18 January 2012

The Slaughter of the Innocents

Mary Thatcher. May 22, 1875. Harper's Bazar 8(21): 338. What a poignant voice for bird conservation!

If a stranger to modern ways of doing things had strolled through our Northern cities during the last few months, he might well have asked, "Did not the birds go South last year?" For wherever he could turn, some bright-winged bird would meet his puzzled eye. In all variety of plumage, from the gaudy colors of the tropics to sombre brown and gray, these "children of the air" flit through oar streets. The scarlet tanager has forgotten his sunny Southern haunts, the indigo-bird bravely faces our icy blasts, and even those delicate little fairies, the hummingbirds, have not deserted us. But, alas! these brilliant visions have been only ghosts of birds, mute warblers, little captives deprived of life and light and song. The outspread wings have lost their magic power, and the little feet, instead of clasping some swaying bough, have been hopelessly entangled in meshes of velvet and lace. Here, there, and every where the same strange phenomenon has been visible. At least every other woman on the street has worn a hat surmounted by a bird, or by an ingenious patchwork affair which reminds one of the bug manufactured to puzzle Professor Agassiz. Tall women and short women, richly dressed women and shabbily dressed women, little girls and big girls, have decorated themselves with these spoils of the forest. Not only in the street, but in the ballroom, on head-dresses and in the hair, these feathered ornaments have been worn; so that "a fashionable lady's coiffure," to quote a recent Paris letter, " has famished material for a naturalist's study." Have the little songsters committed some unpardonable misdemeanor, that this edict of death has gone forth, or has popular opinion decreed that the groves are no longer the fitting haunts of birds, and that their proper nestling place is a woman's hat?

To be sure, the custom of wearing feathers can boast of respectable antiquity, for even the nimble god Mercury wore a cap with wings. Savages have decorated themselves with the tufts and plumes of birds from time immemorial, but they have been influenced by deeper reasons than the love of display. The battle-field had no terrors for the natives of New Guinea when they wore the skins of "God's bird" the bird-of-paradise. The American Indians believed that all the good qualities of certain birds were bestowed upon the wearer of their feathers. But a bird on a woman's hat to-day has but one meaning, and that is vanity. Wallace, in the account of his travels in the Malay Archipelago, says the natives were deeply puzzled to know why he preserved so many birds and insects. At length they arrived at a solution of the mystery, and an old man, with an air of profound conviction, exclaimed, "They all come to life again : that's what they do they all come to life again!"

I see a beautiful bird perched on the crown of a woman's hat, with bent head and outspread wings; its whole poise is suggestive of the famous blackbird in the nursery rhyme; and if the little victim before me should "come to life again" and take a similar revenge, I should not be surprised. If a woman must wear a bird, why does she not show a little taste in her selection, and choose one whose appearance will harmonize somewhat with her own? Why do meek little maidens overshadow themselves with "winged flames" from tropical wilds, and stalwart matrons affect the dainty humming-birds? Fashion delights to set all the laws of nature at defiance, but she never showed more plainly her ignorance of the fitness of things than when she took the birds from their native haunts and perched their lifeless bodies upon the heads of our mothers and sisters and daughters.

But in comparison with other aspects of the subject, the mere question of good or bad taste is of little account. That the fashion of using birds for ornament is a cruel one probably never entered the minds of most women. When our fashionable ladies or fair young girls stand before a counter covered with rich plumes and stuffed birds of rare beauty, do they pause to think how many joyous lives were sacrificed, how many happy woodland homes destroyed, how many gushes of song stilled forever, that they might deck themselves with these colors stolen from the woods and fields and shores? Unfortunately this fashion is not confined to the cities. Many young women who live in the country persuade their brothers or friends to shoot every bright-winged bird they see. These are easily preserved without the aid of the taxidermist; and when the ruthless winds blow off the head or tail of one little victim, another is ready to take its place. Yet these very women have tender hearts, and would shrink from inflicting needless pain on any creature had not love of "style" blinded their eyes. The number of birds sacrificed to this senseless custom has caused an alarming diminution of some of our most beautiful species; and in certain localities the indigo-bird, and other birds of bright plumage, are almost extinct. The apostles of dress reform might find here a worthy field for their efforts, for it rests with women alone whether this cruel custom shall be abandoned or perpetuated. The value of the smaller birds to mankind is a truth not yet fully recognized, or, if generally known, it is every where disregarded. Longfellow's poem, "The Birds of Killingworth," gives a truthful description of what has happened in many places both here and across the sea, where a "St. Bartholomew of birds" has been inaugurated only to be followed by the most disastrous consequences. Happily the days when farmers made a business of killing the winged wardens" of their orchards and grain fields have gone by. The annual shooting matches of the rural districts, when each party strove to destroy the largest number of wild creatures, have, to a great extent, been abolished; and the accounts of the immense bird hunts, like that which occurred in North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1820, where the birds were killed off in such quantities that cart-loads of them were sold to the farmers for fertilizing the soil, seem now like some pitiful tale of fiction. Yet in all parts of the country for the last few years there has been a steady decrease in the number of birds. A speedy retribution follows when the nicely balanced laws of nature are disturbed. Those deadly enemies of vegetation, the hosts of devouring insects, are upon us, and new species are constantly appearing. If we consider the astonishing rate at which insects multiply, we shall better understand these rapid inroads. Reaumur says that one of those little pests known as plant-lice, or aphides, may become the progenitor of six thousand millions in one season. This marvelous power of reproduction may well make us tremble. A careful writer on this subject estimates the annual loss from destruction of property by insects in the United States to amount to four hundred millions of dollars, and to this devastation he attributes the high price of farm produce, and the increase of distress and want in our large cities. At least one-eighth of this loss might be avoided, he declares, by the careful protection of birds. Innumerable instances might be given of important services thus rendered by birds in different parts of the world, Michelet says one pair of sparrows carries to the nest 4300 caterpillars in a week; and, according to Audubon, a woodcock will eat its own weight of insects in a single night. A titmouse introduced into a conservatory has been known to cleanse, in a few hours, rosebushes which were infested with thousands of the aphides. If the birds are banished or annihilated, shall we not be at the mercy of these myriads of destroyers Even now what suffering is caused at the West by the ravages of grasshoppers! The devices of man are of little avail, our deadly poisons are woefully insufficient, and sooner or later we are forced to imitate our sharp-shooters in the late war, and "pick off the enemy one by one." How much more effectually the birds would do it for us! Multitudes of birds are yearly killed for scientific purposes and for public and private collections. Only a few weeks ago a gentleman returned from Arizona with a thousand bird-skins for the Smithsonian Institution. With all due reverence for science, it must be conceded that naturalists are not as scrupulous about taking life or inflicting pain as they might be. Few of them are as humane as our own Thoreau, who told an ornithologist, who insisted upon holding his bird in his hand, that he would rather hold it in his affections. Many people, who do not aspire to possess collections of birds, contrive to ornament their rooms with single specimens. Which is more painful to see a winged creature shut up in a cage, or to discover these lifeless ornaments, poor effigies of birds, perched upon the picture - frames, hidden under glass cases on the mantel, or perhaps sitting on their rifled nests, which have been transported, branches and all, to the parlor? Leonardo da Vinci bought singing birds in cages merely to set them free. In these days of cheap and beautiful pictures and statuettes, among the variety of small ornaments to be had almost for the asking, can we not emancipate the birds?

