying fruit, to be shot down with the rifle, while the birds are to be spared? The cultivator of a fine orchard, has in general, expended labor and money, no less than the owner of a flock of sheep, and values no less the fruit of his exertions; and why is it then, that when the toil of years is about to be crowned with its reward, he must see the whole snatched from before his eyes, without being permitted to lift a finger, while the sheep man, even if one solitary individual of his flock is in danger, can call out all his forces and punish with instant death, the destroyer of his own property? If I do not argue soundly, I am sorry, and ask to be corrected.
"A Fruit Man's" analogy may seem a little forced, and indeed, he himself seemed to be a little uncertain about it. To modern readers, the analogy may in fact work the opposite way--shouldn't we also protect dogs from being shot? Nevertheless, in both cases, the depredations represented "the toil of years...snatched from before his eyes." From a strictly rational economic point of view, the killing of some birds was justified and bird protectors were unreasonable and biased in wanting no birds to be killed. 

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