Under the associate editorship of Henry F. French (whose son Daniel would help to found the Nuttall Ornithological Club two decades later), bird-related articles appeared in the New England Farmer as never before. Unlike previous editorial regimes, in which natural theology played a large role, French was devoted to science. In a February 1852 article in The Horticulturist, for example, he stressed the many things that "Science" could teach agriculturists, including:
She may teach us the history of birds--how industriously they co-operate with the husbandman in the destruction of myriads of insects, which, but for their aid, would over run his fields, and devour his harvests, thus teaching him to regard their song with pleasure, their presence as a blessing, instead of waging against them, as he did in less enlightened days, a cruel war of extermination. She tells us how the woodpecker, formerly regarded as a deadly enemy of the orchard, guided by an instinct alike unerring and wonderful, strikes her sharp beak through the bark, and drags with her barbed tongue, from his concealment, some worm which is slowly working his destructive way beneath. She tells us how the beautiful Oriole, so often regarded and destroyed by the market gardener, as an enemy of his peas, is only devouring the larvae of the pea-bug, which is already full grown in the green pea fit for the table, and would otherwise make part of some favorite customer's dinner, who, as likely as not, might fancy himself to be living on a strictly vegetable diet!
French, and his sympathetic if ornithologically inexpert editor-in-chief, Simon Brown, introduced bird-related topics to the Farmer's readers and actively encouraged them to write in with questions or submissions.
The topic of fall 1852 was swallows, specifically their departure and arrival dates. Swallows were a favorite ornithological topic during this era because there was still some lingering doubt about whether they migrated at all; there had been an ancient misconception that swallows hibernated, remaining in a torpid state in hollow trees or under the mud like frogs. Scientific observation had refuted folk wisdom in this case, and might in others.
In the September issue a correspondent wrote in wondering if swallows in New Britain, Connecticut departed later than swallows in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It depends on the variety of swallow, the editor (probably French) was quick to respond, asking the writer which of the "seven or eight" kinds of swallows he meant--barn swallow? or white bellied [tree] swallow? Regardless, the editor was pleased with the question, adding
We are happy to find that attention is turned to these lively and interesting birds. The farm is a perpetual museum [my emphasis], containing numberless specimens of the most beautiful creations. It ought not to remain sealed and unobserved to any.
A separate uncredited article purported to set the exact date barn swallows left Massachusetts and New Hampshire each year. Careful observation of staging swallows indicated it was July 27. This was in conflict with Nuttall, who indicated barn swallows left on September 18. The author justified the inclusion of this topic in the Farmer:
This whole matter of the birds is exceedingly interesting; and we believe it is as profitable to the farmer to know more of their habits as it is to the astronomer to know the courses of the stars…We make no apology, therefore, for stepping aside for a moment from the more common farm work of the season.
More letters about swallows arrived for the November issue. A reader reporting from an island off the coast of Maine indicated that barn swallows left there on August 27. He wondered if the moderating effect of the ocean climate made a difference. Another swallow-watcher drew attention to the bank swallow, adding "I hope your correspondents, in different parts of the New England, will observe the habits of this interesting class of birds the coming year." To a question about barn swallows vs chimney swallows [swifts], the editor referenced descriptions from Nuttall, adding further justification for sustaining this topic:
It is not our intention to make a "hobby" of any particular subject in these columns: but so far as birds, insects, and animals are concerned, they all belong to the farm [my emphasis]--they people the homestead; and always will, and are worthy of careful observation. Though living in their midst and calling upon them for their aid, or opposing their destructive habits, we are strangers to them in many particulars still. To the young, this study will have an important influence upon the character through life.
Ornithology and natural history generally were not simply sources of recreation for farmers and their families; such knowledge was vital for the farming community. The New England Farmer, for its part, was happy to be a medium via which such knowledge could be generated and shared. After yet another swallow article (noting the departure dates of the barn, white-breasted [tree], and brown-breasted [rough-wing?] species), the Farmer outlined one possible project that could make use of the many submissions that had gone unpublished:
It will hardly be necessary to publish in full every letter in relation to the migration of the swallow. We are receiving so many that to publish all would occupy more space than we can find it convenient to spare….But we hope still to be favored with similar notes from lovers of nature with regard to birds…and by-and-by will compile a table from them showing the observations which have been recorded in various parts of the country [my emphasis]…
This was in many ways a model of the kind of citizen science that is still encouraged today in the birding community.
