In Behalf of the Birds

IT falls to the lot of the soldiers in the front ranks to draw the enemy’s fire; and they who venture, in advance of popular opinion, to present new views, must prepare for adverse criticism and sharp expressions of dissent, especially if, at the same time, these views are extreme and radical, and run counter to prevalent prejudice and long-cherished notions of interest. When in the “ Atlantic ” we ventured last year to throw down the gauntlet in behalf of the best-abused of our feathered tribes, we anticipated and desired the discussion that followed. It was foreseen that the temerity which should speak a good word in behalf of that well-known culprit, that “old offender,” the Crow, would be provocative of indignation and wrath among the very large and very stolid class that meet facts and their legitimate deductions with the very comprehensive rejoinder, “We know better.” It had been so long maintained, without dissent, that this sable offender was hopelessly and irredeemably depraved, that the promulgation of opinions so diametrically opposite was intolerable.

So far from having been disappointed, we have found occasion to “ thank God and take courage.” Valueless expressions of unsupported dissent, mere opinions based only upon exceptional or isolated facts, so far from weakening, have only strengthened the ground taken in our article. They were a virtual giving up of the whole case. At the same time it has been demonstrated in the most gratifying manner that this wilful refusal to see, by the light of experience itself, is very far from being universal or even general. We have been gratified to observe how generally our best and ablest agricultural journals have promptly arrayed themselves on the side of the farmers’ muchmaligned benefactors. The preponderance of the good or evil deeds of the Crow has been shown to be at least an open question. Careful investigations and their results, not empty prejudices and bald assumptions, must, in the end, determine each and every question that may arise as to the relative value of birds, individually as a species or collectively as a race. The attention of the scientific and the practical, in various parts of the world, has been drawn to this subject. Each year brings new light, makes new developments, demonstrates new facts, and establishes the existence of laws before unknown. One by one the very species which the ignorant and the reckless have put under the ban have been or will be triumphantly vindicated.

Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1870, by FIECDS, OSGOOD, & Co., in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.

To us of America, to whom this field of research is comparatively new, it is both interesting and important to observe what is transpiring in other countries in the way of determining the exact value to agriculturists, and the utility, for the protection of all vegetation, the ornamental as well as the useful, of each and every native bird. France has for many years been carefully investigating the respective merits of each species of its feathered tribes. In other parts of Europe, although the study of the utility of birds has been nowhere so thorough as in France, the subject has awakened attention and prompted movements which deserve more than our passing consideration.

Among these are the recent discussions and legal enactments of the several cantons of Switzerland. Recalling the many crude and ill-founded opinions in regard to our own Crow, so freely and so rashly ventured by those whose presumption very far outran their knowledge on the subject, we can but smile, as we read these various records, to see that its counterpart, the common Carrion Crow of Europe, while known in certain localities, and placed by the prevailing estimate in the list of benefactors, is still in the two cantons of Niderwalden and Freyburg ignorantly kept under the ban. And even after it has been shown, by the most incontestable evidence, that the common Starling is the most efficient of all the destroyers of that great pest of European agriculture, the May-chaffer, and therefore an Invaluable friend to the farmer, this very bird in the canton of Oberwalden is one of the few birds whose destruction is specially permitted. In this same canton it is also worthy of remark that the Ring Ousel, — a bird closely corresponding in character and habit to our Robin, — is also named for destruction, although everywhere else deservedly protected as One of the “useful birds.”

In March last a very interesting-movement was initiated in the National Council of Switzerland, proposing the enactment of a general and uniform law throughout all the cantons for the protection of the “ useful birds.” It originated with the Grand Council of Tessin, in which body a law had been proposed forbidding the shooting of all birds in that canton for the space of three years. Owing to the unchecked destruction of birds in Tessin, there had been a noticeable decrease in the number of useful birds and an alarming increase in the number of noxious insects, in consequence of which agriculture was severely suffering. It was, however, obvious that the object contemplated could be but imperfectly accomplished by local regulations ; and, as the subject was one worthy of serious consideration, the government of this canton, in May. 1868, addressed a communication to the National Council, asking for the establishment of an international union for the protection of useful birds, the co-operation of the home and of neighboring governments being essential to a successful movement in their favor. Thus far the council has confined its action to addressing a general inquiry to the several cantonal governments, asking their views upon the subject of uniform international regulations.

