Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A World of Watchers

"Implements for Collecting: The double barrelled shotgun is your main reliance. Get the best one you can afford for your particular purpose which is the destruction of small birds with the least possible damage to their plumage. Begin by shooting every bird you can. Pierce the bird's brain with a knife to kill it quickly. Record, label and measure carefully and promptly, noting sex, age, and contents of stomach. Fifty birds shot is a good day's work."

This is the advice of ornithologist Elliott Coues to the would-be bird "collector" in 1874. Bird collectors also had to be their own taxidermists to preserve the birds collected. Today, such advice would not be appreciated. In fact, it turns my stomach just thinking about it. However, if you substitute the word "camera" or "binoculars" for shotgun, it sounds fairly familiar.

Joseph Kastner's book, A World of Watchers, describes the history of bird collecting and its evolution to bird watching. All the birds with people names, such as Brewer, Baird, Cooper and Cassin, are named after the early ornithologists. Early bird clubs were quite exclusive in nature. The Nuttall Ornithological Club required members to live in the Cambridge, MA, city limits to belong as full members. If they missed a meeting, a 25 cent fine was charged. Good thing my club doesn't do that! I'd be broke!

Few women were involved in birding in the early days. In fact, the elite Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) constitution allowed only men to be members at all. Women were permitted to watch birds, but not in the club's territory. How gracious of them. Sounds like male birds in the spring! Here's the kicker -- women were finally accepted in 1982! The Nuttall Club didn't admit women until 1974, after its centennial celebration!

Other than male chauvinism, why weren't women more involved? Binoculars didn't exist. One might have acquired a military spy glass, but they were heavy and not easy to use. The best way to observe the bird accurately was to shoot it and examine the corpse. Of course, it isn't lady-like for women to traipse around in the fields with a shotgun wearing a corset and long skirts . Women started bird watching using little 2X opera glasses in the field.

The phrase "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" derives from these early collectors. Shooting a bird but letting it get away didn't count. Only collecting the body counted. And why worry about running out of birds? There are so many, shooting a 100 or so here and there can't possibly make a difference, right? There are times, I must admit, when binoculars don't really let me get a good look at the bird, but then I wouldn't be a good enough hunter to collect them either. With luck, I might get as many as I now photograph!

Excerpts from birding journals make me chuckle a bit. Observations aren't limited to appearance and behavior, but the behavior is compared to human moral standards. The House Wren generated great controversy in 1915. Althea Sherman, in Iowa, described the House Wren as a deadly menace given to dangerous practices. The wren's "diabolical disposition alone prompts it to destructive acts." It is a "blacker villain" than she had thought, "why not let children raise rattlers?" Another journal keeper tended to ascribe the Boy Scout virtues to birds - loyal, kind, trustworthy, etc. If people don't display good moral behavior, why expect birds to do so?

George Bird Grinnell, the founder of the American Ornithologists Union, called for the formation of a society to protect wild birds, naming it the Audubon Society. 40,000 enrolled in the first year. A group of Boston women, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, began the crusade against using bird feathers in women's hats. The tactics taken in the struggle are fascinating. Bird protection laws were drafted and passed by most states by 1910. The Migratory Bird Protection Treaty with Canada was adopted in 1916. Of course, greed and profit can still overcome avian welfare. The Audubon Society Timeline gives more details on the club's history and conservation efforts. The Society also awards a medal to those Heroes of nature.

Sorry to dump a book report on you, they still have bad connotations from grade school days. But this story is much more involved that I would ever have imagined as an amateur birdwatcher. We are the heirs of a great movement in history, and now I can appreciate that much better. Next week we are headed to Willcox, AZ, not far from Tucson, for the Wings over Willcox festival. And I promise, I'll only be shooting birds with a camera.

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