Friday, July 22, 2016

Connecticut debates the small bird law (1851)

In 1851, the Legislature of Connecticut revisited its 1850 "act to prevent the destruction of certain small birds." In later years debate over this bill in particular would be regarded as having been uniquely contentious. Accounts in Connecticut newspapers, reprinted nationwide, help to explain why.

The most comprehensive account of the legislative session was apparently from the Hartford Courant [I only have reprints so I've not seen the original] and circulated with the title, "Debate on the destruction of small birds." Another account, which originally ran in the New Haven Palladium, was titled "Ornithology in a Legislative Assembly." This debate was an important moment in the bird protection movement, so I've decided to include as much as actual text as possible. The core text is from the Courant, with supplements from the Palladium indicated through the use of a san-serif font.

The Courant began by indicating that the account was no common news story: it was demanded by readers who had heard of the debate and wanted to see it in print. 
Few of the debates which have sprung up during the present session of the Legislature of Connecticut ...have been listened to with more attention, or have apparently excited a deeper interest, than that which occupied the attention of the House on the third reading of the bill "to prevent the destruction of certain small birds;" and though some time has passed since it took place, the interest to see it in print is so general that we have endeavored, with the aid of some who took part in the debate, to collect what was said on that occasion.
The bill was introduced (the Palladium got an important detail wrong): 
Mr. [Elihu] Spencer of Watertown [actually, Middletown] , chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, brought up the bill for an "act to prevent the destruction of certain small birds" explaining briefly its object and its superiority over the bill passed last session, which is repealed.
The bill was more specific in the methods of killing to be banned and included a few more bird species ("yellow-bird" [American Goldfinch] and "phebe" [Eastern Phoebe]). [See previous post for the bill's original language].
That any person who shall shoot or in any other manner kill, destroy, entrap, ensnare, or otherwise capture upon lands not owned or occupied by himself, any of the following birds, viz. robin, blue-bird, swallow, martin or swift, night or musquito hawk, whip poor-will, cuckoo, king-bird, wake-up or high hole woodpecker, cat-birds, long-tailed thrush or brown thrasher, mourning dove, meadow lark or marsh quail, fire-bird or summer red-bird, hanging-bird, spider bird or wax-bird, ground robin or chewheat, bob-o-link or ricebird, sparrow, yellow-bird, or phebe, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five dollars.
As in cases in other states previously, one of the barriers to bird protection legislation was the perceived triviality of the effort.
On its second reading there appeared to be in some quarters a disposition to ridicule the bill, as scarcely worthy the attention of so dignified a body, and the whole matter was spoken of as "small game." On the third reading, Mr. [Ethan Allen] Andrews of New Britain, endeavored to give a different turn to the debate and the feeling of members on the subject.
First, there was a technical problem with the list itself, which, if not fixed might have removed protection from a whole class of birds:
[He] expressed himself in approbation of the humane provisions of the bill, but proposed to amend by inserting the word "Woodpecker." The chairman replied that this was already in the bill, but the punctuation was defective. It should read, High Hole, Woodpecker, &c, and not high hole Woodpecker.
Then it was time to rehearse the arguments for bird protection that had been made repeatedly over the decades. Andrews drew directly from Linnaean balance-of-nature theory, even using the term, "economy of nature."
Mr. Andrews said he rose for the purpose of moving to add to the list of birds proposed to be protected by this bill the names of several others which had been omitted. He spoke of the great value and interest of the race of birds, not only account of their beautiful plumage and their delightful melody, but as forming a more important link in that chain by which the whole visible creation was united, and the comparative numbers of the various races of animals duly regulated.--They are designed to act a most important part in the economy of nature, by holding in check the tendency of the insect species to increase to myriads, and, like the locust of the east, to sweep from the earth every vestige of the vegetable creation. That such a tendency to increase on the part of the insect tribe actually existed , and that without the requisite checks the whole earth would be laid waste by them, was sufficiently apparent to all who had deeply reflected upon the subject.  But among the checks to this increase none were probably more important or efficacious than the feathered songsters of the fields and the groves. Ever in motion, with keen eye and eager appetite, they were every moment seizing upon their prey as it lurked beneath the bark of trees or crept over leaf or flower, and thus kept in check the most destructive enemy with which the farmer or the florist was called to contend. But while thus engaged as the farmer's most efficient coadjutor and friend, it was his misfortune almost everywhere to be treated like an enemy, and even to be persecuted for the very acts which most redounded to the benefit of man. 
