For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Collecting Then and Now
(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)
In the somewhat enlightened age of the nineteen eighties, native American birds are all protected by law. Only certain game species can be hunted at all, and this hunting is carefully regulated. No songbirds, including jays, crows, and ravens, and no hawks and owls, can be legally taken without a special permit issued only for justifiable reasons by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But it wasn’t always like this. As I’ve been reading some old bird books lately, I’ve been jarred by how different today is from the 1700’s and 1800’s, and even the early twentieth century. Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote in 1938 in his Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey, about the Saw-whet Owl: “I shall never forget the thrill I experienced when I first met this lovely little owl. It was in my boyhood days, and I was returning home just as darkness was coming on. As I was leaving the woods, a small, shadowy form flitted out ahead of me and alighted on a small tree within easy gunshot; it flew like a woodcock, but I knew that woodcocks do not perch in trees. I was puzzled, so I put in a light charge and shot it. I was surprised and delighted when I picked it up and admired its exquisite, soft plumage and its big, yellow eyes. I had never seen so small an owl, or one so beautiful. After some research in the public library, I learned its identity, and eventually had it mounted by a boy friend who knew how to ‘stuff’ birds. Many years passed before I ever saw another.”
Around 1900, one ornithologist wrote about a hawk-owl: “It showed but little fear, and could easily be approached within gun-shot. When shot at and missed, it would take a short flight and return to its former perch. On one occasion, Mr. Dresser, firing at one with a rifle, cut the branch close under the bird, which returned almost immediately to another branch, was a second time missed, and finally fell under a third shot.”
John James Audubon, whose passion for American birds sparked a conservation movement unmatched in the history of the country, was himself an inveterate bird killer. He studied living birds to learn as much as he could about their lives and to sketch them in their natural posture, but used dead birds to paint plumage details. He ate many of these–he wrote that flickers tasted disagreeably of the ants they fed upon; herring gulls were excessively salty; brants were “excellent food,” and starlings were delicate eating. Off Jacksonville Florida in the winter of 1832, after five days of boredom, he joined his shipmates in two “frolics,” in which they killed five bald eagles within twenty- four hours. He wrote his wife that that was “more than most sportmen can boast of.” He once claimed that it was a poor day’s hunting when he shot fewer than a hundred birds. Audubon shot more than his share of Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, contributing to their eventual extinctions. But people inspired by his artistry began rallying to the protection of birds in the late 1800’s; now the name “Audubon” is equated with bird protection. And all the collecting of earlier days, when birds’ wild habitats were still undamaged, did far less harm than the illegal poaching that still goes on in 1987.
(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”