Peter W. Oehlkers
Thomas Green Fessenden. Image from Perrin 1925.
I consider those insects as a judgment from Heaven upon the land, for the wanton cruelty of its inhabitants in shooting and killing birds.
These are the Farmer’s little friends,
And foes to his annoyers;
The petty means to potent ends,
As worm and bug destroyers.
But oft these prettiest of all
The works of their Creator,
Are prematurely doomed to fall
By Man, the Desolator!
Decades before the Audubon movement of the late 1800s, farmers, newspaper editors, and legislators in New England were already acting to protect birds from wanton destruction. By 1818, Massachusetts had a “bird law,” certifying the value of insectivorous birds and prescribing a closed season on robins and “larks.” By 1831, it had the nation’s first real public bird sanctuary, Mount Auburn Cemetery. And beginning in 1822, it had a strong public voice in favor of birds, the New England Farmer, edited by Thomas Green Fessenden.
This was an era that could be hostile to birds. Farmers and horticulturists often saw birds as undifferentiated pests, depredators of fruit and seed. Hunters were largely indiscriminating and focused on quantity. On New England holidays such as “Election Day” at the end of May, boys would compete to see who could bag the most songbirds.
Among intellectual elites, though, the killing of insectivorous birds was recognized as a classic case of mistaking friends for foes, and a practice that could have disastrous results. Benjamin Franklin was fond of telling the tale of the year (1749) farmers in one New England community destroyed all their blackbirds and paid for it in the form of failed crops (Benson 1987). Early ornithologists were often also bird advocates: Benjamin Barton (1799), for example, helped to introduce the concept of the “useful” bird; Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808) was not merely a description of the birds of America but an attempt to “vindicate them from every misrepresentation.” The weekly agricultural newspaper, aimed at collecting and disseminating up-to-date knowledge about best farming practices, was an ideal medium to spread this wisdom in favor of birds.
Fessenden and the New England Farmer (1822–1846)
Thomas Green Fessenden (1771–1837) was raised on a farm in New Hampshire, educated as a lawyer in Vermont, and after settling in England, gained some renown as an inventor and as poet of satirical humorous verse (Perrin 1925). After returning to the United States, he concentrated on writing and editing, though later in his life he served as a judge and as a member of the Massachusetts legislature. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who regarded him as a kindly genius, befriended him two years before his death and wrote a short biography (Hawthorne 1838).
The first issue of the New England Farmer was published by Thomas W. Shepard of Congress Street, Boston, on August 3, 1822. It would be the second enduring agricultural weekly in the United States (the Baltimore-based American Farmer [1819–1834] was the first). In the first issue, Shepard introduced the editor as a “man of science” conversant with both the theory and practice of farming. Fessenden would spend the next fifteen years constructing the paper each week from his own work and that of other associated authorities, adding material copied from other newspapers via an exchange network, and offering a forum for correspondents wishing to relate their own opinions and experiences. Hawthorne (1838) described Fessenden’s home as consumed with such writing and editing:
The table, and great part of the floor, were covered with books and pamphlets on agricultural subjects, newspapers from all quarters, manuscript articles for “The New England Farmer,” and manuscript stanzas for [his poetry].
Fessenden would end up writing several books on gardening and farming topics.
There is no evidence that Fessenden had much scientific knowledge of bird life, though his poetry shows that he was at least conversant with the song of the “bob-o-linkhorn.” Regardless, the New England Farmer quickly became a forum for promoting the value of protecting birds. On November 14, 1822, for example, he ran a correspondent’s letter copying an entry from Wilson on the Scarlet Tanager, introduced as follows:
It will be perceived that this showy stranger, which is indeed more and more to visit us of late, mostly feeds upon the large winged and most noxious and injurious insects. If, however, this bird, so modest and sweetly attired, is not kindly received, we shall lose the visits with which he gratifies us. Why not place him with the Swallow, the Turtle Dove, and other favored harmless birds, who in fond reliance cluster around our houses? But above all, let those who deal out leaden death, consider that as this sweet bird of both song and plumage affords no inducements as game or luxury for food--whether it does not belong to their spirit and gallantry to spare as they wish to be thought its admirers, innocence and beauty. (“W” 1822)
Fessenden was also willing to stretch the category of the useful bird to include crows and blackbirds, editorializing in response to an article on the “Destruction of Crows” via the sewing of horse hairs into corn seed,
We doubt the policy as well as the humanity of destroying crows and blackbirds, if it could be effected by a wish. They sometimes injure the farmer by pulling up a few hills of corn, but they benefit him much more by destroying worms and other insects. And there are other means of preserving Indian corn not only from birds, but from worms, which we believe are more effectual than the above mentioned, and liable to no objection. (“Gloucester” 1825)
Of particular note during Fessenden’s term as editor was the inclusion of essays drawn from other papers and contributed by correspondents that plead for the protection of birds. These would eventually be known as “spare the birds” stories (Oehlkers 2017). On September 1, 1826, he reprinted a story from a Massachusetts newspaper calling insect infestations a “judgment from heaven” for killing birds. Throughout the late 1820s correspondents contributed like letters, some with similar religious rhetoric.
