23 April 2010

American Agriculturist Featured Illustrated Accounts of Birds

As agriculture spread across an expanding country and into new states, a monthly magazine issued from New York thought birds were a subject important enough to include occasional accounts of various species among its pages.

The American Agriculturist - established in 1842 - contained an array of topics for the "farm, garden, and household" as "Agriculture is the Most Healthful, Most Useful, and Most Noble Employment of Man," according to the masthead at the top of each issue's cover page. There were tips, techniques and shared methods. Recipes were provided. Land management considerations and a myriad of pertinent articles dealt with the broad subject of agriculture for an area from the eastern coastal states, and westward across the expanding land, as homesteaders were moving to settle new government and railroad lands of the expanding western frontier.

In 1853, Orange Judd became the editor, starting the job a few years after receiving a college degree from Wesleyan University. He purchased the whole shebang just three brief years later, and was thus also was its proprietor. He made the endeavour a great success, increasing subscriptions from 1000 during 1056 to about 100,000 in 1864, according to historic details.

Undoubtedly, some of the readers enjoyed articles which told of birds, their natural history and relative importance in agricultural production, with indications of their interest to shootists. The years of effort are a grand, illustrated history.

A first account of a bird - based on the online versions of the magazine - was in May 1850, and discussed the great horned owl, which included a "cut" of the species perched grandly on a branch.

This topic became much more pervasive on the pages starting in the issues of 1860, based upon a review of online digital versions available for leisurely perusal.

The first engraving featured three species: the blackbird, song thrush and mockingbird, with a bit of a notation about each. There was no author given, but the next month, "S.L.B.," of Brookdale Farm, Maine, was given the credit for a fine, brief story about the house wren. Notes about this birds' song were taken from the Atlantic Monthly. The snow bird was next to have its biography sent out for the readers to enjoy. The author was L.E. Chittenden, whom also wrote a bunch of words about the Barn Owl - the farmer's friend - for the next month's issue.

Something unique to the brief accounts, and especially worthy of appreciation, are the original illustrations. Usually a particular species was shown in a portrait manner, perched on a branch, or among some foliage. Some were shown in a setting representative of their natural habitat, including bits of flora or other essential aspects. In some instances, different species with a common theme were depicted in a group.

Most of the engravings did not indicate the artist, but occasionally they were credited.

"The Covey" presented in an 1863 issue, by J. Wolf, showed a covey of grouse huddled beneath a sheltering branch, with some other small birds perched on nearby branches.

In the spring of 1864, an article indicated the value of providing homes for birds, illustrating a barn design for martins, a house-like construct for bluebirds and a simple box for the wren.

"... the Agriculturist protests against the destruction of birds," but when the sap-sucker was featured in 1864, it was presented as an enemy of the farmer. There seems to have been some confusion, as the birds was known in different parts of the country as the sapsucker, "and is also known as the yellow-bellied and the red-headed woodpecker" based on its markings.

This obviously refers to two types of woodpeckers, but none-the-less they were harangued for damaging orchard trees, as well as trees in the forest. The article referenced P.B. Hoy, whom studied and reported on birds in Wisconsin, and his recommendation for "small shot and a sharp lookout" in order to protect the trees.

In the autumn of 1864, a grand repose showed the wood duck when it was given its bit of press in Judd's monthly.

Other species featured through the mid-1860s were the:

  • Snowy Owl, or harfang
  • Stricken Mallard, a depiction from a painting by George Lance, showing a contorted duck after it had been struck from the shot of a shootist's gun: "the sight of a fine bird shot, and perhaps dropping almost into his hands, is a very satisfactory one to the gunner."
  • Bald Eagle, shown in a dramatic pose of an adult at the nest with two youngsters awaiting a bit of fresh flesh from a recently taken duck.
  • Feathered Friends, which shows a composite view of seven distinct species, with a short account indicating the usefulness of birds.
  • Flushed Partridge, which shows the ruffed grouse, again for this publication, in a frenzied flight away from an unseen shootist: "Whirr-r-r-r - Bang.-Bang.-Not a feather touched!" were the first words given on the front page of an autumn issue.
  • Cat-bird shown in a sublime rendition of an adult birds amongst its haven, with four nestlings subtly included. This was another illustration presented on the cover of a monthly issue.

An October 1868 article is so interesting in the sketches and details of waterfowl hunting on the Chesapeake Bay, that nothing more can be said here, and the details given need to be presented in their own unique presentation!