The woodpecker (particularly the red-headed woodpecker) needed specific protection because it was commonly misperceived as an enemy, when it was actually a great friend of the horticulturalist and farmer. Andrews drew from a personal experience.
Mr. A. remarked that several years since while traveling in western Carolina and Virginia, he passed through a forest where the timber on some hundreds of acres was all dead and decaying. Inquiry was made of a countryman respecting the cause of the devastation. He replied that the trees had been killed by wood-peckers, which had been increasing in that neighborhood for some years, and though they had killed as many of them as possible, it was all to little purpose; that they were continually pecking the trees, until the forest far and wide was destroyed. This was a good exemplification of what our own farmers and their sons were constantly doing. These woodpeckers had doubtless been drawn together by the myriads of wood-worms, the grub of the Buprestes [jewel beetle] and other insects bred beneath the bark of the forest trees, and which were at that time engaged in devouring the fresh wood deposited beneath the bark of those trees. The real enemy was concealed from sight, and the friend who was searching out and destroying this enemy, wherever his keen ear detected their stealthy gnawings, was taken like the poor and faithful dog of Llewellyn, as the destructive foe, and like him consigned to swift destruction. So it was now with the blackbird, which was ever ready to follow the farmer through the furrowed field, and to seize upon the worm whose secret mischief was disturbed by the unexpected inroad of the ploughshare. Through every day of the long summer he plied his useful labor, but alas for his safety! It was said that sometimes in the early spring, while searching for the grub, which would so, if not detected, destroy the burned corn, he meets with a few, a very few kernels of that corn which his efforts are tending to protect, and he incontinently devours them.--
Woodpeckers needed their reputations defended so that their inclusion in the bill would not poison it for other birds.
Mr. A. wished that notwithstanding this sin of ignorance on the part of this useful bird, he could see in the House a disposition to protect his life from the wanton attacks everywhere made upon it; but he feared to propose it, lest it should bring the other little songsters into danger from being found associated in the same bill with a bird that had suffered so much in his good name. He would, however, venture to propose to add the woodpecker and a few other confessedly harmless tenants of our fields and forests. 
It was then William W. Boardman's turn, who combined the argument from natural theology with the civilizing effect of proper exposure to nature. Children must be taught to appreciate nature--the nation's reputation was on the line:
Mr. Boardman of New Haven said: It was some eminent genius, I think it was Goethe [confirmed], who said, "The works of nature are ever to me a freshly uttered word of God." I sympathize earnestly in that sentiment. We are everywhere overwhelmed wit the proofs of the power and goodness of that God who has made all nature beauty to the eye and music to the ear. Our brilliant sun, and clear, pure air, which even Italy can surpass; our gorgeous sunsets; the dark luxuriance of our forests; the rich and varied products of our teeming soil, are ever objects of grateful contemplation in the morning's dawn or the evening twilight--At such moments nothing so lifts the hear with gratitude, and often the eye with tears, as the free joyous singing of the birds in the garden and orchard. It stirs the purest, gentlest, sweetest, sympathies of our nature. It civilizes and refines the heart--and if I were desirous of educating a youth for happiness and usefulness, I would begin and never cease teaching him to admire and love the beautiful and wonderful works of God. It is easily taught--let the father or the friend give tongue to his own thoughts in the hearing of the boy, and tell him what to admire in the painting of the sunset, the melody of the grove, the beauty of the flowers, the forms and tints of the landscape, the music of the restless ocean--no lessons can be more permanent or effective. If generally taught, we should soon redeem our national reputation from the charge of a want of taste and refinement. We are called at times a nation of young barbarians, and, although the charge is not true, I am sorry to say there is something to make it out of. There is no people in the civilized world among whom the destructive tendency is so prominent as in the young American--nothing escapes his gun and his knife. In the grounds of the capitol at Washington, a beautiful flower, raised with great care and expense, cannot be preserved a minute without the constant vigilance of the police. Now in the gardens of the Tuileries and the Schoenbrun, the most exquisite productions of nature and art are exposed, every day, within reach of the eyes and hands of hundreds and millions, who love and admire them more than our people could possibly do, and yet not a flower is ever touched. Such beautiful objects are regarded with a veneration that removes all fear of injury. Public opinion founded on cultivated public taste is the best possible security. Children can be taught to love or hate anything. The Lapland boy of ten years delights himself, above all things, with blubber--and the first real feast of the Northern soldiery, upon their entrance into Paris, was made upon the oil of the street lamps [fueled by whale oil]. It is easier to cultivate a taste for the true and beautiful. Let the school master, in our primary schools, himself feel in his own heart the beauty and magnificence of the works of God, and speak of them to his boys with the enthusiasm they ought to inspire, and which led the Psalmist [107:15] to exclaim," Oh that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness, and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men!" I would require it as a school exercise--every new day, every declining sun, should bring its glow of gratitude and admiration. Thus should we strike at the root of the destructive propensity of our boys, and implant in tis stead a love of the beautiful in nature and art, a source of never-failing enjoyments. In the meantime, sir, let us punish the young barbarian for destroying the singing birds, and, if he has no feeling himself, compel him to respect that of his civilized neighbors.
