Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Killing a small bird should be placed next to killing a child" New England Farmer (1840)

1838 and 1839 were bad years for cankerworms in the Northeast. Trees were defoliated and solutions were sought. In October 1839, the New England Farmer ran an article originally published in the New Haven Daily Herald that featured a long essay on the "Entomology of the Cankerworm," apparently sent anonymously to the paper from a reader in Philadelphia.

We've seen that essay before. It was published in 1795 in the Memoirs of the Massachusetts Agricultural Society and reprinted regularly in farm papers in the decades after. If you remember, one of the solutions the author suggested was a bird--the commonly reviled Cedar Waxwing.

In February 1840, the New England Farmer reprinted a notice from the Worcester Aegis commenting on a call in the Boston Courier for more research into the cankerworm threat. "H.C.," the chief editorial voice of the Farmer during this period, referenced the 1795 essay again and called out the bird solution specifically.
We as yet know of but one effectual remedy against the canker worm, that is the encouragement of birds. They are the best friends of the farmer and the gardener. In our code of penal justice, killing a small bird should be placed next to killing a child. [My emphasis]. We were assured the last summer, that at the beautifully cultivated district of Cambridge called "Flob," (have the name altered, we pray,) abounding in fruit, they were entirely free from canker worms, while in Old Cambridge, the orchards suffered severely. The great security which they found was in the encouragement and preservation of the birds. A gunner in West Cambridge would be in as much danger as an abolitionist in South Carolina [my emphasis]. 
The rhetoric was clearly heating up. The passage was quoted by a correspondent in a letter to the Farmer's Monthly Visitor about the "Value of Birds."  That letter, including the passage, was reprinted in the Farmer's Register. [If nothing else, this episode highlights the convoluted passage of bird protection texts from one place to another!]

The Farmer's Cabinet, for its part, directly commented on the over-heated rhetoric, but added some (deliberately exaggerated?) rhetoric of its own.
We can hardly say with the writer of the article, that "killing a small bird should be placed in our penal code next to killing a child;" but we do say that it ought to be met with a punishment sufficient to prevent the destruction which annually takes place, in mere wantonness or sport, among the innocent songsters of our groves and orchards. We have been almost disposed in times past to bring the boys before Judge Lynch [my emphasis], and might probably have done it could we have put our hands upon them. 
The writer of the Cabinet article went on to relate an example of the "benevolence of birds" in response to the gunners, describing how a pair of bluebirds took care of an orphaned grackle. The Cabinet also reprinted a letter to the editor of the Boston Courier promoting bird protection (using the example of red-winged blackbirds in Wilson). The toad, the author added, was another victim of "unreasonable prejudice."

In June 1840, the New England Farmer ran an article by "W." in direct response to the cankerworm essay printed the previous year. The author urged "the enactment of laws" deterring wanton shooting, referring directly to existing anti-cruelty statutes.
We have laws punishing with severity the person found guilty of abusing a domestic animal, and the killing and wounding of useful birds and leaving their young to perish with hunger, should be punished in like a manner. 
Birds were benevolent innocents.
All the birds ask is protection; their weight is so small as not to endanger the tenderest twig; they will work in the orchard, the garden and the field; their notes are soft, and they will give us music from morning till night, which has been admired by wise and good men in all ages, and which cannot be despised by any person having a claim to virtue or taste.
The author provided his own example of (milder) violence toward such "worthless, vicious, and idle men":
The editor [prob. John Ford] of the [Boston] Mercantile Journal remarked not long since, that he could go as far to kick a fellow who might be seen with a gun on his shoulder traversing the fields in quest of birds [my emphasis], as John Randolph would to kick a sheep. That was an expression of honest indignation, sufficiently mild, yet it would be well if a majority of the people felt likewise. 
The reference to sheep kicking may seem to run against the larger anti-cruelty theme, but it was actually just a reference to a well-known eccentricity. Remember that Randolph (of Roanoke) was himself a bird protector.

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