The replies of the cantonal authorities have been carefully preserved, and, with the laws on the subject in operation in the several cantons, have recently been published. They are curious and interesting. Only a few favor an international uniformity of law. The majority regard their own local enactments as sufficient. All but three of the cantons — Ticino, Schaffhausen, and Appenzell — have their own local code for the protection of birds. In one canton, Zurich, there is a general hunting-law which protects all “ useful birds "; but as the “ useful ” and the “ injurious are not specified, and there is no universal agreement upon these points, the law would be inoperative but for the general disposition of the people to protect all birds. In Berne, Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Sparrows are outlawed. The killing or entrapping of other birds, or the destruction of their eggs or young, is punished by fines. In fourteen cantons the fine for killing any bird on the protected list is fifty francs. In five others it is also punished by imprisonment. Some cantons punish any one who destroys a bird even on his own grounds ; others permit a proprietor to do this on his own territory, but forbid it elsewhere. In some, the protection to birds extends throughout the year. In others, their destruction is permitted during a brief period. In several of these cantonal codes the general crudeness and inconsistency of their legislation is shown in the non-protection of several of the most harmless and useful of the singing birds, such as the Bullfinches, the Linnets, the Thrushes, and others. In one canton, Aargau, the school regulations punish with flogging and other penalties any pupil found guilty of destroying birds’ nests, eggs, or young. In the cantons of St. Gall and Vaud the cantonal laws not only forbid the destruction of both birds and eggs, but render the parent responsible for the delinquencies of their children in these respects. In the four cantons of Zug, Freyburg, Aargau, and Geneva provisions are made for educating the children in the public schools in regard to the value of birds and the Importance of protecting and preserving them.

This movement in the Swiss Confederative Council, though it has as yet resulted in no national uniformity of legislation, has brought to light evidences of a nearly universal admission of the value of birds, and of a disposition to protect them. The conflict of opinion manifested by the protecting in one canton and the outlawing in another of the same species is only additional evidence of the incompleteness of the general knowledge on this subject and the crudeness of present legislation. Certainly we of Massachusetts have no occasion to take any very great pride in our own record. So far from having any well-founded claims to superiority in this matter, our own “halflegislation” is pitiably defective, halting, and inconsistent. The most recent enactment of Massachusetts places under ban and permits, if it does not invite, the destruction of several of the most valuable birds to agriculture found within our State limits. It proclaims immunity to all who join in the merciless slaughter and destruction of the few Gulls and Terns which still breed upon our coast. Those graceful and beautiful birds, so entirely innocent of harm, so valueless as food, yet so valuable to the fisherman for the reliable and important indications they give of the presence of certain kinds of fish, as also to the sailor whom they warn in thick weather of the dangerous reef or the treacherous shoal, and to the tiller of the farms near the sea whose grubs and grasshoppers they devour, have been nearly exterminated, and their final extinction is expressly permitted, if not invited, by our latest enactment. The Parliament of Great Britain, in striking contrast, has recently made it a penal offence to rob the nests or to destroy any of the Gulls on her coasts from May to September. This recent enactment of our own State betrays so complete an ignorance of the whole subject, is so inexcusably inconsistent and contradictory, that nothing at all comparable to it for crude and bungling legislation can be found in any of the enactments of the several local governments of the Helvetic Confederation, and 1 we trust nowhere else.

The movements in Switzerland have been ably seconded by the journals of that country. They have been even more ably assisted by the publication, both in Switzerland and in Germany, of works bearing directly upon this subject. Within the present year several essays of remarkable ability and research, demonstrating the economic use of all birds, have appeared, agreeing in regard to the alarming increase of destructive insects in various parts of Europe. We will cite one or two of the more noteworthy instances. Dr. Giebel, in his “ Book for the Protection of Birds,” recently published in Berlin, states that in the single canton of Berne there were collected and delivered to the authorities, in two seasons, 83,729 viertels of the imago and 67,917 viertels of the larvae of the May-chaffer, for which 259,000 francs were paid. — The number of insects thus destroyed is estimated to have been more than two thousand million. As it has been estimated that one of these insects while in the larva state destroys upwards of two pounds of vegetable roots, their capacity for destruction when appearing in such enormous quantities is perfectly appalling. It is also a noteworthy fact, that the authorities of Berne, who annually pay a quarter of a million of francs for the destruction of these insects, still keep under ban several varieties of birds whose services in their destruction would be second to but one other European species!

In three districts among the Hartz

Mountains, in 1866, the losses caused to the farmers by the ravages of the Maychaffer amounted to a million and a half ot dollars. Many other equally striking instances of recent enormous losses to agriculture caused by the ravages of this and other insects are cited in these works, which our space will not permit us even to epitomize. They are chiefly of interest to us as showing that, with the great improvements and developments of modern agriculture, there has also come an enormous increase of the most destructive insects, seriously threatening the worst consequences, and still more as showing how utterly powerless is man alone to arrest or to hold in any check this terrible scourge. One more proof of human helplessness in this warfare with the powers of insect destruction we must here refer to, as briefly as possible. In 1852 the pine forests of Lithuania and Eastern Prussia were attacked by the caterpillars of the Nonne, or night-butterfly. Aware of their dangers, the landed proprietors, at an enormous expense, resorted to the most extraordinary exertions to have these insects collected and destroyed. In one district alone one hundred and fifty millions of the eggs and fifteen hundred millions of the female moths were thus taken. It was all in vain. So imperfectly was the work done, with all their endeavors, that the next season the moths were more numerous than ever before. The finest timber of Germany on thousands of acres was utterly destroyed, rendered valueless even for firewood. Millions upon millions of property were thus lost, and yet there can be no question that, had not the European Jays been nearly exterminated in those forests, their presence would have averted this calamity. In the Rothebude district alone a few hundred Jays would have averted a loss of eighty millions of thalers.

