Friday, July 3, 2015

Remarkable responses to the Farmer's Cabinet bird protection essay contest winner

The Farmer's Cabinet award-winning bird protection essay ran in June, 1838. In July the first responses to the essay came trickling in.

"Humanitas Jr.", suggested that some of the species that many farmers condemned as injurious, might, if observed carefully, reveal themselves to be useful. This included the purple "grakle" and the crow, as well as the hawk: "The different species of hawks, so generally considered as pirates, and destroyed without mercy, I believe do us more service in the destruction of field mice, moles, etc., than would be counterbalanced by the loss of a few chickens."

A second correspondent wondered if the numbers of ducks and other domestic fowl should be increased in the absence of wild birds in order to check the population of insects. 

In August the Cabinet printed a response rather remarkable for its time and perhaps the most remarkable contribution to the larger bird protection conversation yet. The author, while lauding efforts to control wanton destruction of birds, casts doubt on hunting as the cause of their decline:
However "intimate the connexion which exists between the interests of agriculture and increase and diminution of our indigenous birds" may be, I do not believe that the principal cause of their disappearance from amongst us can consistently be attributed exclusively to those very appropriately styled "truant murderers…
Instead it is the farmers themselves that are to blame:
I have no doubt that he that causes 20 acres of well timbered land to be cleared and brought under cultivation in two years, is more instrumental in the diminution of those indigenous birds than ten men with their guns would be in the same length of time.
This habitat-destruction theory of bird decline could be paired with natural rhythms of population rises and falls to explain fluctuations in numbers of both birds and insects.
I am inclined to believe that there are certain operations of nature that tend to multiply or decrease the different portions of the animal and vegetable kingdom, in due proportion to the propitious or destructive agency relative to the fructifying principle of their respective species. 
Indeed, humans were not the only cause of species extinction (note: that "extinction" was even possible was still a rather novel idea during these times).
The destruction of those animals whose fossil remains are the only evidence of their having had existence, cannot be attributed to man, for he was not…[T]o conclude that similar changes are now in progress cannot be irrational, although they may be imperceptible to us poor transient and short-sighted mortals…
Nevertheless, humans had a moral responsibility to protect birds, particularly during breeding seasons. Nestlings were innocents. 
Because their tender care-takers, in obedience to the will of their Creator, have dared to pluck a stalk or blade, which, perhaps, had been the object or attention of interloping and penurious man, who, having power, forgets right, and will kill or destroy every thing which in his weak estimation interferes with his avaricious profits of gain…If priority of occupancy gives right, then is the title to the soil vested in the beasts and birds, and man is the squatter [my emphasis].
These kinds of sentiments, condemning the farmer who would make economic calculations his guide to destroying or not destroying birds, and giving non-humans some moral rights, were new to the bird protection conversation. It should be noted that the author, while deploying some relatively sophisticated (for the time) ecological understandings, also made thorough use of biblical stories and passages to make his argument. 

In December the Cabinet published another direct response to the essay contest winner, titled "Insects vs. Birds." Following the teleological creation reasoning of the essay author:
I have been almost led to inquire, "For what were all things made?" Were they all created for some useful purpose in the great economy of nature--or, while one part was destined for a wise and benevolent purpose, was another formed for ravage and destruction only, without rendering a corresponding compensation in the great operations of nature? True, we are so much the creatures of self, that whatever appears to militate against our interest, we are ever willing to decry at first view, as being not only useless, but to set it down as destructive in its consequences, without stopping to inquire for a moment--was it formed for any useful purpose?
Was it in fact prejudicial to assume that birds were useful while insects were not?
Are birds of the air, whether graniverous or insectiverous, the untutored friends of man, while the tiny insect that sports in summer's sun, and which nature has taught the wonderful instinct to burrow in the earth for its preservation during, and protection from the rigors of winter, is nought but a depredator and destructor, meriting the acquaintance and friendship of man no further than for him to seek its utter annihilation?
The correspondent cites holes in soil made by beetles.
Might not these perforations tend materially to the fertilization of the soil by the more readily admitting the air and the heat of the sun, and absorbing the rain more freely, which carries with it the decaying and putrefying matter from the surface to the absorbent fibres of the roots of plants? 
The correspondent requested more information from Cabinet readers about this question of useful insects. And indeed, in later years, as the economic entomology project developed, insects would be categorized into useful and injurious and the usefulness of certain bird species would be gauged by the proportion of useful vs. injurious insects consumed. 

And finally in September, in direct inspiration to the contest winning essay, the Cabinet published a poem by "E.C.S. Cedar Brook, NJ", titled "To the Sportsman," which included the following preface:
"The race of birds was not formed in vain. Each one has his task to perform; we sin in wantonly destroying them: first, against Him who made them for his glory; then, against ourselves, willingly ignorant of their untaught 'labors of love.'"--injury from destroying birds--Far. Cab. Vol. 2d, page 332.
Sportsman, stay thy hand;
Spare thou that little bird!
And o'er the fruitful land,
Still let his song be heard!
Of all the feather'd train
Who cleave the air of heaven,
Not one is made in vain,
Nor yet for sport was given.

Hark! to the robin's lay
That pours from yonder grove,
To hail the break of day,
And bid all nature move!
Hark! to the nightingale,
Whose notes at twilight come
From yon green flowery vale,
To charm the peasant home!

And see, how heaven ordains,
That birds in time of need,
WIth insects from the plains,
Their helpless young should feed!
That thus, the farmer's hop,
No hidden worm destroy;
That he may save his crop,
And birds their food enjoy.

And shall the sportsman's gun
Arrest the parent bird?
And leave the work undone,
It sought at nature's word?
Must harmless songsters bleed,
To please the heartless youth?
Pause, sportsman! pause, and read
The page of nature's truth!

God hears the raven's call,
And answers to his cry;
He guards the sparrow's fall,
With kind, protecting eye!
If birds are thus HIS care,
Who life to man hath given;
Then sportsman! O, beware!
Nor tempt the frown of heaven!

The bird protection poem had become a genre unto itself.

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