Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Samuel P. Fowler's suspect ornithology (New England Farmer, 1853-1854).

Samuel P. Fowler was a leading citizen of Danvers and a founder of the Essex County Natural History Society. In 1843 he discovered a new species of toad. He would go on to write an influential book on the Salem Witch Trials.  From 1853 to 1854 he published a ten-part series in the New England Farmer titled, "Birds of New England: Their past and present history." Like Wilson, from whom he drew heavily, he spiced his species accounts with information about birds' diets, rated their helpfulness to the farmer, and decried unjustified persecution. But overall he was more interested in ornithology than telling "spare the birds" stories. And he had an important disagreement with Wilson that he couldn't wait to talk about.

His first article (February 1853), is in some ways his most interesting, charting the prehistory of New England ornithology; he drew from the memoirs of early settlers, Native American lore, and European accounts, such as Ogilby's America and Josselyn's New-England Rarities,  pointing out the accuracies and (sometimes wild) inaccuracies in their descriptions of chimney swifts, "humbirds," and kingbirds. At the end of that article he promised to say more about the hibernation of swallows.

And indeed, his next two articles focused narrowly on the long-standing issue of swallow migration. The earliest European ornithologies had claimed that swallows hibernated. That most swallows migrated was, by Fowler's time, obvious. But he insisted that some swallows might, occasionally, spend the winter in the north in a state of torpidity, secure in hollow trees or under the mud. Wilson, who had dismissed the possibility of swallow hibernation, was not to be trusted on this issue because his knowledge of New England was superficial and biased. Fowler quoted a passage from an 1808 Wilson letter as evidence:
[In New England] there is little or no improvement in agriculture; in fifty miles I did not observe a single grain or stubble field, though the country has been cleared and settled these one hundred and fifty years. In short, the steady habits of a great portion of the inhabitants of those parts of New England through which I passed seem to be laziness and law bickering.
Fowler concluded:
Upon reading this account, we were led to think that if Mr. Wilson was not better acquainted with the habits of New England birds than he was of the character of the people, not much reliance should be placed on his opinion, in regard to the torpidity of swallows. 
What's more, Fowler had seen things with his own eyes that made him less willing to close the question. In April 1836 he had noted the following in his journal:
It was a fine spring morning…I discovered about sunrise two White Bellied [tree] Swallows…fluttering on the ground and unable to fly…Upon examination…they were wet with mud and water, and after being wiped dry, they were taken into the house, and placed on a window in the sun. In a few hours they recovered their consciousness and flew out of the window into the open air. In the vicinity where these birds were found, was a pond filled with mud and water. The mud found upon these swallows was not the black dirt of the garden but was a slimy mud. 
Fowler's stance on swallow hibernation did not help his long-term credibility as an ornithologist.

His access to the canonical works of American ornithology (out of reach of most people because of cost and rarity), did, however, allow him to write informative species accounts. After an introductory article reviewing the orders of birds and providing examples of species found in Massachusetts, he described three or four species an article until his final submission on June 1854. Here his accounts were mostly uncontroversial, with the major exception of the robin. Indeed, recognizing that his position, "against the claims of the robin, as a bird, [to be] useful to the farmer and the horticulturist," would be unpopular, he incorporated a dialogue with a "female friend," in which he explained that the worms, for example, that robins fed their young were actually beneficial to agriculturists. Nevertheless, he pledged never to harm the bird: "for all their faults, we love them still."

That Fowler's articles had gained some traction among the New England Farmer's readership, can be seen by a query from "Laura" (August 1855) asking for a list of the "most approved authors" in American ornithology and where she might find their works. "Many of your female readers have been interested," she added, by a recent series on the "Birds of New England" appearing in the Farmer. Fowler replied, concluding: "We have not at this time a cheap and complete work, embracing a full history with specific descriptions of all our birds…." and called for someone to provide such a work. It would not be himself.

In 1855, Fowler announced that he would be continuing his project, by writing a series of articles on winter birds for the New England Farmer. He made one introductory installment and was done. While he continued to write occasional pieces for the publication, it is unclear why he never followed through on that or the earlier series. In future years, his brother Augustus Fowler would be the one to contribute species accounts to the Farmer, and then later for the Naturalist, the house publication of the Peabody Academy of Science.

Because Samuel P. Fowler's "Birds of New England" articles were never collected and published in a separate volume, I've linked to online sources for each of them below.

No. 1. New England Farmer, February 1853, pages 78-80.
A review of some previous attempts to describe New England birds. 

No. 2. New England Farmer, March 1853, pages 113-115.
Do swallows hibernate or migrate? Fowler finds evidence that suggests hibernation is not out of the question.

No 3.  New England Farmer, May 1853, pages 221-222.
Continues swallow discussion. Argues against Wilson's position that the case against hibernation is closed.

No. 4.  New England Farmer, June 1853, pages 291-292.
Reviews the orders of birds, giving examples of species found in Massachusetts. Adds note condemning wanton shooting of birds. 

No. 5. New England Farmer, July 1853, pages 299-301.
Describes some "omnivorous" birds, defending them as "useful." Includes meadowlark, oriole, red-winged blackbird. Adds an account of the cowbird. 

No. 6. New England Farmer, October 1853, pages 444-445.
The swallow tribe, part 1.

No. 7. New England Farmer, December 1853, pages 565-567.
The swallow tribe, part 2.

No. 8. New England Farmer, January 1854, pages 35-37.
Accounts of robin, kingbird, pewee and cherry bird [cedar waxwing]. Argues that robin is not "useful" but will protect anyway. 

No. 9. New England Farmer, March 1854, pages 142-143.
Accounts of bluebird, bobolink, catbird.

No. 10. New England Farmer, June 1854, pages 251-253.
Accounts of indigo bird [bunting], purple finch, wood thrush.

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