Edmund G. Howe, apologizing for appearing to have made light of the bill earlier, used Boardman's remarks to make a special appeal for sanctuaries for birds, whether public parks modeled after the French example [the establishment of Central Park in New York was still a few years away], or private residences.
Mr. Howe of Hartford said: I should not have detained the House by any remarks of mine upon the bill now under consideration, had not a few words which I playfully spoke the other day when it was under consideration, been received by the chairman who reported the bill as designed to cast ridicule upon it. Nothing was further from my intention, and on the spot I so stated privately to him, and I now desire before the House to utterly disclaim any such design on my part, and to say, from the bottom of my heart, I desire its passage. The gentleman from New Haven has alluded, most appropriately and impressively, to the different habits of the people of Europe as compared with our own in relation to the subject now before us; and most touchingly has be portrayed to us the sacredness with which, from their education and habits of life, all classes are accustomed to preserve their public parks and gardens; and in this particular how unfavorably our own American citizens compare! It must be observed by every intelligent American, in his visits to that country, and I think nothing coming under his observation arrests his attention quicker, or strikes him more forcibly, than when, on his first visit to Paris, as he walks in an afternoon to the extensive gardens of the Tuileries, in its centre, and beholds them filled, at great expense, with the choicest and rarest plants and flowers, as well as rare domesticated birds, all open to the public, frequented by all classes at their will, still remaining untouched and unharmed. It is a beautiful sight, sir, to see the citizen in humble life, with his little family around him, towards the close of the day, enjoying there, free as air, the beauties of that lovely and enchanting spot; and there, sire, germ and grown the finer sensibilities of our nature. And now, sir, if there is one propensity which I would eradicate from the breast of my children, it is that which leads them to destroy the feathered warblers which frequent our fields and parks, or our gardens; and while I would not unreasonably abridge the sports or pastime of my friends from our country towns, I ask them confidently, sir, to aid us in the passage of such laws as will enable large towns so fortunate as to have parks, or private individuals residing in them so much blessed as to have ground attached to their residences, that the little songsters that frequent them may be protected from the ruthless hand of the destroyer, and thus be preserved one of the dearest and most ennobling accompaniments to our earthly residence that God has given us.
Then there was a curious move against the brown thrasher [not normally considered a harmful bird], immediately countered. It was this exchange that evidently inspired Longfellow.
Mr. [Harris R.] Burr, of Killingworth, moved to erase the long tailed thrush, as he was an arrant corn thief.
To this there was a general murmur of disapprobation--several exclaiming, "No, now! do spare the Thrush!"
Mr. Boardman: I hope not, sir. The thrush is the sweetest of our singers, the prima donna of our troupe. When he sings with a full heart, the whole air is filled to intoxication with his gushing melody. He is greatly superior to the nightingale of England, and even the Swedish Nightingale [Jenny Lind, who was on tour in the U.S.]  herself has listened to him with perfect admiration and despair. Could I have every thrush in the State on my own grounds, most cheerfully would I feed them for a tithe of the melody that they furnish to the gentleman of Killingsworth every day.
Mr. Burr replied that he was well aware that the thrush was one of the sweetest songsters in nature's grand choir, yet it was nevertheless true that he was a great annoyance to the farmer, and he was therefore reluctantly compelled to move to strike out his name.
Mr. Andrews, of New Britain, said that though he was a farmer and the son of a farmer, he had never heard anything said until this morning against the character of the thrush. In his part of the State this beautiful bird bore an excellent reputation, and if in any other section he had lapsed into dishonest habits, it must have been because in those sections he had fallen into bad company. He should be very sorry to see him stricken from the bill.
