Friday, March 31, 2017

Bird Protection in Cross-cultural Perspective (1857-1861)

In its June 1857 edition, the New England Farmer included the following passage in what was otherwise a standard "spare the birds" story:
In Japan the birds are regarded as sacred, and never under any pretense are they permitted to be destroyed. During the stay of the expedition at Japan a number of officers started on a gunning excursion. No sooner did the people observe the cruel slaughtering of their favorites than a number of them waited upon the Commodore and remonstrated against the conduct of the officers. There was no more bird shooting in Japan by American officers after that; and when the treaty between the two countries was concluded, one express condition of it was, that the birds should always be protected. 
When it came to the treatment of birds, the United States compared unfavorably.
What a commentary upon the inhuman practice of our shooting gentry, who are as eager in the pursuit of a tomtit as of an eagle, and indiscriminately shoot everything in the form of a bird which has the misfortune to come within the reach of their murderous weapons. 
In Japan birds were not just protected, they were nurtured:
On the top of the tombstones in Japan, a small cavity or trough is chiseled, which the priests every morning fill with fresh water for the use of the birds. Enlightened America should imitate these customs of the barbarous Japanese, if not by providing fresh water for the feathered warblers, at least by protecting them from the worthless louts who so ruthlessly destroy them. Unless something is done, and that speedily, our insectivorous birds will be wholly exterminated…
I've looked at this particular passage in depth in a longer working paper. Suffice it to say, such comparisons were opportunities to reflect critically on bird protection at the level of the nation, not just state or local community. Even the "barbarous" Japanese knew how wise it was to protect birds. America had to change its ways.

As we've seen, England was a common object of comparison (and confusion). C.N. Bement, for example, in his 1858 entry in the Rural Annual, "Birds both useful and injurious to the farmer and horticulturist," relates the Japanese story above and joins it to the story of the British rook:

In England, says a writer, there is scarcely a farm without its rookery; the humid atmosphere multiplies every species of insect, and those birds reward man for his forbearance by ridding him of legions of his foes. By a policy like that which dictated the revocation of the edict of Nantes, they have occasionally been exposed to the mischievous propensities of recreant, unruly boys and loafers, who, as far as utility is concerned, are not to be compared to crows; but the error of this step soon became manifest and they are now received with universal welcome. 
The editor of the Rural Annual, incidentally, was not as well versed in U.S. and British birds, and thus labeled an image of a blue tit, a "creeper." 

A February 1857 article in the New England Farmer drew attention to the "peculiar habits and manners of the Dutch," one of which was a "peculiar veneration for the stork." The author also noted more general legal protections for birds:
Stringent local laws are in force in all the provinces to protect the nightingales and other singing birds, which are quite numerous, from harm and molestation and any infraction of the laws is severely punished.
In July 1858, the American Farmer decried the peculiarly American "War on Birds," 
[T]he people of no other country in the world are so barbarous and cruel in their warfare upon birds, as the people of this. The little sparrows are found in great numbers in every village and city in Europe; no one ever disturbs them, and among the Turks so tame are the sea-birds that they will scarcely move from the prow of the light caique; and shall we "do that, Which Heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?" [Shakespeare, Othello]
Note that such protections could go hand-in-hand with efforts to import insectivorous birds, already identified and protected as "useful" in other countries.

So Germany could be considered a model for national bird protection laws,  as "G.H.B." observed in an 1861 article in The Horticulturist
When we go to Europe, especially to western Germany, we are surprised at the multitude of birds there, in comparison with those of our own land; and the cause of this scarcity with us is generally considered to be the wanton destruction committed on the feathered tribe….
and its useful birds would be useful to have and protect in the United States
[I]f circumstances had permitted, we should have tried long ago to import from Europe some of the moth-snapper varieties of birds…; also the grub-destroyer, King Sturnus, or starling, who follows every plow in the field….
The importation of house sparrows had just begun. The European starling would come a bit later. Both were initially valued as "useful" birds. Their protection in the U.S. would not endure.

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