Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Ebenezer Meriam feeds Winter Birds in a Brooklyn cemetery (1845)

Ebenezer Meriam was a wealthy, science-minded, devout, philanthropic New Yorker who grew up in Concord (the farm at Meriam's Corner) and published his own newspaper, the New York Municipal Gazette. He was also an early American advocate of systematic winter bird feeding.

On February 12, 1845 Meriam wrote in some detail about his winter feeding project.
The last day of January of the present year...I received a first visit since the commencement of cold weather from the Ground Sparrows, which were my visitors during the whole of the previous winter [this was his third year feeding birds]. The latter part of June, those birds came on a visit of a few days with their young. I was glad to see these feathered acquaintances and am glad to record the remembrance of my kind treatment to those little creatures. 
This was before the large-scale introduction of house sparrows to the US so it is unclear what species he was talking about above: perhaps song sparrows, which sometimes overwinter; or maybe he confused different species. Regardless, he imagined an enduring relationship with the birds that he fed.
This winter the Snow Birds [dark-eyed juncos] have paid me but about a dozen visits....The cold has not been so intense the present season, as to prevent these birds from finding food at their usual places of stopping, but on Friday, a change of weather admonished them of the necessity of resorting to their old quarters. They come full of gratitude and full of cheerfulness.... Sweet creatures, I admire them, and I prize their visits highly. 
His birds were grateful and seemed to remember him, inspiring thoughts about their mental powers.
Instinct and intelligence are both from the hand of nature. Birds are said to possess instinct--they possess intelligence, and many of them discover more knowledge than is possessed by some of the human species. 
On March 27, 1845, Meriam updated his readers about the activities at his feeder and mused about mixed flocks:
On the 11th of March, my winter birds paid me a visit and were accompanied by a stranger bird, resembling in appearance and size the swamp Robin [towhee]. I have noticed that birds practice hospitality with a care that discovers a bright trait in the character of the feathered race. Birds were tenants of earth ere man became an inhabitant of this terrestrial surface. 
By feeding the birds, Meriam was also engaged in this primordial hospitality.

While Meriam was by no means an ornithologist and did not spend much space, relatively speaking, speaking about birds in his newspaper, the fact that he was engaged in the ongoing discussion about bird protection can be seen by the April 9, 1845 issue of the Municipal Gazette. He devoted most of a page to the birds, reprinting articles written by Gerard Halleck  (another "editor friend" of the birds) of the New York Journal of Commerce. One of these letters, originally published in 1842, was a direct point-for-point response to the "Justice" letter in the New England Farmer. [see Winged Wardens post]. Halleck had signed his response, "Mercy."

The following year, (April 2, 1846), Meriam returned to his feeding report:
I have near my window a box in which I feed the little Birds that frequent the grove in this latitude in winter. I have as daily visitors some forty or fifty snow birds and sparrows and occasionally a Virginia Red-bird [northern cardinal, near the limits of its northern range during this period] makes his appearance among them....
But now he had a larger project in mind, a bird sanctuary.
I expressed to a very worthy citizen [Henry E. Pierrepont] of Brooklyn a desire to invite the Birds to take up their residence in the grove in Greenwood Cemetry (sic), where the grounds are enclosed, and where the little innocents would be protected from the cruelties of hard-hearted and unfeeling sportsmen, who wound and torture the poor birds.
Pierrepont was receptive to Meriam's proposal:
Mr. [Joseph A.] Perry [the first comptroller of the cemetery] would be very happy to promote your benevolent intentions in regard to the birds in Greenwood. Will you some time...suggest to him how you wish to attain the object, the keeper on the ground would assist in distributing the seed. If you have selected a lot, it may be made head quarters for these "minstrels of the wood," by placing your alms on it.
Meriam pitched the beneficial effect of a particular bird, which he called the "Adirondack Solitary," on the cemetery soundscape.
This little songster would be an acquisition to the groves of Greenwood Cemetery, its plaintive notes would awaken in the minds of the visitors of the "City of the Dead" a feeling which would bow down human pride and lead the mind to meditate and contemplate, a suitable state of feeling to occupy the spiritual bosom of the material form while meditating among the tombs.
Meriam was apparently the only person who used this name for the bird (ovenbird?), which was a night-time singer.  Regardless of its identity, Meriam was thrilled to report (Brooklyn Evening Star, April 22, 1846) that his imagined scene had come true--he had heard the Adirondack Solitary singing in Greenwood.

By January, 1847, Meriam had his "head quarters" at Greenwood. His (adult) daughter Mary had died. In a long grief-filled essay published in the Brooklyn Evening Star (December 31, 1847) he reported:
It was on a wintry, clouded day, of the present month, I entered Greenwood to be near the sleeping dust of my angel child, and to carry food to the little birds in her place of rest.
It was here, on the morning of the sacred Sabbath, among the tombs and among the groves, that I met a flock of little birds, the sparrows and snow birds, waiting my arrival. They had waited long, but there is success in silent, patient waiting. They were hungry, and I fed them. It was a pleasant duty--a charming, a heart-gladdening service; and a labor well fitted to the holy day and the sacredness of the place in which they had congregated.
Bird-feeding, for Meriam, had become a source of consolation. In the end, Greenwood, following Mt. Auburn Cemetery, would become one of America's great havens for migratory birds.

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