Friday, July 10, 2015

Bobwhites and Household Gods

In its June 1839 issue, the Farmer's Cabinet ran a letter credited to "Penn" titled, "Birds on Farms." Like many of the bird protection articles at the time, it condemned the wanton shooting of birds, but it approached the topic from a slightly different perspective than most, linked to ancient customs. To this farmer, wild birds were not just helpers in the control of weeds and insects but familiars.
What gives a man more pleasure than when walking over his grounds, he is welcomed by the shrill whistle of the partridge [bobwhite], who, grown familiar with his friend and daily companion, cheers him in his toil and delights him when at leisure?
That these birds were (and are) considered game birds adds to the poignancy of the relationship.
These birds I have often seen so tame that they would scarcely leave my path, and I remember a covey that, during one winter, would frequently come to my gravel walk, to receive the feed that was placed there for them [another moment in the prehistory of bird-feeding]. They amounted to about twenty, and I set a high value upon them; but there came upon my farm, during my absence, two gunners with their dogs, and destroyed them all. I assure you, I felt the loss of those birds more than I would that of the best horse in my stable [my emphasis].
These birds were effectively semi-domesticated, members of the household. The author referenced an older tradition.
For myself, I feel in regard to the birds, as the ancients did of their household goods [sic. the author evidently intended "gods"]: nor can I control a feeling of indignation and a sense of injury, when I see my neighbors or strangers wantonly destroying them upon my premises. 
I've previously mentioned the special place of the swallow as a bird singled out as a favorite of the household gods during the Roman Empire. It is worth noting that the capture and care of wild birds was a widespread practice during that era, as it was in America during the 1830s. "Penn" did not advocate capture, however, but other means to keep birds around the domestic sphere. 
The sparrow, blue-bird, wren and other small birds labor diligently in our gardens…Boxes for their accommodation, should be nailed to the trees, and by carefully avoiding to alarm them, and other kind means, they could be domesticated among us. They will otherwise take to the woods and by-places, and we shall be deprived of the pleasure of listening to their cheering songs, and lose the advantages of their incessant labors. 
This article was reprinted in the New England Farmer and the Farmer's Register the following month.

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