12 December 2012

Game Market Prices Convey Bird History

Throughout centuries of among urban North America, residents regularly went to a town or city market to purchase something edible for the day's main meal. There were many offering during the different season of so many years. There were pigeons, snipe, ducks, prairie hens, quail and partridge offered by the merchants. Such a shopping trip was nothing unusual as game animals taken in the wild spaces were regularly hauled elsewhere and available for purchase among the stalls of the market.

Associated details of retail or wholesale prices within pages of local newspapers or specialty publications provide an evocative perspective, available nearly weekly in some cities of the eastern states.

New York City had an especially lively market, with some of the first particulars from 1763 and 1800. More expansive specifics start in the mid-1850s, especially in 1853. Details of special importance were given by a regular column titled "Family Marketing" that presented retail costs, with another feature in the local paper being a weekly summary of the wholesale prices. Though these were typically exclusive, they provide a distinct dichotomy when both were available, such as in 1857.

Accurate details were regularly reported for this east coast city, as especially known for the 1850s-1860s. It is, however, only one example of the myriad pertinent sources. There were other city markets of with specifics about the prevalent cost of purchasing a particular number of various sorts of birds. As the frontier moved west, transportation routes expanded, local and regional commerce was underway, and with particular specifics of reporting, the market prices for various commodities were expressed in vivid detail.

Thousands of records of particular interest were issued for New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Memphis, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and during the last few years of this period, at St. Louis and Omaha. Other urban places might also have similar price details, such as the cost of a dozen wild pigeons or wild squabs, the price of a pair of different types of ducks or prairie hens, or how much is cost for a wild goose or swan, or for a dozen sand snipe.

There were particulars given, though the actual identity that conforms to the actual indications can be rather vague. Known records are available for the 1850s through 1870s, and into the 1880s.

More than species or bird types can be identified to some extent or another. The following is a preliminary indication, based upon more than 7000 records:

¶ Greater Prairie Chicken: 892 records (as of the afternoon of 12 December 2012); prairie chickens, prairie hens, and in some cases grouse, which, thought a name attribution might seem to be different, apparently conform to this species
¶ Mallard: 665; usually listed to this particular bird name, but sometimes the wild duck
¶ Northern Bobwhite: 606; usually quail, but sometimes partridge
¶ Passenger Pigeon: 557; wild pigeons, flight pigeons
¶ Ruffed Grouse: 368; partridge
¶ Teal: 360
¶ Duck: 344; including small ducks, common ducks, mixed ducks
¶ Rock Dove: 276; mostly in reference to generic pigeons, or tame squabs
¶ American Woodcock: 208; woodcock
¶ Canvasback: 202; canvas-backs, canvass-backs; distinct as sold by men in the market because of its unique and appreciated culinary distinction
¶ American Black Duck: 192
¶ Snipe: 182; snipe was a generic term commonly used to refer to a variety of different species
¶ Redhead: 171
¶ Wild Turkey: 171
¶ Wilson's Snipe: 151; English or jack snipe
¶ Plover: 137
¶ Canada Goose: 136; wild goose
¶ Scaup: 126; broad-bills
¶ Wood Duck: 124
¶ American Wigeon: 116; the widgeon
¶ Sandpiper: 116; sand snipe or surf snipe
¶ Dowitcher: 95
¶ Brant Goose: 71; brant
¶ Goose: 66
¶ Gadwall: 65; grey duck
¶ Yellowlegs: 63
¶ American Robin: 59; robin or occasionally misspelled as robbins
¶ Bobolink: 58; reed or rice birds
¶ Sharp-tailed Grouse: 50
¶ Snow Goose: 47
¶ Curlew: 41; curlew snipe
¶ Red Knot: 31; robin snipe
¶ Greater Yellowlegs: 26; large yellowlegs
¶ Semipalmated Sandpiper: 25
¶ Grouse: 22
¶ Golden/Grey Plover: 19; black-breasted snipe
¶ Lesser Yellowlegs: 19; small yellowlegs
¶ Blackbird: 18
¶ Godwit: 16
¶ Quail: 14; used to designate quail in an area where several species occurred in the nearby wilds
¶ Lark: 12
¶ Charadrius plover: 11; belted plover
¶ Dove: 11
¶ Common Pheasant: 10; English pheasant as brought over from Europe, as there was international trade in this commodity
¶ Northern Pintail: 10; spring-tail
¶ Shorebird: 10
¶ Tundra Swan: 10; swan sold at the NYC market
¶ Greater White-fronted Goose: 7
¶ Sora: 7
¶ Unidentified birds: 7
¶ Bufflehead: 6
¶ Blue-winged Teal: 5; when specifically referred to a blue-wing
¶ Clapper Rail: 5
¶ American Golden Plover: 4; green plover
¶ Pectoral Sandpiper: 4
¶ Upland Sandpiper: 4
¶ Cedar Waxwing: 3; cedar birds
¶ Pigeon: 3
¶ Willow Ptarmigan: 3; scotch grouse
¶ Green-winged Teal: 2
¶ Merganser: 2; sheld-drakes or shell-drakes
¶ American Avocet: 1
¶ American Coot: 1
¶ Blue Jay: 1
¶ California Quail: 1; mentioned from the west coast in the early 1860s
¶ Cinnamon Teal: 1; mentioned from the west coast in the early 1860s
¶ Cormorant: 1
¶ Dark-eyed Junco: 1; small blue snow bird
¶ Emperor Goose: 1
¶ Gambel's Quail: 1
¶ Goldeneye: 1
¶ Great Blue Heron: 1; blue heron
¶ Great Egret: 1; white heron
¶ Grebe: 1; hell-diver
¶ Grey Plover: 1
¶ Guillemot: 1
¶ Killdeer: 1
¶ Long-tailed Duck: 1
¶ Loon: 1
¶ Meadowlark: 1
¶ Mountain Quail: 1
¶ Mourning Dove: 1
¶ Northern Flicker: 1; clape
¶ Northern Shoveler: 1
¶ Sandhill Crane: 1
¶ Shearwater: 1
¶ Swan: 1
¶ Unidentified species: 1
¶ Whooping Crane: 1; white crane, Illinois
¶ Willet: 1
¶ Woodpecker: 1

Problematic are attributions indicated as brant. An easy "out" was taken to refer to this designation as referring to the Brant Goose, though other species could have certainly been among the birds denoted. Also, it was perplexing while making decisions about the sorts of birds in the market, whether a slight difference in wordage referred to a tame or wild pigeon. Sand snipe undoubtedly referred to different species, as did plover, dowitcher and other similar sorts of shorebirds. Some species were determined by comparing the given names to different sources of the era which identified birds and the names by which they were known.

Most essential has been the aggregation of so-many individual records that an overall comparison is possible. Details can be evaluated in several ways, including:

  • species identified, based upon the many pages of newspapers evaluated;
  • number of records for each particular sort of bird;
  • occasional details about the condition and availability of birds;
  • particulars to compare the numbers sold during a particular year, as especially available for Chicago; and
  • seasonal occurrence of regularly noted species, and how pertinent laws would alter the months when different game birds could be legally sold, as the legal statutes changed through the period.

Ancillary information, especially for New York City, also provides a sense of the many markets, their history, noting the eleven markets present in 1827. There are even details about Delmonico's, a prominent restaurant where gourmands gathered to feast on seasonably available game.

These thousands of records are distinctive and certainly essential for any effort to comprehensively consider another fascinating subject regarding birds during 1850- 1885. Further record gathering is still underway and to hopefully mean a discovery of additional facts of fascination for any aficionado of historic ornithology.