From a Sportsman's Life
by MERLIN BOWEN
MERLIN BOWEN, an assistant professor in the College of the Universify of Chicago, is now on assignment to Shimer College as Chairman of the Humanities.
FOR those who combine, as I do, a firmly sedentary habit with a lingering taste for blood, there is no sport quite so rewarding as birdlover-baiting. Its demands, to begin with, are few: no license, no expensive equipment, no archaic ritual to master, no limitations as to bag or season, and — above all — no undue strain upon the muscular system. All that is needed is access to a few daily newspapers, a typewriter or pen and paper, and a little ingenuity and patience. The rewards, though intangible, are correspondingly high: the speechless satisfaction of a wellmade lure expertly dropped on the sleepy surface of a “Letters to the Editor” column, the tingling wait in the silence of the study, and at last, the sudden overwhelming rush of the angry birdlover.
Only a general ignorance of the quality of such moments, or perhaps of the basic techniques to be employed, can explain the failure so far of birdlover-baiting to attain the popularity it so obviously deserves.
Having followed the sport myself with devotion and mounting enthusiasm for some sixteen years, it occurs to me that a wider interest may perhaps be stimulated by a brief statement of fundamentals, together with some account of lures I and others have used successfully in the past.
A word, first of all, on the season. Properly baited, a healthy birdlover
will strike at any time of the year and In any conceivable weather. But the beginner (in the northern game belt, at least) will find his best luck in the winter. One can usually depend upon the more active specimens to put in an appearance shortly before the first snow, uttering plaintive little cries in the “Letters” columns to the effect that birds also deserve Thanksgiving dinners and will be grateful for a few handfuls of crumbed fruitcake strewn outside your window. This is the time for the birdlover-baiter to look over his equipment and map out the coming campaign.
Much depends upon the first attempt, so one must know what he is about. Reduced to its elements, the art of birdlover-baiting will be found to come within three basic strategies: l) direct attack from without as an unabashed birdhater: 2) infiltration in the guise of a birdlover but with the secret intent of kindling civil war in the ranks; 3) indirect attack through the arousing of natural enemies and adversely affected interests. Each of these modes has its own peculiar merits and degree of subtlety, but the young sportsman is apt to find the first somewhat easier to handle and even more immediately satisfying in its results.
A simple form of the direct attack consists of a letter to the editor citing medical testimony to the fact that pigeons are now known to be hosts to the pneumonia virus and hence should be exterminated. A quiet little pun about “carrier" pigeons will both please the editor and enrage your quarry. When the latter strikes at this lure and demands evidence, you can simply refer him to volume, number, and page of the Peruvian Medical Association Bulletin, and the incident will bn closed.
The lure just described is of course most effective during the virus season. For-year-round use I recommend to the tyro some form of the NationaI Defense Lure — a letter, say, entitled “Pigeons or Patriotism?" and evaluating in terms of jeeps, bazookas, and tanks the enormous sums annually thrown away in peanuts in America’s municipal parks. A friend of mine (at that time in the army and hence qualified to subscribe himself “Indignant GI”) once hooked a fairsized clergyman — a notorious pigeonfeeder— on this lure and played him for the better part of a fortnight.
Still sticking to forms of the direct attack but with an interesting overlap of the third general head above (an adversely affected interest), there is the possibility of a philippic against winter feeding as a rash interference with the economy of nature: so many birds are thus induced to remain north for the winter that insect pests in Florida are threatening to destroy the citrus crop. The coöperation of a Southern friend will be needed in placing this one, but the results should more than repay you for the added effort.
Spring is perhaps the best time for a lure worked out by a suburban friend of mine: a bulletin on the appearance of the first robin, together with an old family recipe for robin pie. Reference to current meat prices will help to set the hook.
Again, one may attack the loose assumption that birds devour more harmful insects than fruits, grains, and seeds. Demand that the misguided defenders of these feathered bandits produce figures to support their assertion. When they do, suggest that their conclusions are based upon too small a sample and that the crops of a great many thousand more songbirds must be opened before the figures can be granted any statistical significance. Meanwhile, have it understood that the burden of the proof remains with them, and call for an embargo upon crumbs until the cards are down.
