Sunday, July 17, 2016

Bird protection and the moral education of children (1845)

In its July 1845 issue, the Genesee Farmer printed a short article titled, "Good influence of birds." Like "J.T." (last post), the author stressed the role of birds in "humanizing" their observers.
Birds that come around our houses should be protected. Their influence is good on us and our children. Their hymns go up when we are silent; they never forget the song of praise and thanksgiving. It is well for us to listen to them, and be humanized by the kindly lessons they teach us. …The child who has watched for the coming of the birds, and has heard the notes of the robin near his chamber window, will feel their influence in after life as a holy remembered thing. No tone of music shall ever fall on this ear like that thrilling song in the dim twilight of early morning. It may strike on his memory when he will need it most, and the scenes and innocence of childhood will come to him again to bear him up.--Encourage this love for these things of nature, ye who would bring up your children in purity and peace. No after-teachings can give such holy feeling, and the impressions they make shall never be forgotten.
To some extent this advice was linked to an early "nature study" pedagogical philosophy, which, like the bird protection movement, would take another fifty years to fully flower. Some of this thinking made its way into the farm press. For example, Andrew McDowell, writing in the Prairie Farmer (August, 1845), encouraged parents to allow their young children a chance to play in the woods and fields:
The grand secret in teaching children I believe is, not to tire them. And it is much better to have them spare a little time from their play to go through their lessons, than to have them find between their lessons only a little time for play. Between the ages of three and six years is the time of all others when the child is most anxious to cultivate an acquaintance with the beasts and birds, the woods and pleasant fields, by which he is surrounded. All the objects of nature that he sees, animate and inanimate, voiceless and mute, become teachers to him; and with the kind voice of his parents near him, to answer the questions which these objects suggest to him, he is thus under the teachings of nature obtaining the requisites for becoming a good scholar and a great man, more rapidly than to be shut up in a school room, under the tutelage of the best teacher in Christendom.
William Bacon, writing in the November 1846 Cultivator ("The District School House"), believed nature study was essential for future farmers, and not just for practical reasons:
To the cultivators of the soil, this love of nature, so kindly planted in every bosom, is certainly a desirable quality, and should be cultivated with care in proportion as they would succeed in threading the mazy labyrinthine walks of their every day employments. Let it be cherished then in the young botanist who commences dissecting flower and admiring their colors before he can utter his parents' name, or has power to sustain himself by his own exertion. Teach him, too, when his ear first opens to sweet sounds, and before his tongue can utter perverse sayings, that the birds whose music prompts his mirth and causes him to clap his little hands in joyful glee in chorus to their melody, that these sweet musicians of the grover were sent not only to gladden the heart of man by their pretty warbling songs, but that they are the ministers of his comfort in destroying myriads of insects which would scatter desolation in his path, and destroy his fairest hopes of plenteous harvests. 
"Good influence of birds" was reprinted in the New England Farmer on July 9, but it had wider distribution outside of the farm press, reprinted in the Primitive Expounder (September 4, 1845) and the Gospel Teacher and Sabbath School Contributor (April 15, 1846), as well as the temperance paper, Crystal Fount and Rechabite Recorder (October 5, 1845). Indeed, bird protection texts commonly flowed between agricultural publications and the religious press. 

That bird protection had already been institutionalized as a Sunday school theme can be easily seen by The Bird-Book, published in 1844 by the American Sunday-School Union. Ostensibly a primer for young readers on bird themes, The Bird-Book seemingly incorporated any bird-related biblical passage it could find into its lessons. In the first chapter, for example, young Lucy and her mother talk about the evils of wanton bird killing:
[Lucy's mother speaks:] "The Bible says a great deal about birds, and the care God takes of them.... "Behold," says Jesus Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, "the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." He also says, "Are not five sparrow sold for two farthings" and not one of them is forgotten before God;" meaning, as a writer says, that God takes care of sparrows, the least valuable of birds, so that he guides and directs their fall; they fall only with His permission, and when He chooses; for Jesus Christ says,"One of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father." 
"Well, mother," said Lucy, "I should think the boys who shoot the little birds just for amusement, would think of these words every time they see a wounded bird fall fluttering to the ground." 
"So should I, my dear," said her mother. "I was thinking lately, when I saw some boys going out with their guns, what an act of wickedness it would have seemed to have destroyed one of those ravens who were the commissioned messengers of God, to feed the prophet Elijah…It has always seemed to me to be in some sense a breach of the command, 'Thou shalt not kill,' to take the life of even one animal which is neither injurious to us when living, or useful to us for food when dead."
The Bird-Book freely reprinted material from a variety of sources, taking some of its content (particularly about house sparrows) from an earlier like-minded book, British Birds, published by The Religious Tract Society (London) in 1840, and some from the general and agricultural press, including an article "Spare the birds" originally published in the Portsmouth Journal and reprinted in the New England Farmer (October 26, 1842). Incidentally, that article contains one of the most horrifying stories in the history of bird protection literature--an account of a hunter who swears off hunting after shooting a pet blue jay. I will embed the passage below for you to read, if you dare:

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