In the spring of 1870, the American Dipper, or water ouzel, was the focus, and it was discussed on the same page as the gray rabbit, with both animals illustrated.

As an editor, Mr. Judd knew what was interesting to the subscribers which were the support for his ag monthly. Brief mentions of the natural history of birdlife, were a part of his focus to provide a publication of interest enough for readers to send in enough dollars so they could continue to read all about agriculture and enjoy an occasional presentation of some sort of bird.

In the autumn, grebes and loons were illustrated, with the article considering divers and grebes.

The whole birdly theme continued in the pages issued by Editor Judd ...

In a celebratory manner, the "golden-winged woodpecker" had a spread which covered nearly an entire page in January, 1872, except for an illustration of two Plymouth Rock fowls. Including the paragraphs on the next page, they had an entire page given to their lifestyle and habits. Some particular attention was given to the various names by which this woodpecker was known, including the flicker, yellow-hammer, pint, clape, and high-hole to mention what was given in the monthly magazine. In this month's issue, the snow-bird was once again presented.

A dramatic battle of two birds was shown in the February 1872 issue. Profound in its presentation, it shows two eagles fighting over the feathers of a formerly captive teal which is making its escape. The illustration was drawn and engraved exclusively for the American Agriculturist.

Occasionally the sketches are distinctly different from a rendition of a species in its natural habitat, and depicted in a stolid manner. A mid-summer image, was titled "Out For a Bath" and based upon a painting by F.S. Church. After seeing the original painting, an engraving was made of three young "snipe" as they made "their first acquaintance with water." The image is expressive and unique. One of the snipe is shown daintily dipping its foot into the waters, with the two other fledglings closely watching. Even the features of the flora are finely shown.

In mid-summer, the old field lark got its bit of press, under the title of "meadow-lark or meadow-starling." The engraving was done by Mr. Herrick, and shows a group huddled together among the grass. "The flesh of the young bird when fat is highly esteemed, but the old birds are said to be tough and of a disagreeable flavor. In the fall they are generally to be found in the city markets."

The Belted Kingfisher was also featured in 1872.

Usually the accounts provided little original information, but there an occasional tidbit of interest that was included can convey dramatic details of historic ornithology.

With the first species denoted in May 1873 - the Mocking-Bird - the big, single paragraph included: "In the vicinity of New Orleans and Charleston, the negroes trap young Mocking-Birds and expose them for sale in the market at fifty cents each. These are bought by dealers in birds and shipped in large numbers to our Northern cities, where they are kept until full grown and able to sign, when they are sold at prices ranging from $10 to $40 apiece."

The species for June was the cedar-bird, with the primary focus on whether it was a beneficial insect eater. The "Bittern or Stake-driver" and "Red-wing Blackbird" were featured in July. Features presented included a sense of its general range, coloration, what the eggs looked like and other related details which might have been of interest to an agriculturist. Even the "yellow-breasted rail" was considered.

Occasionally the topic took a turn towards the shooting sports, as in March 1875, when the cover had a multi-image engraving depicting snipe, the shooting scene, and the hunters shooting their guns, with two hounds on the point. Snipe were apparently one of the first game birds that could be shot with the onset of spring.

The snipe shooter, with his pride has an "indifference to rain, mud, and cold, and the fatigue of jumping ditches, crawling out of bog holes, and involuntary baths in spring ditches, finds his game with the aid of his dog; gives it a fair chance, cuts it down clean and suddenly, and does not leave a dozen wounded birds to flutter away and perish."

The Gambel's Quail was featured in the next issue. In July, the stilt and Anhinga were depicted in a fine engraving covering much of a page of the magazine.

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With its handsome colors - though depicted in basic black-and-white - the American Redstart was the next bird mentioned, with another depiction by "Herrick" showcasing a long paragraph of notes about this warbler's natural history.

Hunting grouse or partridge was the illustration on the October issue for the year. It was a splendid composition prominently showing several birds fleeing into the trees, a hound in pursuit and the shootist after game, shown with a background illustrating the features of the landscape.

The image was signed by "Hinkle," or C.H. Hinkle, the engraver with the skills necessary to exquisitely accomplish a depiction of an expansive scene which included various poses for several subjects.

The caption gave credit to Edwin Forbes for the sketch.

As an artist, Forbes was best known for painting action scenes on the western frontier. His career began in 1861, as a staff artist for Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, with his work vividly depicting many scenes of the Civil War, especially showing camp life. John Edwin Forbes did illustrations for many other publications, including the Atlantic Almanac, and would later issue a summary of his military-related work.

