Today we start our 100 day blogging spree, counting down to Jan 4th, 2017 which will mark the 100th anniversary of Bird Protection Quebec. We have planned a series of listicles of “10 things” about birds. A daily dose of facts about anything relating to birds: natural history, conservation history, bird lore, birds in popular culture and more. In a nutshell, or an eggshell if you prefer, if the topic relates to birds, you’ll likely see it here in one of the listicles to come!
Yet, where to start?, Choosing the first topic of the promised hodgepodge to come wasn’t as easy as I thought. The Migratory Birds Convention Act ( aka MBCA) between the United States and Canada was signed in August of 1916, a little less than 6 months before the cold winter evening when the founding members of BPQ met for the first time in downtown Montreal to establish the organization that you see today. Why on a cold Thursday night (well ok, only -2 C) in the throes of WWI?
What led this group to act then, or more importantly, why did they choose to act at all instead of just remaining passively at home, enjoying birds on the occasional a walk in the park or at the backyard feeder? Why get so involved in a cause when it would be so much easier not to?
Although the MBCA had just recently been passed in the summer of 1916, it might have been easier for anyone to ignore what was going on in the world around them. Legislation and conservation efforts were starting to create some small positive effects form the early 1900s onward. Yet given the enormity of the bird population declines that would require attention through conservation efforts and public education campaigns to foster support, wouldn’t it have it been easier to put your head down and keep eating that passenger pigeon pie on the plate in front of you? Possibly, but by 1917 the passenger pigeon was already extinct. Martha the last of her kind was found dead at the bottom of her cage on Sept 1st, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.
In today’s world where many complain about the state of things, fewer act to change what they see as wrong. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons we can take from the history of conservation is that we need to act despite the enormity of the task ahead.
While great inroads have been made in conservation during the last century since the passing of The Migratory Birds Convention Act, we still face tremendous challenges in terms of species and habitat loss today and which requires that we act where we can.
So here is the first of 10 facts, a short round-up of the extremes that existed in the 19th century. Hopefully, illustrating what early conservationist were up against, and reminding us that in the face of challenge there is no time to remain idly passive and wait for someone else to take action.
#1. Punt Guns – Mass shooting made easy
In the 1860’s commercial market hunters used punt guns, enormous shotguns mounted to flat bottomed boats because they were too long, heavy and cumbersome to handhold. Designed to shoot masses of birds at once,they could easily fell 50-100 birds with one shot. To increase their effectiveness even further, hunters would amass a number of boats and aim all of their guns at once, making it possible to shoot entire flocks at a time It was actually non-commercial hunters that sounded the alarm as they noticed marked reductions in waterfowl and the guns were generally outlawed by the 1860s.
#2. Market Hunting
Market hunters made a lucrative business shooting birds for the restaurant trade as well as for the fashion industry that seemed to require an endless supply of feathers and stuffed birds to adorn hats. While some were destined for the North American market, many more also were for overseas consumption of the millinery trade. Extreme hunting practices led to the extinction of the Eskimo Curlew, Passenger Pigeon , the Great Auk and the Labrador Duck and decimated other populations of birds species such as the Great and Snowy Egrets. In terms of feathers destined for the plume trade, at one point hunters were paid $32 per ounce, apparently twice the price for an ounce of gold at the time! It is said to have required the killing of 4 herons to obtain an ounce of heron feathers. An anecdote from just one London sales room in 1902 mentions selling 1608 packages of such feathers which equated to 192,960 herons from just one auction.
#3. Fowl fare not for the finicky
The fare on a typical upscale hotel menu might include birds beyond the expected game bird such as quail or pheasant. Bobolinks, Robins, Eskimo Curlew, Red-winged Blackbirds and others provided the diner with an array of choices. The idea that these birds should be taken off the menu and merely observed for pleasure didn’t go over well with hunters who earned tidy sums for their efforts.
#4. Shotgun Ornithology.
If you’ve ever lamented having to use a cheap pare of binoculars to look at birds in the field , imagine the challenges to early ornithologists. Observing specimens at close range in the 17th through 19th century was only possible by what to the modern observer likely seems distasteful. Shoot first and ask questions later was the basic method of scientific observation. It was only in 1890 that Birds through an Opera Glass by Florence Augusta Bailey encouraged observing birds through, what else, an opera glass. Hardly, the same as a $2,500 pair of modern Leica optics, but clearly less offensive to the birds than the shotgun!