Birds are even more desperately pursued for their flesh than for their plumage. Audubon says that when he first went to Kentucky the pinnated grouse was so abundant that no hunter deigned to shoot it. Twenty-five years later the grouse had abandoned the State. Prairie-chickens are now slaughtered in such quantities at the West that there is reason to fear the shy, pretty creatures will soon be exterminated. Men hunt them with trained dogs, kill all they can, and wastefully throw away all of the bird but the breast. At a prize hunt in Minnesota last summer nine hundred prairie-chickens were killed in a day within the area of one township. The passenger-pigeon, now rarely seen in the Eastern States, once bred in Massachusetts woods, and the ruffed grouse and several species of wild-ducks were abundant in the same State. The bird laws are as stringent as the prohibitory law, and quite as effectual. The abominable snares and traps, the deadly broadsides from batteries and pivot-guns, the ingenuity of sportsmen, who by their decoys and mock-whistles lure whole flocks of birds within rifle range, have done their work, and we doubt whether posterity will ever hear of "quail on toast," or know the flavor of woodcock or grouse. Game is yearly diminishing in Europe as well as in this country, and it is only within recent years that protection has been secured there for the small birds, which have been attacked and slaughtered with ferocious zeal. Italy, whose delightful climate attracts many species of birds, has been described as " that land of song where a man no sooner hears a feathered warbler sing than he desires to shoot and eat it." It is said that a veteran Italian hunter is as proud of a string of dead linnets as any English boy of his first bag of grouse. The ancient Eomanspoor benighted heathen! feasted on flamingoes' tongues and the brains of pheasants and peacocks. But in this era of the world, in the boasted nineteenth century, man, who is a little lower than the angels, sits down to a banquet of thrushes, eats the lark which at heaven's gate sings, even devours the nightingale! Mrs. Somerville, in her Personal Recollections, speaks of a gentleman who won her heart at a dinner-party in Rome by crying out, "What! robins--our household birds! I would as soon eat a child."

Foolish superstition has caused the destruction of many useful birds, such as the chimney-swallow and whip-poor-will, which have been considered birds of ill omen. Then, too, the birds which go south often perish in large numbers on their perilous journeys. "The eagle waits on his crag; man watches in the valley." The light-houses, which save so many human lives, are terribly fatal to the birds, which are killed by flying against the thick glass of the lantern. Mrs. Thaxter tells us that three hundred and seventy-five dead birds have been picked up in one morning at the foot of the light-house tower on the Isles of Shoals.

Thus it certainly seems as if the whole race of birds were doomed. Few people besides naturalist? know what interesting and intelligent little creatures they are, how wonderfully organized, how delicately susceptible to joy and pain. "I turn this thrash in my hand," writes a lover of birds, "I remember its strange ways, the curious look it gave me, its ineffable music, its freedom, and its ecstasy, and I tremble lest I have skin a being diviner than myself." The widespread belief that birds and animals were created only for the use and amusement of man is a doctrine unworthy of Christendom. The whale, otter, and seal have been so relentlessly pursued that they are fast disappearing. In Europe an oyster famine is predicted, for that favorite bivalve has been "dredged to death." The wholesale slaughter of buffaloes on the Western plains is another instance of our folly and reckless waste of life. The penguin, which is valued for its oil, is chased by small vessels fitted out for that purpose, and these vessels take, upon an average, three hundred thousand penguins each. The pursuit of this bird is compared to that of the wingless auk, and the same fate is predicted for it--that of utter extinction. "Birds are given for the use of man," says a well-known sportsman's book, "and if they serve to supply him with food or healthful exercise, they have answered their purpose." O heartless and godless creed! Let us go to the East, and learn a lesson of heathen nations. The instinctive tenderness and reverence felt by the Orientals for life in any form is to many the great charm of the East. The Buddhists established hospitals for sick animals, and the Egyptians saw something divine in all living things. The same kindly spirit prompts the people of Sweden and Norway to place sheaves of barley and oats on high poles before the houses at Christmas-time, that the birds too may have a feast.