Friday, July 28, 2017

Epilogue 3. From "Spare the Birds" to the Audubon movement

In an August 1866 article, the American Agriculturist announced that the project of bird protection was complete.
The indiscriminate shooting of birds, formerly so common, allowed insects to get a fine start. The agricultural press, ours among the rest, joined in the cry "spare the birds." The appeal had its effect; insects are much less destructive than they were a few years ago. 
Indeed, pondered the editor, perhaps the project had been too successful. Referencing the debate at the January meeting of the Illinois Horticultural Society, he wondered whether increased bird populations now threatened fruit crops.

Given the wave of legislation in the 1850s and 1860s, it was reasonable to believe that the protection of insectivorous birds had been secured. T.S. Palmer, one of the few commentators about this era of small bird laws, however, believed that ultimately these laws failed in their aim. Compliance was low and there weren't sufficient resources to enforce them. While this probably varied from state to state (there is at least anecdotal evidence of bird law enforcement in Massachusetts), the laws were certainly not strong enough to cope with the plume hunting to come.

"Spare the birds!" however, endured as a rallying cry into the dawn of the Audubon movement. As Caroline Merchant  (2016) notes, George Bird Grinnell, founder of the first Audubon Society, used the language repeatedly in articles about threats to birds published in his sportsmen's journal, Forest and Stream. The elements of Grinnell's famous September 13, 1883 editorial, "Spare the Swallows," should be very familiar (specific millinery threat excepted) to readers of this blog.
SPARE THE SPARROWS.--The milliners now demand the breasts and wings of swallows for decorating ladies' hats. To supply the call thousands of these birds are killed by agents of the millinery taxidermists. The birds that nest under the eaves or fly in at the diamond-shaped swallow hole, ought not to be sacrificed to this new whim of woman. Spare the swallows. Their companionship about the barn is something--it ought to be worth more than the lucre to the fellow who shoots them for gain. If sentiment has no restraining influence there are other considerations; the swallows are insectivorous; their value as destroyers of noxious insects cannot be estimated. The farmer cannot afford to have his fleet-winged allies destroyed by the shiftless ne'er-do-well who shoots them for gain. The laws forbid the killing of insectivorous birds; let the laws be enforced. There are many honest ways to earn a living in this country; shooting barn swallows for millinery shops is not one of them. [my emphases]
The next issue of Forest and Stream (September 20, 1883) featured a poem ("Spare the Swallows") by Isaac McLellan directly inspired by Grinnell's editorial.

A longer Grinnell editorial the following year ("The Sacrifice of Song Birds," August 7, 1884) fleshed out his argument and presented the call to action that would eventually lead to bird protection organizing.
...This is not purely a matter of sentiment. But suppose it were. It is the sentiment of those who are cheered in their pursuit of pleasure and at their toil by the grace and beauty and melody of the birds, a sentiment shared by millions of men and women and children who dwell in the country. For it and for them we propose to proclaim the magnitude of this slaughter, and the enormity of the offense of these bird butchers, who are indecently outraging the rights of country dwellers. There are sentiments more powerful than cupidity. Would that we could array the sentiment of bird lovers in this country against the greed of the league who are waging war on the birds. Unless we have very greatly erred in our estimate of the strength of that feeling, such an awakening of public indignation would end, once and for all, the occupation of the song-bird skinners; and we would not care to ask for the FOREST AND STREAM a more honorable task than to voice the feelings of its country readers on this subject. 
But it is yet very far from being wholly a matter of sentiment. He is an ignorant and sadly deficient tiller of the soil who, in these days, lacks appreciation of the services of the birds on his land, as faithful friends, in their unwearied war upon the insect hordes that prey on tree, and grain, and fruit; but just how many millions of dollars we owe to the birds for such services is not known, nor can be known to the most earnest students of the subject. It is beyond all estimate.
This milliners' campaign against the birds strikes directly at the farmer. Diminution of insectivorous birds is always surely and swiftly followed by an increase in the hordes of noxious insect pets. By one of the immutable laws of nature, destruction of birds means the destruction of crops. The shiftless fellow, too lazy to earn an honest living, who skulks about the fields and woods, killing swallows, larks and pewees, should be treated just exactly as we treat the wretch who burns barns and steals horses. His dastardly work is altogether too expensive. It is a hard price for farmers to pay for feminine feathered finery.
Grinnell announced the formation of an Audubon Society, "dedicated to halt the decline of American birds by arousing public sentiment" in the February 11, 1886 issue of Field and Stream. Two issues later (February 25, 1886), the journal would feature a series of bird protection items including Frank Chapman's famous count of the birds on ladies' hats ("Birds and Bonnets"), a model bill from the AOU for bird protection, endorsements of the Society by the likes of John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Ward Beecher, and another poem by Isaac McLellan, "Spare the Birds."

While Grinnell's own Audubon Society was short-lived, the Audubon movement, aided by the growing sophistication of marketing communication strategy at the turn of the century, would finally achieve its aims of bolstering public sentiment in favor of birdlife and passing national legislation protecting it.

The "useful bird" and "spare the birds" frames lingered into the 20th century. Indeed, the inspiration for Winged Wardens came from my investigations into the history of themes associated with the William T. Hornaday/Thornton W. Burgess Green Meadow Club Bird Sanctuaries campaign in the People's Home Journal. My simple web search for "Birds are the farmer's best friends" turned up stories in agricultural papers, which turned up Bradley's 3360 caterpillars, which led me to Bradley's original story and I was off and running. I hope this blog, and any future published versions, help to fill in the pre-Audubon history of bird protection in the United States.

With that, I will close with an image from the Green Meadow Club campaign. Harrison Cady's (1921) take on the "Winged Wardens" theme.

Harrison Cady, The People’s Home Journal, September 1921.

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