Swallows were not the only ornithological topic in 1852. Questions from readers featured the pine grosbeak (it had been an irruption year), the winter coat of the bobolink, and the nest location of the rose-breasted grosbeak.
Among the New England Farmer's bird-interested readership was a genuine German ornithologist named Charles Siedhof, who had run a boy's school in Newton, Massachusetts. Siedhof, who introduced the topic of the rose-breasted grosbeak ("the voice and song of this bird are superior to all American birds, except the ferruginous thrush [brown thrasher]"), had written a guide to German songbirds earlier in his career. His specialty was bird behavior and he described his research arrangement:
For this purpose I was always surrounded by several hundreds of living birds, kept in a suitable room adjoining my study. Two windows, put in the walls between said room and my study, enabled me to watch and observe them carefully….
In a second article he related a story about an oriole and a caged hawk that were on apparent friendly terms and promised similar stories of "evidence of strong attachment of two different species of birds to each other." Indeed, he was in the process of beginning a guide to the birds of New England, and requested that readers contact him to help in this project. Ultimately, his purpose was the use of science "to protect the most faithful friends of the farmer and horticulturist against unjust and unpardonable persecution." The editor encouraged readers to help Siedhof with his project.
In the January 1853 issue of the New England Farmer, Siedhof, inspired by the letter from J.C.H. in the Horticulturist (last post), contributed an article promising to answer the question, "Are birds useful in destroying insects, especially caterpillars?"
Not long ago, somebody doubted the usefulness of birds in destroying insects; he was briefly answered in this paper. One should think, that even a man who never examines the stomach of a bird belonging to the Finch tribe…could for a moment be uncertain, with what kind of food they rear their young. Nothing is needed by eyes to see; there are, however, blind who will not see.
The "finch" he was referring to? The house sparrow.
There is a sparrow--Fringilla, now Pyrgita domestica--so common in Europe, especially in Germany, and in more than one respect so troublesome, that he is persecuted by everybody; and as he was thought to be very injurious to fields and gardens, the different governments made the law, that each male individual of age had annually to deliver a certain number of sparrow heads, varying, in different States, from 6 to 12. After this course had been pursued for many years, people began to complain about the scarcity of fruit. There were sections of the country, where the sparrows had been entirely exterminated. Such parts suffered the most, and, instead of the former abundance, their trees yielded no fruit.
The literature (going all the way back to Bradley, and then transmitted forward to French naturalists) indicated that house sparrows actually consumed a significant number of insects. Siedhof designed an experiment to test that hypothesis.
…I read in a French journal, a remark of a French naturalist--I believe it was Cuvier--that the sparrows reared their young with nothing but insects…I concluded to ascertain this by a direct experiment. In the following winter (1824) I procured sixty living sparrows. Having made two enclosures in my study, I put twenty-five sparrows in each, ten I caged…I fed twenty-five of them on different kinds of grain…Not one of them lived longer than six weeks; they all died of consumption of the stomach. Twenty-five of them I fed on grain, boiled meat and meal worms. The ten in the cages I fed wholly on either worms or boiled eggs or meat. All of them lived six months in captivity; they were plump and fat, and were set at liberty in the spring. In the following summer, I took several young sparrows of various ages from their nests, killed them and examined their stomachs. I never found anything in them but insects and worms….
His (early) study in economic ornithology being conclusive, Siedhof campaigned to "spare the house sparrow:"
I began to write in periodicals and to address the governments directly….I had the good fortune of restoring the poor sparrows to their lost reputation, at least, in that province of the kingdom of Hanover in which I lived. The above mentioned law was abolished and the sparrows remained unmolested.
Siedhof challenged doubters to try the experiment themselves. And indeed, soon there would be actual house sparrows in the U.S. to experiment with.