Sunday, July 24, 2016

Doubts about house wrens (The Horticulturist, 1849)

The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste. Devoted to Horticulture, Landscape Gardening, Rural Architecture, Botany, Pomology, Entomology, Rural Economy, &c. made its publication debut June 1846. The famed horticulturalist and designer, A.J. Downing, served as editor. Luther Tucker, entrepreneurial editor of the Albany-based Cultivator was the publisher. Joseph Breck, the former publisher/editor of the New England Farmer and seed company magnate, was a sales agent and contributor. The Horticulturist was marketed as a first-rate agricultural publication. 

Downing had just published the influential Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. In that book he showed his knowledge of birds and his positive attitude towards them:
The assistance of birds in destroying insects should be duly estimated by the fruit-grower. The quantity of eggs and insects in various states, devoured annually by birds, when they are encouraged in gardens, is truly surprising. It is true that one or two species of these…annoy us by preying upon the earlier cherries, but even taking this into account, we are inclined to believe that we can much better spare a reasonable share of a few fruits, than dispense with the good services of birds in ridding us of an excess of insects. 
The most serviceable birds are the common sparrows, the wren, the red-breast, and in short, most of the birds of this class. All these birds should be encouraged to build nests and inhabit the fruit garden, and this may most effectually be done by not allowing a gun to be fired within its boundaries. The introduction of hedges or live fences, greatly promotes the domestication of birds, as they afford an admirable shelter for their nests. Our own gardens are usually much more free from insects than those a mile or two distant, and we attribute this in part to our practice of encouraging birds, and to the thorn and arbor vitae hedges growing here, and which are greatly resorted to by those of the feathered tribe which are the greatest enemies of the insect race. (55-56).
Incidentally, the first edition of Downing's book included an ad for T.P. Giraud's The Birds of Long Island (1844), a species guide designed for "gunners."

In the October 1849 issue of the Horticulturist, a correspondent "J.J.S." contributed an article titled, "Wrens the best insect destroyers," which was primarily about the interesting nesting behavior of house wrens--he described a nest in an "accidental wren box," an ornamental rail post in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery. He cited Barton in support of the "usefulness" of the wren, quoting: "the esculent vegetables of a whole garden may, perhaps, be preserved from the depredations of different species of insects, by ten or fifteen pair of these small birds."

His goal in writing, though was not simply to share his story. The correspondent pointed to the bird-related articles [some by Charles Waterton] in "Loudon's Gardener's Magazine," a British publication. He requested more bird-related content in the Horticulturist, calling on readers to observe the habits of bird and write in, and for the editors to glean material from the literature (particularly "Wilson's most agreeable but expensive pages"). As an example, he copied in Wilson's poem about bluebirds. 

In the December 1849 issue, "Jeffreys, Western New-York," who had been invited by the Horticulturist to offer overall commentary about the October issue, was particularly supportive of "J.J.S."'s contribution:
Give me your hand--aye, both of them. I wish I knew your name. You breathe the true spirit of Wilson and Audubon, and all others who love the dear little songsters that cheer us with their melody, and relieve us of the thousand pests which mar our pleasure in rural life. How instructive the dear little things in their habitations, and how useful their little labors to any place they occupy. Every body should try to accommodate not only the wrens, but every other bird which feeds on noxious insects, in all parts of his grounds. We know very little of the good that is done by these friendly companions, and palsied be the arm that would lift a thing to destroy them. … Tell us more about the birds, my friend. I shall always be obliged to you for manifesting so much kindness of spirit, as well as for the instruction so pleasantly imparted.
Another contributor, calling himself "Ornithologist, Rhode-Island" however, was less enthusiastic about house wrens. In a long article in the same issue, he asked that he be permitted to
give the character of this little bird, without scandal, vouching for the truth of every charge, which may be confirmed by the observation of any one.
Contrary to Barton's recommendation, the house wren was a potentially dangerous presence in the garden, 
One pair of blue birds will destroy more injurious insects than six pair of wrens,--the food of the latter being partly spiders. There is another objection to the wrens; they will drive away from their district any other bird, by destroying their nests and eggs. A neighbor of mine shot eleven of these little pirates in one season, after which the swallows, blue birds, robins, sparrows &c., returned and rebuilt their nests.
He noted that wren boxes should be placed at least forty feet apart, "as birds are jealous." The incorporation of birds into one's garden required management, and in order to properly manage, one needed to understand not just the individual birds' feeding habits but their interactions with other birds and insect predators. 

One way to attract birds to one's orchard was to feed them. The correspondent described an elaborate (for its era) feeding set-up that allowed viewing ("these little visitors are amusing, and their innocent society helps to cheer us through the winter.")
A little millet seed was first thrown upon the platform, which soon attracted large flocks of tree sparrows, snow birds, lesser redpoles, and occasionally a few song sparrows, and still less frequently a solitary white throated sparrow. The fox sparrows came in the fall from the north, and stopped again on their return in the spring. Oily seeds, hemp and sunflower, and the kernels of various kinds of nuts, were next tried, which attracted the chickadee, or black capt titmouse, and the nut-hatch, and sometimes the downy woodpecker. All of them relish a piece of fresh fat meat; (salt meat is injurious to them.) In the country, the blue jay will come regularly for a breakfast of corn; he is also a lover of fresh meat, but should not be permitted to visit the garden or orchard in the summer, as he is known to devour the eggs and young of other birds. 
The writer was evidently known by the Horticulturist's editor, who invited him to contribute more articles. "Jeffreys, Western New-York," (February, 1850) however, appreciated the contribution but disagreed with its conclusion.
Welcome, my good friend, into the kind brotherhood of those who love God's creatures. I am sorry, however, you don't like the wrens. Of all things, I like them for their very spider eating. The spiders! Bless me, my good sir, they are the bane, not exactly of my own, but all summer they are of my good wife's existence. Why, you know nothing about it. Every other day, from April to November, you see her with handkerchief, tied turban fashion around her head, out in the broad piazza, with Tom and his brush, and Moll with her stick, and the dear soul with the tongs to pinch them,--all clamorous and busy for an hour in poking out, and brushing off the "filthy spiders.".... Why, I wish we had a thousand wrens to catch the vile torments. Blue birds, robins, sparrows,--all may go, if the wrens will but catch the spiders….
In addition to his aesthetic but ecologically unsound attitude toward spiders, Jeffreys had his own bird-feeding suggestion:
[If] you love the drone of the dear little humming-bird, plant a scarlet monthly honeysuckle by the columns of your porch, or library, or bed-room window, and the tiny things will be all day boring into the long cups of the flowers, and perchance fly into the windows; and in its fright to get out again, one will dash against the glass, where, in order to release it, you will catch it as you would a butterfly; and while holding it in your hand, and gazing at its delicious plumage, will feel its tiny heart throb against your fingers in its agony, till you let it go into the broad sunshine of its enjoyment, soon to return and buzz away its happy hours as before.
Despite the core disagreement, Jeffreys was encouraging:
Write again, my dear sire. You remind me of White, of Selborne, who wrote some years ago one of the pleasantest books I ever read, on the Natural History of his neighborhood. 
If this series of articles is a good indication, it would appear that Barton, Wilson, Audubon and White had already been canonized as the great ornithological figure-heads. 

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