Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Isaac Hill, the Farmer's Monthly Visitor, and bird protection legislation

The Farmer's Monthly Visitor, edited by Isaac Hill, prominent New Hampshire politician and newspaperman, began publication in January 1839. Starting in May of that year the Visitor ran a series of articles about useful birds.

The first article titled, "Wanton Destruction of Birds," began by asserting that bird shooting, despite the proliferation of firearms in the community, was actually in decline.
There are three manufacturers of rifles, guns, fowling pieces, pistols and perhaps other instruments of death, within our corporate limits. We are much gratified, that in one respect these instruments are falling into disuse: the shooting of birds is a much less common practice than it was wont to be. 
Nevertheless, there was still unjust bird killing. Public opinion, it would seem, had separated birds into three classes: harmless songbirds, game birds, and depredators, each with a different relationship to gunners:
There are certain kinds of birds whose lives are spared by the consent of all who do not sport with animal life in mere wantonness, such as the swallow, the martin, the ground-sparrow, the chick-bird, yellow bird, gold robin, etc. There are other birds, of which custom has taught us that, as they may be eaten, so they may be taken with the snare or the gun of the fowler, as the robin, the lark, the bob o'linkhorn, the mavis, the snipe, the quail, and the partridge. There are still others, to take whose lives is considered laudable, such as the blue jay, the red-head woodpecker, the black bird, the crow, the hawk, and the owl. Against the two last, which watch for their prey and devour other innocent birds, hens with their young, and sometimes young lambs, we feel all the antipathy we do for other animals of mischief; but the crow, against whom our legislators have waged an almost constant warfare for the last half century and more, we now believe to have been an object of misdirected vengeance. 
If one actually observed crows at one's farm, however, one would find that they were harmful only at certain times of year but overall very useful both in destroying insects and removing "noxious effluvia." And the harm they might do was easy and inexpensive to prevent.
There are but a few days of the year in which these birds of ill omen can do damage to the corn; and for the good they do during the remainder of the year, it might be worth while to set the boys to watch the fields where other scare-crows shall be ineffectual. 
Indeed, perhaps the overall relationship between gunners and birds might be reconsidered:
We come to the conclusion, that it is sinful wantonly to take the lives of any of the hundred kinds of innocent birds which do no injury, but destroy myriads of insects that infest the air; that we may well spare the lives of others which, although fit to eat, will not pay for the powder and shot; and that some of those which are considered too mischievous to live are on the whole a greater benefit than injury.
Owls and hawks, however, were still problems, as we will see.

 In a very long article in the June issue titled "Birds and Insects," credited to "Cornplanter," the fuller (and familiar) case for the usefulness of insectivorous birds was made. The author (implicitly) disagreed with the previous month's opinion about boys and birds, and related the wanton destruction in dramatically human terms:
Like the unhappy Protestants of France, they on certain occasions become the objects of indiscriminate slaughter; and of all the the world, by our Protestant youth. Like the Jews under the decree of King Ahasuerus, they are consigned to the wrath of their enemies.
Foreshadowing the Audubon movement to come, the author suggested that women might be ideally positioned to intervene:
And have we not thousands of young ladies, as lovely, as prompt in duty and more humane, than Queen Esther, to intercede for their protection? The merciful office of interposing for the lives of these small tribes would seem to be an appropriate duty of our fair daughters, almost any one of whom is probably quite as competent for the duty of a Queen as the Jewish Esther or any of the present young female Potentates of Europe.
"Cornplanter" went on to summarize a variety of reports about useful birds from American and European publications. (Note that in the same issue the Visitor ran a long excerpt from "a European publication" about the mistaken killing of "useful" animals). But he concluded by making a problematic suggestion:
If our boys must hunt, let them hunt the hawk. Thus far the boys and the hawks appear to act as allies, carrying on jointly a war of extermination against our best friends, the humble inoffensive songsters that enliven our door yards, our fields and our forests….I advise to break the truce with the hawk and make war upon him, "et id omne genus." 
Indiscriminate war against raptors was one of the results of taking the "useful birds" rationale to its logical conclusion. Indeed, the specific prejudice against the bird-killing accipiter class of hawks would not abate until relatively late in the 20th century.

In the July issue, in another lengthy article, presumably written by the editor himself, there were signs that the previous month's articles had been successful.
In the two last numbers of the Visitor we had written ourselves and inserted communications from others relative to this matter of the destruction of birds. We were confident that what others and ourselves were doing on this head would at once be responded by the public sentiment. As evidence that we were under no mistake, it may be mentioned that on our very first attendance upon the General Court to listen to its proceedings, a bill was reported as for a third reading in the House of Representatives, authorizing towns of this State to pass a by-law imposing a fine not to exceed three dollars for each wanton act of shooting one of these useful birds, one of such kind or kinds of birds as a majority of the citizens of any town might believe to be useful. The same bill on a subsequent day passed the House of Representatives: its fate in the Senate, up to the time of writing this article, we have not ascertained. 
According to the Journal of the [New Hampshire] Senate and House for 1839, there was indeed a bill, apparently proposed by John Felt (of Jaffrey, NH), called an "act for the preservation of useful birds and wild fowl." Like the Massachusetts "Bird Law" of 1818 it offered a combination of game bird conservation measures (a prescribed close season for the ruffed grouse) and "innoxious" bird protection. While it did indeed pass the House, its discussion was "indefinitely postponed" and tabled by the Senate. There is no evidence that the Visitor had directly influenced this bill (unless the author of the article had inside information otherwise); an end to the crow bounty or the commencement of a hawk bounty would have followed more directly from those articles.

Regardless, the Visitor was surprisingly opposed to the proposed legislation. Issues like bird protection, it argued, should be handled via public opinion. Laws could very likely backfire:
Now although we feel highly grateful for the compliment paid to the editor and writers for the Farmer's Monthly Visitor by the introduction of this bill, and although we approve the humane intentions of its authors towards the feathered tribe--if it should become a law, and that law should be adopted by any town, we fear the consequences for the poor birds which it is the intention of the bill to protect. We fear the wanton boys, who seemed to have imbibed feelings of compassion for the birds from appeals made to their humanity, will have their spirits moved by the law to buy more powder and shot and kill the poor birds where they can find them. Nine out of ten would consider a law imposing a fine for shooting birds to be an invasion of the rights of free citizens; and many a young man, who would otherwise be indifferent about firing a gun, would find means to procure one that he might put at defiance what he considered an unnecessary interference with his volition.
To support his theory, the author referenced the unexpected consequences of Massachusetts's recent temperance laws. This is an interesting wrinkle in the history of bird protection legislation--that many of birds' fiercest defenders may have been opposed in principle to the tactic of legal measures.

In the remainder of the long rambling essay, which included a guilty retelling of the author's murder of a nesting catbird, the author aimed squarely at public opinion, concluding:
We have written an essay almost, heterogeneous although it may be, where we first intended to write only a paragraph. If in this cause--a bleeding cause--we shall save the life of a single innocent bird, that bird may be the parent of other birds as countless as the stars of the firmament "which cannot be numbered;" and if our humble name shall never go down to future ages as the instrument of so much good, while we live, we may wrap ourselves up in the conceit that we have, in espousing the cause of the feathered race, "done the State some service."
Isaac Hill's name has indeed disappeared from the history of American bird protection but perhaps it should be better known. 

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