We are ready now to pass over to a consideration of lures falling within the second main strategy: infiltration and the fomenting of civil war. The basic device here is to assume the character of a fervent birdlover, but with unexpected and baroque wrinkles calculated 1o annoy more orthodox birdlovers. Thus one may be a health-crank birdlover and assail fellow crumb-strewers for failure to provide stone-ground or vitaminenriched bread at the feeding, board. Figures (always impressive) may be fabricated to show a high correlation between the use of agenized flour and the incidence of avian insanity as estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Or one may pose as a Malthusian birdlover and sound the tocsin about overpopulation in the bird kingdom. “Give them a fighting chance in life!" can be your watchword. Operating from this cover, I myself last year got four strikes in a single week with a humane proposal that small boys be encouraged to remove eggs from the nest while the parent birds are out for lunch, hard-boil them, and return them promptly to the nest, where they will be patiently but harmlessly incubaled for the rest of the summer — and all with no unwonted shock to the parents.
An air of superior devotion in another birdlover will frequently be enough to flush a few from the thickets. The really resourceful baiter will remember this useful fact during what is sometimes regarded as the off season, the hot days of July and August when many birdlovers leave their usual haunts and seek cover in the mountains and along the shore. The good baiter may , under such circumstances, assume the role of The Gallant Birdlover Remaining at His Post and proceed to excoriate his fellows as deserters and heartless hedonisls who have at best faced up to only half the problem. It is easy enough, he will remark witheringly, to simulate concern for popular summer birds electing to stick it out in the North through the winter; but how many give a second thought to the winter birds (the tundra tit, the glacial grebe, Stefansson’s starling) who fail to get away to the Arctic before the summer closes in ? Their suffering during these stifling days, he will add, is pitiful to see.
The strategy of infiltration offers a dazzling array of possibilities to the connoisseur. My own greatest triumph in this mode was won a number of years ago, during the depression, in the guise of an Old Guard Republican birdlover. It so happens that I have a copy ol the letter at hand as I write, and the reader may be interested in inspecting a lure that was once actually used and with very considerable effect. Here it is:
TO THE EDITOR:
No one is a greater friend than I of our little feathered songsters, but I must protest against the disservice being done them by increasing numbers of sentimentalists. In most of our cities today the handout system is in vogue with free crumbs and suet strewn on every window sill. Has it occurred to these well-meaning people to consider what this is doing to the moral fiber of American birds? When I was a youngster no self-respecting robin of redbird, for that matter — would think of accepting charity while he could still rustic a feather. Today one rarely sees a bird out digging for himself. To talk about “winter conditions" is mere fiddle-faddle: the worms are still down there waiting for any bird with gumption enough to peck through a few inches of frozen soil to get them. And a bent bill is a small price to pay for the feeling of hirdly independence that comes with standing firmly on one’s own feet. Fellow bird lovers, let us put an end to this mollycoddling once and for all!
LOG CABIN AMERICAN
Excitement still grips me as I remember the response to this one. Birdloverdom was for a few weeks split right down the middle along class lines, half of the faithful lining up with the Workers’ Alliance and the rest stringing along with the Lib-
erty League. A sturdy Molly Pitcher of the proletarian wing attempted to draw me back into the combat with a letter denouncing me as a Hitler and a Stalin and voicing the hope that “someday a bird will give you a good hard peck on the nose ha! ha!” I maintained a dignified silence and let the battle rage on without me.
