Saturday, July 30, 2016

A heretic (1852)

In the July 1852 issue of the Horticulturist, "J.C.H.," writing from Syracuse, attacked the foundations of the "spare the birds" narrative.

He began by quoting back to the Horticulturist a version of the narrative they had told:
"For our own part, we fully believe that it is the gradual decrease of small birds...mainly from the absence of laws against the vagabond race of unfledged sportsmen, who shoot sparrows when they ought to be planting corn, that this inordinate increase of insects is to be attributed." (July 1851).
His attack was multi-faceted. First, hunters couldn't be the cause of the birds' decrease. Most boys, he argued, wouldn't waste shot on songbirds:
The main cause of the destruction of small birds, which, ascribe to "unfledged sportsmen who shoot sparrows," &c., is wider of the mark than are the youngsters themselves, even in their most random shots. If it be true that there is any great decrease of small birds, which a familiar acquaintance with them for more than thirty years would lead me to gainsay, the cause alleged is not adequate to the result. I have been an "unfledged sportsman" myself. I was born one. I have passed through, in my experience, the whole range of "light artillery," so terrible to your imagination, from the quill pop-gun to the beautifully telling eloquence of a twin-tubed "Joe Manton;" and boy or man, I can truly say I never yet met with a disposition, even in the most thoughtless, to squander his ambition upon game so insignificant as the class of birds whose fancied destruction you so feelingly deplore. The instinct of economy, if not of scorn, or a feeling of humanity, would forbid it. What though a "sparrow" may sometimes fall to the ground at a long shot, "by way of improvement," can such occasional instances be claimed to cause their decrease to so lamentable an extent as to demand for their protection an invocation to law-makers!
And the much-blamed hunters from the city were too poor shots to make much of an impact:
What though our cities may turn out a few aspiring young Winkles on a pleasant summer's afternoon, who, with immense preparation, sally into the remote wilderness of the suburbs, and wake the echoes with a reckless disregard of powder and shot, is their destructiveness by any means commensurate with the noise they make? I trow not. Their intended victim, unharmed and unterrified, flies chirruping to the next bush in very mockery of their aim to bag him. It is easier to denounce the boys for wholesale destruction of small birds, than it is to convict them of it, and as popular sympathy is against them, the denunciation as easily passes unquestioned for fact. 
Second, birds weren't nearly as "useful" as most believed. To be merely "insectivorous" did not necessarily mean that birds controlled the insects that vexed farmers:
And now one word as to the utility of birds. It is a common belief that they are great benefactors of man in the destruction of pestiferous insects. To this belief I am an inexorable infidel. Who ever saw one of the whole race touch the caterpillar, which, at this season, infests our orchards; or that other kindred nuisance, which, later in the season, appears on all trees indiscriminately, often wholly enveloping them in its mighty net-work; or the slimy slug; or a single living atom of the endless legion of plant lice; or the turnip flea; or the striped cucumber bug; or that most vile of all disgusting creatures, the large black pumpkin bug; or finally the curculio? What one of the whole feathered race was ever known to harm a hair on the head of any one of these eternally recurring abominations? My own attention has for years been directed to this discovery, and that one among them all which is entitled to our gratitude, even to this extent, remains a rara avis still, and Barnum can find another "Nightingale," sooner than add this marvel to his collection. 
Finally, birds' putative "usefulness" did not exhaust the reasons for protecting birds.
Nevertheless, sir, the birds find in me a zealous protector, and they know it. In my own little domain, they are almost as fearless of me and mine, as are the chickens themselves. The pugnacious little wren takes up his habitation in a nook over the front door, and assumes all the bustling importance of one well to do in the world, scolding tremendously at all in-comers and out-goers, by virtue, to be sure, of his being the lawfully taxable proprietor of the premises; the robin hurries down from the tree to pick up the worm I toss him in compensation for the Jenny Lind touches he half strangles himself in trying to imitate, and feeds confidingly within a few feet of me in the garden; while I am fairly obliged to walk around the little chipping bird at the kitchen door, to avoid treading on him, so tame have they all become in consequence of gentle deportment towards them. Birds appreciate kindness quickly, and seem even to comprehend the pleasant words that are spoken to them. Though I owe them nothing for preserving my plums and cherries, yet woe to the urchin that molests them within the boundaries of my principality. Their cheerful companionship, their graceful sportings, their varied attempts to express their joyfulness in song, from the ludicrous enthusiasm with which one note is continually cachinnated, to very tolerable approaches to successful modulation, give them social claims upon me which compensate a thousand fold for all they destroy, and all they do not.
If you liked birds, you protected them. Utility was besides the point.

