Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The tragedy of the caged birds (1850)

In its January 1850 issue, the American Farmer printed the following story contributed by "Portia in the country, Delaware." It is a true-to-life story with a moral.
Last summer my sister came from the city with her family to pass a few weeks with us, and her carriage driver purchased of some boys in the neighborhood a nest of young American Mocking Birds. The young birds in their nest were placed in a cage which was hung upon a tree in the yard, and tho' they been brought the distance of a mile, the old birds soon found their "loved and lost ones," though secured within the bars of a prison, and expressed great joy at the meeting. We all endeavored to negotiate for their liberty, and tried to purchase them but in vain. The old birds now resumed their task of supplying them with food, boldly entering the yard, rendered fearless of danger through force of maternal and paternal love. The limb to which the cage was suspended, overhung a backbuilding, and a cat seeing the birds constantly there, crawled out, watched her opportunity, and struck the old bird, the father of the family, down. And now the widowed mother seeing the support of her helpless imprisoned little ones depended solely on her own exertions, seemed to redouble her efforts, her toil and labour. She was doubtless a mourner in her heart, and we fancied we could discover in her plaintive notes the grief that oppressed her. Again negotiations were resumed for their freedom, but the price was advanced to three dollars apiece, and the man seemed obstinately bent on keeping them. But it was pitiful to see the old bird panting and breathless in the hot summer days continuing her toil to procure them food, their increased size now requiring more sustenance.
At this time, by some means or other one of the young birds escaped through the bars of the cage, and after sporting about for a time, in the course of a day or two we saw him engaged with this mother in supplying food to his little imprisoned brothers and sisters. Day after day, and hour after hour, away they would go together, the widowed mother and her orphan boy, returning with what seemed a most grateful repast, and welcomed with the most joyous acclamations by the little prisoners. 
But from the heat of the weather in their exposed situation, or because their owner had added some food that did not agree with them, one by one the young caged birds all died!
And now as thus "thrice flew the shaft, and thrice her peace was slain," the notes of wailing and woe were heard throughout the grove from morning till night. Poor bird! I pitied her--I pitied them both--but the mother! for what love equals a mother's, what grief like hers refuses consolation!
Those familiar with Whitman's "Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking," (1859) will remember a similar scene. The moral of the story follows:
What a moral--what a text for commentary was her exhibited! nor did my own little fledgelings fail to feel an interest in the "story of the birds," which I have so often repeated to them. And how many such little incidents there are connected with our rural homes, from which to make us better and wise as we "look through nature up to nature's God!"
May my sons love liberty and hate tyranny and oppression more, from remembering the fate of the imprisoned birds! and when I told them, it was something like the story of poor [Hungarian freedom fighter] Louis Kossuth, they wanted to hear all about him, and in the course of the fireside lectures this winter, I shall tell them all about poor Kossuth, his devoted wife, and noble old mother, and of the Russian Bear who seeks their lives!
To cage a wild bird was somehow un-American. Meanwhile, the correspondent urged the editor of the American Farmer to include more articles targeted at female readers. 
I don't know that you will think the columns of the "Farmer" is the proper place for a "story," but please to remember that farmers' wives and daughters take a peep into all the papers brought from the post-office and we women, too often perhaps, think that the most interesting heading for an article is that which I have placed at the head of mine, "A Story," and then Mr. Editor, mine is an "o'er true story."
I have another little story to tell of the birds, provided you like this--for we live among the birds and their "concerts" so cheaply enjoyed content us. 
As far as I can tell this second story was never realized.

The caging of native songbirds was a growing practice in the U.S. at this time, bolstered by publications such as D. J. Browne's American Bird Fancier (heavily advertised in agricultural papers), which gave detailed instructions based on the ornithological literature on how to tame and care for native birds, including mockingbirds, brown thrashers, and bobolinks. (See also  The Skillful Housewife's Book (1852), in which the daily care of caged wild birds is described as women's work.) A row of caged birds in one's garden would ensure birdsong, completing the picturesque rural scene without the concern about fruit depredations. That the breeding of songbirds had become an agricultural concern is demonstrated by an list of premiums for a Maryland agricultural and horticultural exhibition in 1853. In addition to domestic fowl, pheasants, and exotic birds, the fair offered $5 premiums on the best American birds, including: robin, baltimore oriole, cardinal, indigo bunting, american goldfinch, catbird, red-wing blackbird, bobolink, orchard oriole and of course, the mockingbird.

Browne's entry for the mockingbird, the "unrivalled Orpheus of the forest and natural wonder of America" [Nuttall] is instructive. The author noted that "those which have been taken in trap cages are accounted the best singers, as they come from the school of nature, and are taught their own wild wood notes. The young are easily reared by hand from the nest...." In addition to providing music, the tamed bird was a source of humor and playfulness:
Soon reconciled to the usurping fancy of man, the mocking bird often becomes familiar with his master; playfully attacks him through the bars of his cage, or at large in a room; restless and capricious, he seems to try every expedient of a lively imagination, that may conduce to his amusement. Nothing escapes his discerning and intelligent eye nor faithful ear. He whistles, perhaps for the dog, who, deceived, runs to meet his master; the cries of the chicken in distress bring out the clucking mother to the protection of her brood. The barking of the dog, the piteous wailing of the puppy, the mewing of the cat, the action of a saw, or the creaking of a wheelbarrow quickly follow with exactness.
The food needed to sustain mockingbirds was varied. The author, through apparent personal experience, recommended "berries of various kinds…a few grasshoppers, beetles, or any insects conveniently to be had, as well as gravel…and spiders will often revive them when drooping or sick."

There was a market for mockingbirds, and it could be a profitable one.
Good singing birds of this species generally command from $5 to $15 each, though individuals of extraordinary and peculiar powers have been sold as high as $50 or $100 each and even $300 have been refused! 
By some estimates the 1850 dollar is worth around $30 today. This would mean mockingbirds could fetch between $150 to $9000 on the marketplace. Because markets like this put pressure on numbers of the wild bird, the practice of trapping and caging wild birds would be a target not just of anti-cruelty groups, but of bird protection generally in years to come. 

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