Roland Howard of Easton, Massachusetts, called Election Day bird-shooting matches an attack on the “goodness of the Creator:”
A mind not perverted, and sunk in sensuality, cannot be insensible to the vocal music of the feathered songsters of the orchard and the grove, but will insensibly be led to join with them in a song of praise to HIM, whose tender mercies are over all his works, and whose watchful care extends itself even to the sparrow, so “that not one of them falls without his notice.” (Howard 1827)
R. Green of Mansfield, Massachusetts, observed the number of insects destroyed by a single pair of birds and celebrated the balance of nature:
Mr. Fessenden—These are to the farmer and gardener of great value. They were designed by the Creator to check the too great increase of insects; and no farmer ought to suffer them to be wantonly destroyed on his premises. The number of insects destroyed by the robin, swallow, sparrow, mock-bird, and other small birds, is astonishing. One little family will destroy several hundreds in a single day.
He urged farmers to cease their “wars of extermination” against them:
They are not merely useful in destroying insects—for they call the farmer and the gardener to their business—cause the groves to resound with music, and usher in the morning with melodious praise. (Green 1828)
Not all correspondents, however, employed the religious frame. “F” of Danvers, Massachusetts, cited Wilson as his main authority:
[F]or my own part, I think, were we to leave off wantonly destroying our small SINGING BIRDS, we should be less troubled with insects of all kinds. It is a fact well known to every naturalist, that small birds destroy an almost incredible number of noxious insects. The amiable and indefatigable ornithologist, ALEXANDER WILSON, who perhaps was better acquainted with the habits of our birds than any other person, when speaking of the Sturnus Predatorius, or red-winged black bird, which, by the way, is by our farmers considered the most mischievous of birds, says “their food in spring and the early part of summer consists of grub-worms, caterpillars, and various other larvae, the silent but deadly enemies of all vegetation, and whose secret and insidious attacks are more to be dreaded by the husbandman than the combined forces of the whole feathered tribe together….” (“F” 1828)
It was the disruption the balance of nature that was the problem. “F,” like other authors, blamed shooting parties:
I am fully persuaded, as long as farmers and others permit boys to roam over their fields and shoot down every small bird they meet–as long as young men are in the habit, on our anniversaries, of forming themselves into shooting parties, for the purpose of destroying small birds, which they do in immense numbers—I say as long as this wanton destruction of birds is carried on, we must expect innumerable hosts of noxious insects will continue to commit depredations on our orchards, our fields, and our gardens. (“F” 1828)
Fessenden, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and Mount Auburn Cemetery
The New England Farmer was integral to the formation of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1829. Fessenden had published the initial notice calling for society members and was an enthusiastic booster, often printing Society proceedings in full, including a report of a special meeting (June 18, 1830) in which, among other things, a committee was chosen to “consider the expediency of recommending some measures to prevent the wanton destruction of useful birds.” The Farmer also printed Zebedee Cook’s famous anniversary speech in which he proposed that the Society create a cemetery in the style of Père la Chaise in Paris. This cemetery would be Mount Auburn.
It is worth noting that immediately preceding this proposal, Cook had taken up the topic of bird protection:
The protection and preservation of useful birds is a subject I would propose for your particular consideration. To those whose souls are attuned to the harmony of their music, who delight to listen to the warbling of nature’s choristers, little need be urged to insure them security in the peaceful possession of their accustomed haunts. But if this consideration is not sufficient, there is another view in which the subject may be presented, that cannot fail to render them the objects of our care and watchfulness. We must either encourage them, or resign our gardens and orchards to the overwhelming ravages of innumerable insatiate insects. We must preserve them and consent to tolerate their minor depredations, or suffer them to be destroyed, and with them all hopes of preserving any portions of our fruits. (Cook 1831)
Cook called on society members to help enforce the existing bird law, in order to “preserve those innocent and useful co-laborers, who amply repay us in the aid they afford.” This suggests that Mount Auburn was designed from the beginning with birds in mind (Linden-Ward 2007).
