Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/September 1891/Take Care of the Birds!



ON an unprejudiced view of the matter, we may well be surprised that a barbarity so foreign to the aspiring tendencies of our age as the destruction of birds should continue; that exhortations to protect them are still necessary; and that active harboring and care of them are not matters of course. There are special causes for the lamentable existing conditions, but a wide survey is necessary to the full understanding of them. If we seek for the causes of the lessening numbers of our wild birds, including the finest and favorite singers, we shall find that they are many and interwoven. Foremost among them are the conditions of modern cultivation. When denudation is the rule in forestry, and the whole growth is cut away with all the old and hollow trees and those that were rich in knot-holes; when agriculture, making the smallest spot of ground productive, roots out stumps and hedgerows, dries up the swamps, drains the larger ponds, and regulates and straightens the streams, clears the shrubbery from pastures and meadows and groves, and trims gardens and orchards with a view to the largest crops, the birds can find no homes or nesting-places, and of course can not thrive.

In our neglect of care for birds we have failed to keep in check their natural enemies, which are able to do relatively more damage than ever before. These include four-footed beasts, birds of prey, thieving birds, and our own domestic cats and dogs, with rats; to which may be added the hardships of weather, that bear more severely upon birds than in former times, because of the removal of the sheltering woods under which they could once cover themselves, and the modern bird-killing inventions of telegraph wires and electric lights.

The capture of birds for pets is a factor of a little importance in promoting their disappearance; hunting them as game is a more important one; while the destruction of birds for the sake of their feathers, whereby women may gratify their desire for show, has reached a frightful extent.

Before considering what measures may be taken to obviate the danger of extermination to which birds are exposed, it is proper to inquire what these creatures signify in our economy, and whether their preservation is necessary or desirable.

To my mind, the highest value of our wild birds—I speak of birds in general, while I refer especially to those smaller creatures which we describe as song birds—lies not in the useful service they may do to us, although that is not to be underestimated. I am still of the opinion, which I expressed more than a quarter of a century ago, that their æsthetic influence, the effect they exert upon our spirits and in developing our sense of beauty and our appreciation of all that is pleasant and lively in Nature, is of much higher value. We could hardly imagine a landscape of our country, with its alternations of hill and valley, field and wood, pasture and meadow, threaded with streams or dotted with lakes, not enlivened by nimble birds. How bare and empty would our orchards appear, even in the splendor of their spring bloom, without the twitter, the clear songs, the joyous melodies, and the cries of the robins, bobolinks, cat-birds, and blackbirds that haunt them! For any real enjoyment of Nature, we must have the brisk, songful, and noisy bird-life around us. Further than this, we can not doubt that birds, in freedom as well as living with us in our rooms, may be a means of instruction lasting through life, and exercise a profound influence upon youth, by awaking in them an interest in natural life, and leading them to the enjoyment and love of all that is in Nature, particularly in its animal and bird life, and thus eventually to become students of its works and phenomena. In large cities the birds and the flowers are not rarely all that is left to guard men against being fully estranged from Nature.

But in consideration of the fact that in the materialistic tendencies of our day to turn away from all purely idealistic points of view, and notwithstanding what has been said above, since the main argument for the protection of birds lies in their importance and indispensability for Nature's household and for human welfare, I will also take their actual usefulness into consideration. We dismiss those excessive exaggerations by which each and every bird is represented as necessary. They have done more harm than good to the cause by the sharp and sometimes angry contradictions they have provoked. To designate all birds according to their usefulness or the harm they do would be hopeless; for each bird, even the most useful, may under some circumstances do much harm; so that the useful or injurious character of single species may be exceedingly variable under different local conditions. I may be allowed to adduce a few examples of this.

