Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Fowler, spare that bird!" Bird protection gets a new (ironic) slogan.

In May, 1840, the (Albany) Cultivator ran a bird protection article (credited to "A Friend to Birds"), headlined, "Fowler, Spare that Bird!" The reference may be obscure to readers today but audiences at the time would have recognized it right away, maybe even groaned a little. It was yet another play on the poem and popular song, "Woodman, Spare that Tree" (AKA "The Oak") by George Pope Morris, first published in 1837. The poem is sometimes referenced as conservationist but its message is more sentimental than environmental. A man pleads with a woodcutter to stop cutting down a tree, not because of the tree's ecological value, but because of the memories attached to it.

Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now.
’T was my forefather’s hand
That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not.

The poem/song quickly became an 1830s-style meme and parodies, variations, and plays on the first line spread through print culture. In fact, the idea of applying the poem to birds had already been realized in an 1838 parody published in the Dedham Advertiser, titled "Sportsman, Spare that Bird!"

Sportsman, spare that bird,
On that old oaken bough;
Its song my soul hath stirred,
And I will save it now.
In my forefather's cot,
I've listened to that lay;
Then, sportsman, harm it not,
But let it fly away.

Both bird protection and the Morris poem, it seems, were apt subjects for gentle mocking.

And in fact, the Cultivator article began in a way that reproduced the "its song my soul hath stirred/And I will save it now" sentiment of the Advertiser parody.
I know of few things more calculated to disturb the equanimity of mind, and ruffle the feelings of a humane man, one who lives among animals and birds, and feels as if they were all personal friends [my emphasis], than to see a shock-headed, straddling thing, calling itself a man, with rusty musket or rifle, creeping about our highways, woodlands or orchards, and popping away at the harmless little creatures that give to the landscape half its charms, and to the eye and the ear half their pleasures.
...I plead not for the hawk or the crow; but for the beautiful songsters that greet the morn with a hymn, flutter over and through our meadows and orchards, and exhibit an instinctive happiness that would reconcile the most morbid misanthropist to life and its cares. I never hear the song sparrow, that with us is usually the first harbinger of spring, without a feeling of gladness that "the winter is over and gone, and the time of the singing of birds is come;"[Song of Solomon]
The author was willing to make more hard-headed calculations with respect to some birds, but not songsters. Indeed, the dawn chorus alone might be alone to convert uncertain readers to the cause.
Before you destroy a bird on your premises, or permit any one else to do it, be certain that you are not about to destroy one of your most faithful friends. Carefully weigh the good and the evil they occasion against each other; think of the pleasure and instruction they afford: rise on one of our beautiful mornings before the sun, and hear from copse, and orchard, and grove, the thousand voices of joy and melody that are rising and mingling, and if you have single feeling that belonged to man in paradise, it will not be necessary to repeat to you--Fowler, spare that bird!
The Cultivator article would be widely reprinted in the farm and general press, including the New England Farmer, the religious and literary journal, The Friend, and the newspaper, Burlington Free Press. From that point on "Spare the Birds!" would be attached in the press to the bird protection movement, serving as a kind of rallying cry. But it was an ironic one, because the same "Spare the Birds!," to defenders of bird-shooting, articulated the unthinking sentiment that they suspected was driving the movement. "Spare the Birds!" would, thus, be used as a headline for many anti-bird protection articles in the farm press to come.

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