For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Collecting.

Original Air Date: March 9, 1989

Reworked from 1-14-87 (3:58) Date verified. Apparently re-worked once in the 1990s, too. This is the script from that.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)

In the somewhat enlightened age of the nineteen nineties, native American birds are all protected by law. Only certain game species can be hunted at all, and this hunting is carefully regulated and hunters must be licensed. Since the DNR opened season on crows in 1988, people can shoot as many as they like without a license any time from July through August, but other songbirds, including jays and ravens, and hawks and owls, are legally protected and cannot be taken without a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Even though some barbarians still shoot at protected birds, from backyard robins to Bald Eagles, bird-shooting is fortunately no longer in vogue.

But it wasn’t always like this. It’s jarring to learn how different today is from the 1700’s and 1800’s, and even the early 1900s. 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. 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, ironically, the name “Audubon” is equated with bird protection.

(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”