His artistic skills were obviously suited for presenting images of birds in their natural setting, as shown in the agricultural magazine.

To accompany this sketch of grouse hunting, there were within the pages, several inches of text giving attention to the Ruffed Grouse.

The theme continued. Among the notable articles to appreciate there are:

  • Some Wild Duck, with engravings of four different species including the long-necked duck, butter-ball, canvas-back and long-tailed duck. The article includes a reference to "methods of shooting" ducks as presented in the October 1868 issue of the American Agriculturist, though that issue could not be reviewed due to it apparently not being among any online archive.
  • American Woodcock and American Snipe: presented together, with both finely illustrated.
  • A songbird, the Scarlet Tanager, was presented as a bird "red as fire."

Completely distinctive was the illustration for the cover of the July 1876, notably in celebration of the independence of the United States of America, a century previously. Various representations were given, showing different manners in which the Bald Eagle was depicted as the nation's national symbol.

The magazine, issued from New York City, cost $1.50 per annum, in advance at this time in the mid-1870s. A single issue cost 15 cents.

Two very untypical species were featured in the same issue: the Varied Thrush (or myrtle robin of Oregon), and the Snow Bunting, which was causing some excitement for its appearance in the New York markets a few months previously. The carcasses - with black wings and tail feathers still present, though otherwise plucked - were bought and "served up at the tables of one of the restaurants as a delicacy," as noted in Turf, Field and Farm. It was readily recognized as being this particular species.

In April, the following year, requests by readers to see a portrait of the "Carolina Parrot" meant the species was prominent on the cover. It was included in a montage on the issue's cover of some birds of the southern United States. Also shown were the white-headed dove and the rowdy mocking bird. An article within the issue, mentioned a sighting in June 1790 near Albany, N.Y., and finished with these words portending the birds' future: "Those who are familiar with their rapid destruction, think that they will, before long, become exterminated."

Other species noted during the year's volumes were the:

  • Steller's Jay, written by Dr. F.S. Matteson, of Coquille City, Oregon, a contributor of the account.
  • Long-legged birds showing the young and old of the Whooping Crane in a dramatic half-page illustration, with the remainder of the page mentioning facets of the distinctive species.
  • Native water-fowl - "two of our most beautiful water-fowl" - were featured in the autumn issue as the two species of teal shown were obviously of great interest to shootists as the time the magazine was mailed to its readers.

To end the year, the Bobolink was noted - with an illustration of its summer and autumn plumage - along with the chickadee, or black-capped titmouse, showing two plump birds on a branch.

The occasional accounts continued.

  • A golden eagle conveyed as eating some sort of migratory fowl was a cover illustration.
  • Two species discussed as "common birds" were the Yellow-headed Blackbird and Pileated or capped woodpecker.
  • The common crow was also presented.

In the final issue reviewed in the early 1880s, another montage showed five species of common winter birds, including the Purple Finch, pine linnet, red-poll linnet, shore lark and Pine Grosbeak.

The popular accounts of birds occasionally presented in the American Agriculturist were bits of information appreciated by the readers, and popular enough for the publishers to have original engravings done to accompany the text. Mixed among the myriad of other subjects important to agriculture, the depictions and details were valuable in educating readers about various species of birds and features unique to different species, with enough information given for people to become familiar with birdlife which they may have known as occurring amidst their local agricultural setting.

The American Argriculturist, though it actually presented little or nothing about birds at a particular place and time, has an distinctive and important role in presenting information to a relatively vast audience. This magazine had an important role in spreading the word - and the educatory value - about the natural history for different kinds of birds, and for its exquisite illustrations. These two features of the a distinctive publication are an important feature of historic ornithology for the U.S.

There is nothing known which is comparable to the ongoing effort by George Judd to convey the wonders of birds during his tenure as an agriculturist and as issued in his monthly publication.

Many of the issues of the American Agriculturist are available online to read and enjoy its accurate and interesting stories of the times. However, not all of the bird stories published could be reviewed due to missing pages in some of the efiles. In several instances, blocks of pages are simply not included for a particular volume. The page numbering is continuous, then there is a sudden multi-page gap. It does not seem that those pages are missing from the originals, though that is a possibility. The other option is that the pages were missed during the scanning process. The value of having the volumes scanned is somewhat diminished because of what is missing.

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