Oology is a term coined to describe both the scientific study of eggs as well as the practice of collecting eggs as a hobby. Oology as a hobby became a fad that remained popular from the late 18800’s until the 1920’s. The competition between Natural History museums and private collectors to amass enormous collections egged on this obsession. The MBCA of 1916 made hunting and possessing eggs of migratory birds without a permit illegal and the practice began to the decline by the early 1920s.
#6. Egg-streme Collecting
Many egg collectors defended their actions by claiming that as long as they didn’t kill the adults, birds would lay another clutch. Of course, they often did kill the adults. The size of collections, of both egg and bird specimens, seems astounding. Spencer Fullerton Baird, who was curator of the Smithsonian’s natural history collection is said to have possessed a personal collection that filled two railway boxcars. Today many of these sorts of collections remain in museums across North America and the world. They aren’t just a record of the excesses of the time however. While in certain cases they endangered bird population, they can now also provide valuable scientific insight into earlier avian populations.
#7. Put your Egg Money where your mouth is.
Today we have Google or chocolate ice cream to turn to in cases of boredom. But if you were a lonely cavalry officer on the Arizona frontier in the mid-19th century, like John Bendire, you collected skins and eggs.
His accounts attest to the often-ridiculous feats oologists performed to obtain their prizes. In one instance, he shinnied 40 feet up a tree to collect the eggs of a Zone-tailed hawk. Having found only one egg, he decided to spare the adult and return a second time a week later under the assumption it would lay another egg. On his next trip he discovered not only another hawk egg but also a number of Apache natives clearly visible in the distance from his vantage point high up in the tree.
Fearing for his life, he placed the egg in his mouth and climbed back down. Once at the bottom, he mounted his horse and galloped back to camp undetected, all the while with the ”uncomfortably large” egg in his mouth. Despite what one has to imagine as a tremendous gagging impulse, he arrived with the egg intact but not without an aching jaw and blaming his missing out on shooting and collecting the adults on his encounter with the Apaches. After blowing out the egg, which he noticed was partially incubated and attributed to being the result of his own body heat, it was prepared and shipped to the Smithsonian institute.
#8. Hoarding Collecting Mania
It wasn’t only 19th century professional ornithologists and museums who had a penchant for amassing enormous drawers full of dead birds. Ordinary Victorians were equally obsessed with collecting stuffed birds. Another lucrative market niche for hunters were “glass bird houses,” encased collections of songbirds usually mounted on a branch. Of course, if a simple little dome collection wasn’t grand enough, there was always an option to own huge cabinets that might be filled with all manner of birds including even hawks, owls and herons A nest of stuffed babies wasn’t out of the question either.
#9. Feathers for Fashion
The popularity of feathers among Victorian fashionistas led to decimation of bird populations by the millions during the 19th century. It is estimated that over all, the plume trade required some 200 million birds a year to keep up with popular demand. A now legendary description by Frank M. Chapman, a noted ornithologist and writer of bird field guides, describes the excesses of Victorian hat fashion. Walking about New York City on two separate afternoons to count women’s hats, 542 of the 700 hats he counted were adorned with feathers or entire birds. This included about 40 different species among them Baltimore Orioles, Blackburnian Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, a Saw-Whet owl, 16 Bob-whites and 21 Flickers. ( Given his penchant for counting things, it should come as no surprise to anyone not already familiar with Chapman that he was the founder of modern Christmas Bird Count
#10. There ought to be a Law!
One egg collector boasted of possessing 180 peregrine falcon clutches, totalling over 700 eggs, in a collection of over 20,000 eggs of many different species. It was excesses such as these that led John Burroughs, one of the most influential nature writers of the 19th century, to protest the practice. He wrote that while he did not begrudge a collector of one nest per species, “the professional nest robber and skin collector should be put down by legislation or with dogs and shotguns.” Of course he wasn’t the only one to begin sounding the alarm. Women’s magazines began to run articles describing some of the horrific practices of the time and George Bird Grinnel founded Forest and Stream magazine and the first Audubon Club, which he used to rally help for the dwindling bird populations.
Tomorrow – We finish up with more Outrageous Facts in Conservation History – Part 2