The sparrow has been of late years one of the most noxious of all birds; and is capable, in fact, in districts under high cultivation, alighting in hosts on fields of ripening grain, or in orchards, of doing great harm. Nobody can, on the other hand, deny that it eats naked caterpillars, worms, and similar vermin; and whoever will can without difficulty satisfy himself that it eagerly catches grub-worms in the spring. The complete extirpation of the sparrow, which is.recklessly and improvidently demanded in many quarters to-day, would be a serious wrong and great folly, because it is in many places the single bird destructive to vermin, and the latter would without it increase much faster and become more predominant than hitherto. A similar view may be taken of the bull-finch, whose beauty every one enjoys wherever it shows itself; but it is one of the class which men would banish, for it has in many places developed great power for mischief. It eats the flower-buds from the fruit trees, especially from the pear trees, and thus does great harm. And it is fortunate that in many parts of Germany its young are stolen from the nests by hundreds, domesticated and trained to be singers, and have become an article of trade. Blackbirds and starlings have likewise come to be regarded as obnoxious by narrow-hearted gardeners who look at everything through the spectacles of their own interest. In other respects these birds are among the most useful we have. If we were to estimate the usefulness or objectionableness of all birds, giving heed to the prejudices of every one whose special interest they might in some way damage, we should have to put the ban upon nearly all, and have hardly a species exempt from sentence.

Instead of this, we prefer to apply the measures by which we may effectively protect our birds in general, so as to preserve them as far as is possible under present conditions.

Against the most important cause of the disappearance of birds, modern agriculture and the removal of the forests, special measures have been adopted with effect in some places, and more are needed. Among these are the plantation of sheltering woods, particularly in or near cities, in public parks, and on all estates, and of thickets in the open fields. These should contain abundant berry-bearing plants and thorny bushes, and might be thickly furnished with nest-boxes, such as are made at several German factories, after patterns indicated by Gloger, in six different numbers. An essential condition to the success of such bird-protectories is the suppression of all enemies of birds and of all disturbers of their nests, egg-collectors large and small. The weakest efforts in behalf of the birds have been those to protect them against unfavorable conditions of weather. Happily, excessive severities of weather, like hard hailstones and terrible thunderstorms, in which birds are numerously sacrificed, are comparatively rare. Lesser weather changes, while they are often not less dangerous to birds, we can more easily contend against. Certainly, any sincere lover of birds, even though he have only a garden or a small yard, or a balcony or a window, can set out food for the support of feathered guests in times of snow or hard frost. But perhaps only a few friends of birds think of the times when the weather conditions are really most unfavorable, and the care of them is most needed. In the late snows and sharp frosts of approaching spring, many of our feathered summer friends are exposed to great hardships, in which they need all the attention that their friends can give them.

The taste for having singing-birds in the house is so widespread and so deeply rooted in popular life that it would be hard to extirpate it. No intelligent man would underestimate its influence on the temper, or its educational, moral, and economical importance, and no well-wisher could desire its complete suppression. And it is demonstrable that bird-catching for the sake of this fancy hardly contributes materially to the diminution in the number of birds. It affects chiefly the males, which among native birds greatly outnumber the females; and when a hunter catches a male of almost any species, another will appear in a short time to fill its place. Egg-collectors, on the other hand, may inflict great damage; and the collector of the present time is not satisfied with one specimen, as formerly, but usually takes the whole laying.

The form of destruction most grievous to thoughtful and sensitive men is that which is pursued for the sake of woman's adornment. It seems hardly possible, at the first look, that an honorable woman, possessed of a delicate, moral, pure, and true feeling, can find any pleasure in ornamenting herself with, a dead bird, whose joyous and harmless life has been cruelly extinguished for her sake. Yet it is a sad fact that thousands of women go around with decorations thus procured, and hundreds of thousands of lovely and useful birds are killed for them. Against this neither words directed to the understanding, lessons on the value of birds, nor warnings appealing to the heart, are of effect; human vanity prevails over all, and triumphant fashion comes off victor. Nothing promises to be effective against it but a positive legal prohibition. Will not our intelligent, warm-hearted women come out with tact and decision against this abuse, and exert their influence upon the wider circle of those who are less judicious but mean well?

Happily, it is among most men only thoughtlessness and consequent indifference, and in only a narrow circle sheer selfishness, that has permitted the neglect or refusal of effective protection to birds.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Ueber Land und Meer.