Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Massachusetts Bird Laws redux (1842)

On May 2, 1842 the New England Farmer published a letter from a correspondent ("Snipe") under the heading, "Spare the Birds." Instead of the usual essay decrying the wanton destruction of useful birds, the author focused on the poaching of game birds. Instead of new bird protection laws, the author called for the enforcement of current laws.
I noticed with much pleasure several communications in your paper the last season, relative to the protection of birds. It is quite time that this subject should receive more attention, although the laws of this state for the protection of game and other birds, are sufficiently ample, provided it was anyone's duty to tend to the enforcement of them. A few prosecutions would soon put a stop to the wholesale destruction of birds at this season of the year.
Despite the close season in Massachusetts during breeding season, the spring shooting of marsh birds was still common. And despite the ban on the sale of these birds during close season, they were everywhere on display:
[I]n the month of May, (at which time the birds stop a few weeks on their way to their breeding-places in the north,) there have been more red-breasts, plovers and other marsh birds sold in the Quincy market in one week than there have been shot during the whole fall season.... [T]he dealers in market would hardly dare to expose them for sale, if they thought there was a chance of their being prosecuted.
"Snipe's" complaint was not about bird-killing per se, but about unseasonable and thus unsustainable bird-killing. There weren't enough to satisfy sportsmen in the fall.
At Barnstable, (where most of these bird come from in the spring,) the marshes are entirely deserted by them in the fall; --so much so, that the sportsman and others who generally resort to them in the fall, to recruit their health after a summer's work in town, did not the last year kill enough to eat:--(five years since a hundred birds a day was a fair allowance.)
If the law were not to be enforced officially, it might take heroic individuals to enforce it. "Snipe" pointed to a recent case in Martha's Vineyard where the shame of being revealed as a poacher was an effective disincentive. 
If no one else will attend to the prosecution of these poachers, I hope the sportsman will--and follow the good example of Dr. [whaling entrepreneur Daniel] Fisher of Edgartown, who rode one night last winter, thirty miles, after dark, to catch and convict the poachers who went to the Vineyard to shoot grouse [heath hen] for some of the eating houses in this city. Their names are generally known; I shall not repeat them, as I have heard that they are so ashamed of their being caught poaching, that they will not poach again in a hurry. That prosecution no doubt saved the lives of more than one thousand grouse the last winter.
The New England Farmer appended a supportive comment:
We hope…that some whose eyes may see these lines, will hear the voice of conscience reproaching them for their sins. Let us alone, say the birds--let the birds live, says the law--let them live, says humanity--let them live, says a better taste than the Epicurean appetite of the glutton. Yes, sportsman, fancy that the voice of "Snipe" is the voice of Him who made the birds, and cease from your deadly work.
The often-referenced bird protection laws of Massachusetts, as we've indicated previously, were game laws with a small exception--the protection of robins and meadowlarks during breeding season, although a section of the law addressing trespassing, did forbid the shooting of any bird "upon lands not owned or occupied by himself, and without license from the owner or occupant thereof" between March and July 4. As with game bird poachers, it is not clear how many wantonly killing "popping loafers" were actively prosecuted. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts game law became a kind of model law: a very similar statute (minus the robin and meadowlark), for example, was adopted in Connecticut in 1842 and in New Hampshire in 1846.

Without vigorous official enforcement it fell to individuals, grass-roots organizations, and the press to publicize the law and hold offenders accountable. On May 11, the New England Farmer printed the content of one such individual effort, a pamphlet titled "Protect the Birds," that had been printed and distributed by "a friend" who wished to unite farmers in his community against the "dangerous loafers who destroy the natural protectors of both fields and orchards." The pamphlet comprised extracts from a variety of sources about the usefulness of birds as well as the first two sections of Massachusetts's bird law.

By 1842, of course, the "usefulness" of birds was no longer the sole reason given for their protection. With the growth of benevolent societies and anti-cruelty movements, the fact that the law allowed (even promoted) bird shooting of any kind was problematic in some circles. In its May 11 issue, the New England Farmer published a vociferous response to "Snipe's" pleas. Instead of supporting his anti-poaching stance, the author ("J.H.D," a frequent contributor), took aim at sportsmen generally.  There was no difference, ultimately, between "sportsmen" and "loafers."
I read with some gratification the remarks of your correspondent "Snipe," ... in your last number. I honor his humanity--so much of that virtue as he manifests; but I regretted to perceive his apparently implied approval of the practice of shooting birds for sport. He is justly opposed to what he denominates poaching, while he seems to favor the custom of bird-killing by "sportsmen," as a genteel recreation, provided it be practiced in consonance with the requirements of the law. He thinks it justifiable, (I infer from the tenor of this remarks,) for "sportsmen and others" to proceed on a bird-shooting excursion in the fall, "to recruit their health after a summer's work in town." If I correctly understand his opinions as above expressed, I enter my protest against them. Permitted though it be by law, and sustained as it is by fashion, I regard this bird-killing sport as criminally inhuman--"a barbarous relic of a barbarous age"--and I regret to see it has an advocate in your correspondent "Snipe." It is associated in my mind with whatever is most repulsive to a benevolent heart. In my code of morals, the destroying of any of God's unoffending creatures for mere pastime, is a crime, in justification of which there is not a tenable circumstance; and those who are guilty of it, "gentlemen" though they be, and tacitly countenanced thought they may be by human law, are not a whit more deserving of favor or respect than the poaching depredator, upon whom "Snipe" pours out a vial of his wrath. 
This contribution was fully consistent with the thinking of anti-cruelty advocates such as Drummond and Wayland. Its appearance in the New England Farmer, minus any kind of reference to the usefulness of birds, signified an independent second stream of argument in the bird protection movement of the time. 

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