The great value of birds — such as the Starlings, the Sparrows, the Crows, the Jays, etc. — that feed upon the most destructive kind of insects, has been, until very recently, unappreciated. Most of them have been treated as outlaws, and in repayment for their signal services have been neglected or persecuted, until the unchecked and enormous increase of the most noxious insects throughout the continent of Europe has become a subject of well - founded alarm, calling for the intervention of government, both for their immediate destruction and for the protection of those birds that feed upon them. From these facts, two prominent conclusions have been pretty surely reached : first, that birds are indispensable to European agriculture ; and, second, that those birds most generally-protected and known as the “ useful birds ” are, as a general thing, of verylittle service in arresting the increase of those insects the ravages of which are the most to be dreaded. These lessons are as significant to us of America as to the agriculturists of Europe. When will our own intelligent farmers awaken both to their dangers and the only remedy?

An agricultural journal, the Bund, published in Berne, with much ability and force demonstrates that the enormous losses befalling European agriculture can only be arrested when man himself shall not only cease to disturb the great equipoise of nature, and no longer in mere wantonness, prejudice, superstition, or on other equally worthless grounds, persecute and destroy the natural exterminators of insects, but instead shall extend to them the greatest possible protection, even to the nourishing and caring for them in the wintry season.

While this same journal finds much to rejoice at in cantonal laws for the protection of useful birds, and yet more in the general spirit in which they are observed, it urges greater attention to instruction upon these subjects in schools, and dwells with much pertinence upon the radical incompleteness of the laws. The following is as well adapted to our own meridian as to that of Switzerland: “For example, when we see the Sparrow, — which has been acclimated at such great expense in America, — the Crow, the Raven, and others of our most useful birds still outlawed in individual cantons; when we see the hunting of our singing birds still allowed at certain seasons in others, and, in yet others, that protection is only given to the smaller birds, omitting the far more useful Owls, Buzzards, and Jackdaws, we can but admit the incompleteness of our enactments, and are forced to an earnest wish that in all those cantons where this halflegislation exists, a change may soon be made that shall place them more in conformity with the present stand-point of science.”

These exhortations are pregnant with meaning and with warning to us, for we stand even more than the writer’s countrymen in need of intelligent legislation, and far more in need of careful investigations, the diffusion of light, and the dissemination ot truth. These words of the Bund would surely demonstrate that the farmer’s best friends are the very birds he now most frequently persecutes. They stand between his crops and their destroyers. They are his standing army, his police force. Their admirable powers of flight, their yet more wonderful gifts of vision, and their instinctive enmity to his foes, most marvellously adapt them to do duty in a field where man himself is powerless.

A well-known agricultural writer and accurate ornithologist, John Boot of Hamburg, has ascertained by careful observation that one hundred pairs of Starlings, with their young, will in a single summer destroy fifty-seven million larvae of the destructive May-chaffer. Yet so imperfectly is this bird appreciated, that, as we have seen, in a certain canton of Switzerland, it is still an outlaw ! And this because this most valuable bird, in default of insects, and in want of necessary food, will occasionally help himself to a little grain ! It is to be hoped that man will erelong learn to be at least just to such illrequited benefactors. The same laws of equity and justice that prompt us to equip, feed, and pay our soldiers and our police, who protect our State or guard our property, demand that we both protect and foster our feathered police, whose services, by night and by day, and at times when we are least conscious of them, are to agriculture quite as indispensable.

We have dwelt at so much length upon these recent interesting developments in Europe, that we have left ourselves no space in which to present the case of one of our own much-wronged and slandered birds, whose vindication at some length was our original inducement to a second reference to this topic. In a previous paper we very briefly referred to the signal services rendered to the farmers by our common Blue-Jay. Inasmuch as this is another very remarkable instance in which one of our most generally abused and condemned species can be proved by incontestable evidence to render services of the very highest value, for the sake of American agriculture, not less than for that of the much-wronged bird himself, his claims to our grateful protection deserve full vindication. This we shall endeavor to give on some future occasion.

  1. This criticism would be harsh, and might even seem to be unfair, were the recent enactment of our State Legislature merely an ignorant but well-meaning attempt to legislate in the right direction. Ignorance alone, however sadly out of place in our halls of legislation, is comparatively venial. but stolid self-conceit, which refuses to receive light, which will not listen to intelligent suggestions, can put in no plea for mild criticism when it thus stubbornly sins against truth and the right, and blindly persists in its own stultification. Legislators who report and obstinately insist upon passing a bill that in one clause permits the unrestricted shooting at all times of mips,and in another clause protects all kinds of waterfowl during a certain season, that goes out of its way to permit the destruction of the eggs of a bird never known to breed within the limits of Massachusetts, and that invites us to continue the persecution of other birds, known and proved to be useful, can only be set down as among the hopelessly incorrigible. For such there is but one remedy, — to replace them by wiser lawgivers, — as we trust has been done in the present case. At least the reputed author of tli is extraordinary measure has been permitted by general consent to remain at home for the present.