T.G. Fessenden monument inscription: “This monument is erected by the Massachusetts Society for promoting agriculture, by the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts and by Individuals as a testimony or respect for the literary talents and acquirements of the deceased and his untiring labor in promoting the objects of the above Institutions. Photograph by the author.
A letter from “A Cultivator” printed the following May, endorsed Cook’s call. It was members’ moral duty to enforce the law:
It is a common practice with these sportsmen through the summer to range the groves and orchards, in this vicinity, almost every pleasant day and more numerously on holidays, and to shoot every bird that comes within their reach.
It is not, however, a small nor an easy task for one individual, to get their names, residence, and the evidence necessary for their conviction; but it requires the united efforts of all who are immediately interested. Already have these sportsmen commenced their wanton destruction of these useful creatures, even before they had time to build a nest for rearing of their young—Birds that have survived the dreary winter in a more genial clime, having now returned to bless our efforts by their industry and to cheer our days with their melody, are scarcely permitted to commence their vernal song, ere they must fall victims to a WANTON IDLENESS that is as destitute of moral feeling, as of useful employment. (“A Cultivator” 1831)
Fessenden would reprint this letter as part of his section on “Birds” in his 1834 book, The Complete Farmer and Rural Economist. After his sudden death in 1837, Fessenden would be among the first generation buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Fessenden’s pro-bird editorial direction would be continued by subsequent editors of the Farmer, including Henry Colman, Allen Putnam, and the seed company magnate Joseph Breck, who also served as the paper’s publisher. After the paper ceased publication in 1846, a second New England Farmer (1848–1864) emerged with a similar editorial position. It would be notable in its own right for being on Henry David Thoreau’s reading list and for providing a very young J.A. Allen with a place to publish his ornithological writing.
Agricultural papers across the country, with total circulations in the hundreds of thousands by mid-century, followed the New England Farmer in urging bird protection. These efforts would influence the wave of state-level bird protection legislation in the 1850s and 1860s and would ultimately inform the Audubon Society movement at the end of the century (Judd 1997).
Note: Sections of this paper are adapted from the author’s blog, available at wingedwardens.blogspot.com.
- “A Cultivator.” 1831. Sporting. New England Farmer 9 (43): 337.
- “Amicus.” 1826. Flies, Bugs, Worms and Grasshoppers, New England Farmer ٥ (٦): 45.
- Barton, B. S. 1799. Fragments of the Natural History of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA: Way & Groff.
- Benson, A. B., ed. 1987. Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America. The English Version of 1770. New York, NY: Dover.
- Cook, Z. 1831. Mr. Cook’s Address, New England Farmer 9 (27): 211.
- “F.” 1828. Insectiverous birds, New England Farmer 7 (1): 2.
- Fessenden, T. G. 1829. Bird Shooting, New England Farmer 8 (2): 16.
- Fessenden, T. G. 1834. The Complete Farmer and Rural Economist. Boston, MA: Russell, Odiorne & Co.
- “Gloucester.” 1825. Destruction of Crows, New England Farmer 3 (37): 289.
- Green, R. 1828. Insectivorous Birds, New England Farmer 6 (37): 289.
- Hawthorne, N. 1838. Thomas Green Fessenden, American Monthly Magazine, 5: 228-35.
- Howard, R. 1827. Wanton Destruction of Birds, New England Farmer 5: 386.
- Judd, R. W. 1997. Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Linden-Ward, B. 2007. Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
- Oehlkers, P.W. 2017. “Spare the Birds” Stories and Bird-Friendly Editors (1819-1855). Paper read at Conference on Communication and the Environment, June 30, 2017, Leicester, UK.
- Perrin, P.G. 1925. The Life and Works of Thomas Green Fessenden, 1771-1837. Orono, Maine: University of Maine Press.
- “W.” 1822. The Scarlet Tanager, New England Farmer 1 (20): 158.
- Wilson, A. 1808. American Ornithology. Philadelphia, PA: Bradford and Inskeep.
Peter W. Oehlkers is chair of the Communications Department at Salem State University and vice chair of Needham’s Conservation Commission. He manages nesting boxes and monitors grassland birds for the Trustees of Reservations at Charles River Peninsula and other properties. Peter is the Production Editor of Bird Observer.