Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Spare the Birds," or Kill Them?

On July 6, 1842 the New England Farmer published on its front page the counter bird protection missive it had apparently been waiting for. Titled "'Spare the birds,' or kill them?" the author, "Justice, of East Haddan, Conn.," began by referencing the increasingly common slogan for the movement:
Mr. Editor--Sir--We have become almost as familiar with the phrase, "Spare the birds," as we have with the doctrine that we should spare the life of the murderer. 
The hawk comes down, and kills and carries off my poultry: the response of the newspapers is, "spare the birds." 
My currants, my strawberries, and my cherries, are not yet half ripe, but while I am writing, the crested larks [cedar waxwings], and other robbers, are carrying them off, and destroying the whole crops, without showing the least disposition to leave me even a tithe of them. But instead of this, for my comfort when I take up a newspaper and learn from its pages, that in the legislature of Connecticut, Dr. D., of N., has done honor both to his head and his heart, by delivering himself of a plea that the people would "spare the birds."
It wasn't only hawks and cedar waxwings that caused trouble, but barn swallows and chimney swifts as well.
If I leave my carriage in my barn, who can count the number of the places which will be defiled by the swallows, which build their nests in barns? When I wish for rest, the chimney swallows pay no regard to my need of repose, and they thunder along the flues of the chimney, frequently giving us an idea of the rattling of coaches, the sound of distant artillery, or the rumbling of an earthquake.
He went on to describe the damage done by birds to his raspberries, cherries, mulberries, grapes, green peas, corn, etc. Then he turned his attention to the typical defenses of birds among would-be protectors:
"But the birds sing!" True, they seem to fly away very joyously, and pour forth their songs in great glee, after they have robbed me of my treasures; but I had much rather have joy, and smiles, and songs, in my family, all called forth by the enjoyment of the luxuriant fruits which I have cultivated at so much expense… 
But, say the pseudo-benevolent bird praisers, the birds catch the insects. But is this true to any valuable extent? The caterpillars, of various kinds eat up our trees, and eat they may, for what the birds do, or for what the birds care; and I have never known but one kind of bird to show any disposition to touch the caterpillars at all--and that kind of bird rarely meddles with them. The buzzing beetles are nearly as thick as hail stones in a shower, but I never knew a bird to catch one of them….True, the birds sometimes catch a harmless dew worm, but the dew worms never eat or injure our vegetables or our fruits, that I know of. Thus the zeal to "spare the birds," seems, in effect, only to give us additional destroyers, and destroyers of no very small degree of activity. 
But why should we spare these robbers for their fine plumage or for their fine voices, any more than we would excuse any other thief for the commission of his crimes, because he also wore a fine coat, or had an agreeable voice. I had much rather eat good ripe strawberries, and cherries, and mulberries, and raspberries, and currants, than to lose all these for the sake of looking at fine feathers.
He concluded by asking the editor for some "justice" in their coverage of the topic, fearing that the "unreasonable rage" for bird protection would promote harmful legislation.
In short, Mr. Editor, if you do not kindly give us in your valuable paper, something on this subject which shall be on the side of justice, I fear that it will not be long before the unreasonable rage for the protection of the birds will be as great as the rage which formerly existed for the destruction of witches, and that it will not be long, before our legislators, forgetful of the protection of the constituents, will be found spending their time in legislating for the protection of birds, and in rendering it penal for us to defend our vegetable productions and our most valuable crops and fruits from the attacks of a certain class of robbers, especially if the robbers wear fine feathers and have fine voices.
The New England Farmer replied in turn:
Here we have it. We looked for a shot, though we knew not whence it would come. We are met openly and honorably, and the aim is true; but if we are brought down, we do not yet know it.
The Farmer called for submissions from both sides in the argument but affirmed its support for protection, acknowledging that not all the relevant facts were yet known. 
Soberly,--we knew when we cried "Spare the birds," that they will rob; and "Justice" has only pleasantly over stated the extent of their depredations. The question has two sides, and we are ready to admit to a defence of either to our columns. We still repeat, "Spare the birds"--because we believe it is easy to get from them more good than harm. The songs and the feathers we let pass: on the ground of profit and loss we are willing to stand….Most of the birds live much of the year upon insects, which if not thus thinned off, would greatly multiply--and as we think, would soon do us more harm than we now receive from the birds. Would they? This is the question. Neither side can be proved;--opinion is all that we can get. But there are facts that should have some influence in determining opinion. 
The editorial comment then pointed to the success of farmers in the Boston area who allowed birds to take cherries. The Farmer concluded by pledging its willingness to "go farther into the matter." 

Of particular interest, in addition to the counter-arguments, which have been aired before, is "Justice's" perception that newspapers were bird protection boosters. We've shown fairly clearly that this was true of most farm papers. It also seems to have been true of many general newspapers at the time. Indeed, if one looks at the article "Justice" cites about bird protection legislation in Connecticut, one may see a degree of editorializing that will be surprising for modern readers. The June 15 account in the Gazette, part of a longer summary of legislation before the general assembly in the summer of 1842, began with the usual dry chronology of bill readings, amendments, motions etc. but when it came to the support of the "small bird" section, the tone changed:
Mr. C[harles]. Douglass, with a warmth of feeling for the beautiful little birds which in the opinion of the reporter does honour to his heart, took up the gauntlet in their defense. He showed their benefit to the farmer in destroying the noxious insects which infested his farm, and the happiness they conferred on any one alive to the finer sensibilities of our nature, by dispensing music and song wherever they were permitted to roam. We say amen to the Doctor. 
The bill would pass, despite the efforts of "Mr. Beecher, of Bethlehem, [who] moved to strike out the second section, which prohibits the murder of the little songsters [my emphasis]."

Note: As in the case of the Massachusetts bird law, which called out "insectivorous birds" in its title but did not mention them (except for robins and larks) in its content, the "small bird" provision of the Connecticut law was encoded in the anti-trespassing section of the bill, which forbade the shooting of any bird without the permission of the land-owner during breeding season. 

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