Monday, July 13, 2015

"We often mistake our friends for foes."

On August 19, 1840 the New England Farmer ran a long story from a correspondent (James M. Hartwell of Medford, MA) about the danger posed to fruit trees from the "borer" and his discovery of their origin (apparently it was not yet thoroughly known that borers were the larvae of beetles). In an editorial comment appended to the piece, "J.B." [Joseph Breck, who deserves more attention in histories of bird protection] confirmed the truth of Hartwell's "discovery" and went on to suggest a less tedious solution for borer infestations than the "gouge or crooked wire" that horticulturalists tended to use:
[T]hese are the bill and long tongue of the little speckled [downy] wood-pecker. Let these birds be encouraged, and much of the labor of the horticulturalist is prevented. A friend of ours told us he would not have one of these birds killed for five dollars, and that he suffered no loafer to enter his premises with a gun, and considers the man or boy who injures a bird in the same light as if they robbed his purse.
In the same issue, the Farmer ran an excerpt from the Farmer's Monthly Visitor (by "Stoddard") titled, "We often mistake our friends for foes," which led with the injustices done to woodpeckers and then went on to defend the crow and blackbird.
How often the woodpecker is shot for his supposed injury to fruit trees, when in fact he is only destroying the vermin which are destroying the tree.
Hartwell wrote back to the New England Farmer (September 2), fully concurring with the editorial comment. In addition to praising the values of cheerful music and insect destruction (already a mandatory part of the bird protection essay genre), he noted that cherry eating birds were effective planters:
I have no doubt but what three hundred English cherry seedlings may be found upon the place...These trees my employer intends to have taken up soon, and put in a convenient place for sale, which if disposed of at the common price, will bring a good round sum--more money than was ever gained in preventing the birds from eating a few cherries.
He ended by expressing the hope that
the time may soon come when [birds] shall become our familiar friends, and feel that we are their protectors rather than enemies. 
Meanwhile, too many horticulturalists, not to mention "sportsmen," treated them as foes.

On October 30, the New England Farmer ran an excerpt from A Report on the Birds of Massachusetts, an official document edited by William Bourn Oliver Peabody commissioned by the Massachusetts Legislature. In what might have been considered the final word on the subject, in Massachusetts anyway, the report forcefully asserted that there was no bird harmful enough to agriculture to warrant its killing:
to exterminate birds which do a little harm occasionally, is to protect ourselves from a small evil at the expense of a greater; it is in fact securing the fruit by the sacrifice of the tree. There is no question that we are now suffering severely in consequence of this folly. No kind of cultivation is affected to any considerable extent by the ravages of birds, and if it should be, means may be devised to prevent them. [Peabody cited Wilson's blackbird calculations and Kalm/Franklin's New England blackbird story as support.]
Peabody's volume, in the tradition of Wilson, Audubon, and Nuttall before him, actively confronted unwarranted prejudices against certain birds, including hawks, blackbirds, crows, and woodpeckers (even the red-headed woodpecker, which he admitted "helps itself [to fruit] with the utmost freedom, caring little for the rights and threats of the owner.") His thoughts on the always controversial cedar waxwing are particularly interesting
If the horticulturalist, who sees the results of his labor disappearing, undertakes to prevent it, he only wastes his powder; that some of their number are shot, is a matter of unconcern to the survivors; he may gratify his revenge, but the scene of plunder will go on before his eyes; and he can only console himself with the reflection, that, in proportion to the appetite with which they devour his fruit, is the energy, with which, at other seasons, they take his part against enemies which he himself cannot reach. The truth seems to be, that, till fruit becomes more common, as it doubtless will be, these depredations will continue to be vexatious and discouraging; and the better way will be, to accept them as an intimation, to provide enough for ourselves and the cedar-birds too. 
Adding to the increasing socio-emotional way of seeing relationships with birds, Peabody repeatedly asserted that the shooting of birds was not an effective way of preventing depredations but simply a "gratification of revenge." They were seen as thieves deserving punishment. Instead, horticulturalists should embrace the presence of the cedar bird and provide for them as well. [Another note in our prehistory of bird-feeding].

No comments:

Post a Comment