But it is time to move on to forms of the third main strategy: indirect attack through the arousing of natural enemies and adversely affected interests. The recent newspaper accounts of the effect of radar upon homing pigeons presented an opportunity that was seized upon by a West Coast sportsman of my acquaintance. Large flocks of these poor creatures, it appears, have become hopelessly addled by radar impulses while in transit and have disappeared forever. The remedy, my friend pointed out, was obvious: Radar must go! War, defensive or offensive, is a crime. Why must the innocent pigeon pay the price of
human folly? The most promising result of this venture (and the consideration which places it here in the third main strategy rather than in the second) was the bringing into action of a retired Air Force captain who has ever since, I am told, been laying violently about him with denunciations of “spineless pacifistic birdlovers.”
Among my own exploits in this kind, I take most pride in the modest part I played some two years ago in securing the defeat of a bold attempt in Illinois by the organization Friends of Birds, Inc., to require by state law the licensing of all cats, the airing of licensed cats on the leash only, and the merciless impounding of all stray and unlicensed cats. I must admit that I was rather slow in coming into action here, spending the crucial early hours on the side lines admiring what I mistakenly took to be the inspired plot of some unknown fellow sportsman. The catlovers were of course up in arms at once, large delegations leaving by every train for the scene of battle in Springfield.
But when even their efforts proved insufficient and the bill actually passed the legislature with a ringing majority, the sickening realization swept over me that it was all perfectly on the level. Here was an emergency that called for the rallying of new forces. The bill was already on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature. Fortunately something rose within me to meet the challenge, and the newspaper soon afterwards contained the following letter: —
Almost any morning now an early stroll through the park will reward one with the sight of Lumbricus terrestris timidly emerging from the moist earth [this was a spring lure, the student will note] and waving its radiant pink segments in mute adoration of the dawn. But one must be early or the robin’s murderous beak will be there before one. An all too frequent witness of this daily outrage upon the defenseless little earthworm, I feel that entirely too much sentiment is being wasted upon birds. It is time that someone spoke up for the earthworm.
When, may I ask, has the earthworm ever injured the least of God’s creatures? Who can accuse it of parasitism and crumb-begging? Consider, rather, its usefulness to man. Can anything equal the self-effacing industry with which, year after year, it aerates the soil and brings the deep richness up to the surface where the plant roots can reach it ? I say nothing of its beauty, which is evident to all. It is enough to mention that the great Darwin himself, with all his labors, found time to care for a jar of earthworms in his home and was not above playing softly to them on the flute and flashing colored lights above the jar. Cannot we, then, pause long enough in our affairs to ask Governor Stevenson to veto this legislation which would, by unnaturally restraining domestic cats, deprive the poor earthworm of his one real ally against the winged bandits who prey upon him? WIRE THE GOVERNOR TODAY!
MRS. ANNELIDA GARPE, Pres.
Friends of I Worm’s, Inc.
I have never checked with Governor Stevenson on the response to this. All I know is that two days later the bill was vetoed, utterly confounding the birdlovers in the very midst of their victory celebrations. With all due credit to the pressure of the catlovers, I like to think that it was Mrs. Garpe’s plea that settled the question in the Governor’s mind and brought him back to sound principles of laissez faire.
The lure I am currently tinkering with also has to do with what may be called an “adversely affected interest.” While washing dishes at the sink this morning (my wife is down with a mild case of virus pneumonia),
I saw from the kitchen window a brace of cardinals greedily picking at; the tops of certain tall weeds sticking through the snow in the vacant lot next door. The thing has kept nagging at me ever since. Hmm, let’s see now. . . . Something like this, perhaps?
To THE EDITOR: -
There would be less suffering among the birds during this bitter weather if people generally during the late summer months were less concerned with their own selfish comfort. It should be obvious that birds can get at weed seeds in the snowy season only where the plants have been allowed to mature to their full height. Every patch of weeds, then, cut down before pollination means that some little songster must later go hungry. What, may I ask, does a sneeze or two matter beside that awful fact? Remember this next summer and let the weeds stand! Poor robin will thank you “when the north wind doth blow.”
There, that should do it. An envelope now, a stamp, and — a few days hence — several phone calls to bring the matter to the attention of hay fever victims of my acquaintance. Let the birdlovers talk their way out of this one if they can!