Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Epilogue 1: American Entomology and "The Bird Question" (Prairie Farmer 1860s)

W. Conner Sorenson, in his 1995 book, Brethren of the Net: American Entomology 1840-1880, highlights the role of agricultural periodicals in the development of entomology as a practical science. He argues that the most successful entomologists of this era were skilled writers and public speakers, able to effectively communicate the importance of their field to farmers, legislators, and the general public. Sorenson notes that the rise of destructive insects was probably due to the practice of monoculture (insects feeding on a particular crop would multiply when that crop became abundant) and the weakening of soil (and the subsequent weakening of plants' resistance) by continuous intensive farming. Some basic changes in farming practices might have, by themselves, helped reduce insect depredations.

Nevertheless, the foundational "balance of nature" thinking among both entomologists and editors of agricultural papers gave a special place to the insect-bird relationship. Sorenson calls this "the bird question" and implies this locution was in popular usage; as far as I can tell, however, it wasn't widely used. This was essentially the project of economic ornithology, driven by debates in horticultural societies about the destructiveness of certain bird species.

By 1860 Illinois was the leading agricultural state in the U.S. Its bird law passed in 1859, protecting by name: "blue bird, swallow, martin, mosquito hawk, whippoorwill, cuckoo, woodpecker, cat bird, brown thrasher, red bird, hanging bird, rice bird, sparrow, wren, hummingbird, dove, goldfinch, and mocking bird." The Prairie Farmer, operating out of Chicago, covered the region and quickly became a major voice in agricultural circles. During the late 1860s, the Farmer hosted a vigorous debate about useful vs. destructive birds stimulated by a particularly bird-hostile report to the Alton Horticultural Society (south-west Illinois) in 1865. Some would "protect all birds" the report stated, but with fruit growers "it is a matter of dollars and cents." The group on a motion voted to "destroy the Baltimore Oriole, Cherry Birds, Cat Bird, Jay Bird, Sap-sucker, and his kindred." (November 18, 1865).

In 1866,Frank Starr of Alton made his case before the Illinois Horticultural Society. Contrasting "poetical" vs. "practical" farmers, he argued that the "poetical" side had been too influential in informing policy and that practical sense about birds and their depredations should receive more consideration. The "practical" farmer, for example, did not believe in the "harmony of nature," but nevertheless, recognized most species of birds as useful friends. If careful study showed, however, that certain species were on the whole harmful to fruit, those deserved to be destroyed. The ensuing debate was published in full in the Society's Transactions and in part in the Prairie Farmer (January 20, 1866).

George Washington Minier of Tazewell, who had published previous defenses of birds, strongly questioned Starr's conclusions. He demanded that Starr identify the birds marked for destruction. For his part:

I know there is a utilitarian principle that would destroy everything that does not minister to the immediate necessities of man. But it strikes me that there are other things quite as important as that, which minister to our necessities here…I know very few birds that I would be willing to pronounce sentence against. I love the birds--I love their songs. I never enjoy myself better than when with them. I know they destroy the cherries, but I planted those trees partly for them.
E.S. Hull of Alton, who had made the original motion, repeated the destructive bird list and detailed the depredations done by the species listed. Some members condemned the motion, threatening to leave the Society if the motion passed. F. K. Phoenix of Bloomington, claimed

I do not believe there are any resolutions like this, any where, gotten up by any intelligent body of men, outside of Alton. (Laughter). I would hate to belong to such a body of men. Do not let us go butchering the birds in the name of this Society. If the gentlemen of Alton wish to go to killing the birds, do not let them ask me to do any thing of the kind, and for one I cannot vote for such action. 
Frank Starr was offended by this response and other members supported the shooting of depredators, even suggesting other birds (robins) go on the list. The debate stalled and Hull moved that the Society study the matter for an additional year before voting. While the Illinois Horticultural Society ultimately found some birds on the Alton list to be on the whole beneficial, it now framed the usefulness of birds as an open question. 

Entomologists were in a good position to help answer this question, and showed little patience with over-generalizations and what they perceived to be sloppy science.  On May 9, 1868, the editor of the Prairie Farmer made a strong "spare the birds" plea, citing an 1862 exhibition in Paris of bird stomach contents as evidence that birds were useful. The influential Illinois entomologist, Benjamin D. Walsh, would have nothing of it. Writing in direct response on May 30, Walsh complained that such stomach content studies were useless if the insects found were not sufficiently understood. He characterized the typical fallacious reasoning as follows:
Bugs are all of them a nuisance. My birds kill bugs. Therefore my birds are all little Angels of Light.
But in fact, entomological study had shown that not all insects were harmful and many (dragonflies, e.g.) were themselves insect destroyers. The best evidence of the flaws in the French study was the fact that birds' consumption of spiders was regarded as a positive. He concluded
neither with birds nor with bugs can we lay down any infallible and universal rule....As with human beings, the characters of most kinds of birds are of a mixed nature, partly good and partly bad...
Even if aesthetic aspects were included, birds were not necessarily more beautiful than insects, they were just easier to see. 

As economic ornithology matured during the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s, it would take these entomological insights into consideration. Nevertheless, in Forbush's crowning report in 1905, there were no bird species marked for destruction. Even the yellow-bellied sapsucker was spared, not because it wasn't on the whole harmful but because it didn't breed in Massachusetts, the locus of the report.

The "usefulness" argument for protecting birds was a strong one that appealed to audiences whether they "loved" birds or not. As Dorsey (1998) argues, the perceived importance of insectivorous and weed seed-eating birds for the nation's food security during World War I was ultimately responsible for the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and its approval by the Supreme Court. But it is a precarious argument in an era defined by pesticides. While recent studies in the area of "ecological services" have demonstrated that, in fact, even by modern scientific standards, some species of birds can be shown to be effective in controlling some species of harmful insects in some contexts, there is no returning to blanket statements about birds' usefulness. It is important in coming years that new strong arguments with broad appeal are developed in support of bird protection that don't rely on this concept alone, lest the Migratory Bird Treaty Act itself become history. 

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