The editor, recognizing this as a serious attack on conventional wisdom, appended a reply: "J.C.H. is a heretic--an unbeliever in all written creeds...."

Some responses were emotional. "A Subscriber at the West," fired back the very next issue:
I do not like your correspondent, J.C.H....I am very angry with him. I think that if I had an opportunity I should feel strangely tempted to pull his hair!...
"Boys do not shoot birds," do they? Then I am laboring under a delusion in thinking that my own pet robins, and blue-birds too, became food for--fishes, once upon a time! There are a few boys in these United States, who do not live in the city, and who are not such very poor marksmen either, as I know to my cost....
The editor, invoking science, joined in:
If J.C.H. will examine the works of any of the entomologists who have taken pains carefully to study the habits of insects, he will find them continually referring to the agency of birds in destroying or preventing the excessive increase of various sorts of insects.... 
He referred to Harris (see the earlier episode between the New England Farmer and Buckingham of the Boston Courier), using the example of the blue jay, which by consuming 200 grubs a day, ultimately would keep 8 million insects from developing.

J.C.H.'s article was widely circulated. The Maine Farmer, in a response reprinted in The New England Farmer, called on J.C.H. to practice economic ornithology.
We would ask, where has J.C.H. been, all his days? Has he ever watched the operations of birds? Has he ever killed and opened any of them, and examined the contents of their crops and gizzards? If he had, he would never be caught asking such questions as he has, nor would he ever intimate that birds do not destroy caterpillars and such like nuisances. We have seen the Baltimore Oriole...often seize upon the common tent caterpillar...and tearing them open feast upon their entrails.We have repeatedly seen the common robin in gardens, ferret out the cut worm and swallow him. The swallows, at sunset, scale along the surface of the ground, and snatch in their rapid flight thousands of insects on the wing. Other birds devour other insects, and if he is faithless, or has never seen the birds catch them, let him just catch the birds, and cut them open, and he will often find the insects themselves safely stowed away in their gizzards, or other parts of their digestive organs. We advise him to study ornithology a little, in a practical way, and mend his wisdom in this particular.
J.C.H. responded in the November 1852 issue of the Horticulturist, finding "no cause for self-reproach." His main attack had been on the "common belief that they are great benefactors of man in the destruction of pestiferous insects." His critics had not adequately rebutted that argument. Instead, "What I seem perversely to be understood to say is that birds do not destroy insects at all...." It didn't matter if an oriole occasionally ate a caterpillar or a robin a cutworm. They didn't typically, and they didn't eat enough of them to make a difference. In his orchard, the orioles and robins left the tent caterpillars alone.

Furthermore, he saw no need of quarrel with "A Lady Subscriber at the West:"
I surely was not contending that the boys did not outrage the sensibilities of sympathetic ladies, now and then, by destroying their pet birds...My own sympathies were distinctively manifested in denouncing woe against them....
With respect to economic ornithology, a more thorough understand of birds' diet would reveal that they consumed many truly useful creatures, in particular the spider, "entirely inoffensive to man, yet resolute, untiring, and insatiable in his destructive pursuit of other insects...." Indeed, while the cedar waxwing was commonly shot for its raid on cherries, it was actually its fondness for spiders that was the problem.

The responses to J.C.H.'s objections demonstrate just how entrenched the "spare the birds" narrative had become during this era. As economic ornithology developed over the course of second half of the 19th century, however, it would take criticisms like his more and more into account, carefully considering not only the insect vs. grain/fruit ratio in the digestive tracts of birds cut open, but the kinds of insects consumed and how harmful or beneficial they were considered. At the same time, his rejection of utility as a necessary basis for protection probably accords with modern sensibilities.

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