The old story of catastrophe following the destruction of birds was invoked:
Mr. Boardman: One word more, Mr. Speaker. A great diversity of opinion exists among farmers concerning the depredations committed upon their crops by birds. A law was once enacted in Virginia offering a bounty for the destruction of the crows that destroyed their corn. A war of extermination followed and of the corn also; for in many districts the ravages of the worms were such, after the removal of the crows, that the farmers would gladly have paid back their money if they could have established the dynasty of the crows again.  
Mr. Burr again insisted that the thrush was the cause of much mischief in the farmers' cornfields, and appealed to the farmers present to sustain his position.
Mr.  [Russell] Benton of Guillford, said he was one of the farmers appealed to, and desired to say he had never heard the thrush evil spoken of; he was of opinion that if they disturbed the corn in Killingworth, it was because the land was so poor that it would not produce worms. 
Ultimately, though, the bill's emphasis on trespassers meant that it would not be putting limits on farmers to make decisions on their own.
Mr. [Gurdon] Trumbull, of Stonington, remarked that this law did not restrain people from killing birds on their own lands, but was designed to curtail the liberties of those lawless intruders who are fired with an insatiable ambition to destroy harmless birds on others' premises.
Amendment lost.
Then it was the kingbird's turn [remember Wilson's account]:
Mr. [Jeremiah] Olney, of Thomson, moved to amend by erasing the word king-bird, as he had a bad reputation among the honey-bees.  
Several persons objected, on the ground that this bird was an enemy to the whole insect race; while the honey-bee constituted but a moiety of his prey, and while he has the reputation of a King, he showed his hatred of despotism, by pulling the hair of Hawks, Crows, and other lawless desperadoes and could not be well spared. The good he did far overbalanced the evil. 
Mr. [Richard H.] Phelps, of Windsor, coincided with the remarks of other gentlemen. He thought the birds did more good than harm, and he wished any gentleman whose fields were troubled by them to call upon him and he would tell them how to obviate the mischief without killing them.
Amendment lost.
Charles Osgood made what might have been a controversial move. (Here it is a shame that more of the exact transcript was not preserved).
Mr. Osgood of Pomfret moved to insert the black bird. 
It seemed to be conceded that this cunning bird, either on account of his complexion, or his tendency to socialism, was subjected to unmerited odium. Others considered him the same little rascal in a black jacket as formerly, and not like to improve by legislation. 
Mr. Boardman said that, though he believed the black-bird to be one of the farmer's best friends, still his bad reputation, if the amendment should be adopted, might tend to defeat the bill.  
Amendment adopted.
Showing the overlap between this bill and existing game laws, the bobwhite was next to be added:
Mr. Osgood moved to amend further by inserting the quail. He was for putting an end to the poaching propensities of certain professional hunters, who go strolling over other people's premises, banging away at everything, and thus endangering the lives of the people in the rural districts. 
Some one thought the quail already protected by the laws respecting game; if was not, it ought by all means to be inserted in the bill. 
Amendment adopted.
Then to some uncontroversial birds, quickly added:
Mr. Godfrey, of Fairfield, moved to insert the humming bird. Adopted. 
And amendment in favor of the wren was also adopted. 
Then Harris Burr, who had moved to eliminate the brown thrasher, made an even more controversial gesture. (One wonders if this was a tactic to undermine the bill itself).
Mr. Burr moved to insert the crow. He knew that by many he was regarded as an unmitigated scoundrel, but he thought he had done more good than was generally supposed, and should be protected. The Crow was declared not to belong to "certain small birds," and was regarded as an unmitigated scoundrel, and withal able to "take care of himself," and so he was almost unanimously voted out of the house.
 Amendment lost.
Finally, one more addition (there could conceivably have been dozens more, so it is unclear why they stopped here):
Mr. Boardman said that, at the suggestion of an eminent naturalist, he wished to add the rose-breasted grosbeak [the Palladium here has, bizarrely, the "golden-breasted" grosbeak]. It was a beautiful bird which had recently made its appearance in the gardens in this vicinity. 
Amendment adopted, and bill as amended passed. 
This was a genuine "bird trial," with actual effects on the prospects of actual birds. Unlike crow trials reported in the past, it was taken seriously, and included expert opinion. 

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