Thursday, July 20, 2017

"Every farmer should be an ornithologist" Country Gentleman (1859-1860)

For the April 14, 1859 issue of the Country Gentleman, assistant editor Samuel Lane Boardman, of Brookdale Farm (near South Norridgewock), Maine, contributed an article on "The Wild Goose." Fascinated by the topic of migration, he noted with dismay a surprising lack of knowledge and interest among his fellow farmers about birdlife.
There is no class so ignorant in regard to the history and habits of birds as are our agriculturists. A lover of ornithology who is obliged to be shut up amid brick walls, and whose only knowledge is derived from works on natural history, may envy the farmer who has so excellent an opportunity for obtaining information—whose whole life, it would seen, is passed amid the songs and birds, and whose daily employment is with them and their habitations. And one would think that a person spending so much time in the country, would be well informed in all matters that pertains to birds. But it is not so…The great majority of our farmers…know but little of birds. They can indeed tell a crow, but do not know the song of a robin from a wren, and hardly can tell between a blue jay and a wood-pecker. They know that birds leave our cold New-England in winter, and return in summer, but at what time they come go and come they know not. In fact, the farmers of our country pass the whole summer in the midst of the songs of birds, from morn till night, not a moment but what some songster is warbling for the praise of his Creator; and yet they don’t hear it. Every farmer should be an ornithologist…
Indeed, Boardman believed that farmers, just by keeping an account of the comings and goings of particular species, could make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. He cited Samuel P. Fowler ("a writer of considerable note on ornithology"), who had recently returned to contributing articles to the New England Farmer.

In the spirit of increasing ornithological knowledge and enthusiasm among farmers, Boardman, writing under the initials "S.L.B." contributed regular articles about North American birdlife to the Country Gentleman throughout 1860, including accounts of winter birds, the usefulness of wrens, and birdsong. While he drew descriptions of birds from personal experience, his accounts were largely based on existing written sources. This would get him into trouble.

One problem was nomenclature. The name "snow bird," for example, which Boardman, drawing from Wilson Flagg, associated with the chickadee in an article on winter birds, was often used for the junco. Indeed we have seen this confusion before in which an image of boys trying to catch "snow birds" (juncos) brought to mind the song about the "snow bird" (chickadee). One reader, writing on April 26, was befuddled. Which was which? Were the birds he knew as snow birds (juncos) really called "chickadees?" Then what should he call the tiny bird in the following story?

When I was but a few spans high in stature, my old grandfather used to tell me a great many stories about the chickadee, and their sending presents of cake to little boys & girls &c., &c., and then he used to bring me chickadee cake, which verily looked much like grandmother’s make. This gave me an interest not yet obliterated, in these little birds. 
Boardman tried to make the nomenclature issue clearer in a short reply on May 24, but not before another writer calling himself, "A Student" contributed a long essay about the difference between the birds (published on May 31). In addition to clearing up the name issue, the writer answered other questions, about, for example the migration patterns of juncos. He closed:

Thus has the writer answered your correspondent’s interrogation—“which of these is the Chickadee?” —in so demonstrative a manner, that it is hoped he will feel satisfied. In doing this, in addition to observation, which is the study of the subject without books, the best authors have been widely consulted, and their testimony combined with personal knowledge.
Boardman had competition.

It was, however, a pair of articles (May 31 and June 21) about swallows that finally drove Boardman from the amateur ornithology business. He drew his accounts from British sources (including Gilbert White). This might have been appropriate for the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica, which he called the "house" or "chimney" swallow) and the bank swallow (the same species as the old world "sand martin") but it certainly was not for the house martin (h. urbica), which doesn't live in North America. Moreover his account of the "swift" was of the European variety, not the native chimney nester. 

A note from "Martin" on August 2 was the first to correct the house martin mistake. "A Student" followed with two responses, the first (August 16) criticizing Boardman for not including the full range of swallow species that North American farmers might encounter (what of the cliff swallow, or the violet-green swallow etc.?), the second criticizing the confusions with European birds. "A Student" didn't mince words:

[Boardman's] descriptions are singularly defective, leaving the impression on the mind of the reader, that it is hard to conceive how a farmer, who observes birds as common as the swallow tribe, could have made so many positively erroneous statements concerning their habits and appearance... 
Hence it will be seen that the importance of this department, alluded to by your correspondent at the close of his articles, will depend upon statements of facts and not upon copying descriptions from old unscientific works of a foreign country, given of birds then and there that are not known here, and applying them to birds here that are unknown abroad.…The writer has already corrected some errors that have incidentally crept into this department, prompted by the love of the subject and the desire to diffuse useful knowledge, touching one of the most interesting departments of study and observation. 
On October 4, the Country Gentleman published Boardman's (passive aggressive) response.
If the publication of an error leads to the establishment of important facts and truths, not perhaps before unknown but withheld, which confers the greater benefit, him who commits the error, or the one who corrects it? Should a writer regret the imperfection of his work, if it but gives another the opportunity to display his own learning—even if it is given in an ostentatious manner? 
"Thanking" his correspondents for their corrections, he ended 
May our STUDENT live long enough to correct the errors of such an ignoramus as “your eastern correspondent,” if ever he should again furnish an article for the “Naturalist Department” of the Country Gentleman.
Boardman would soon leave the staff of the Country Gentleman to join Ezekiel Holmes on the editorial team at the Maine Farmer.

Lest it appear that farm periodical ornithology was still generally in a primitive stage, it is important to note a series of articles that appeared in the New England Farmer under the heading "Birds of New England" from 1860 to 1862. These articles were organized taxonomically, from Vultures (#1) to Goldfinches (#24), and offered detailed anatomical and behavioral accounts of New England birds within those families. They were signed "J.A.A." These were in fact the work of a very young J. A. Allen, (1838-1921), who would soon begin his studies with Louis Agassiz at Harvard and eventually co-found the American Ornithologists' Union.

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