August 2017

Vol. 45, No. 4

Bird Sermons: Thomas Green Fessenden and the New England Farmer (1822–1846)

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.
(“Amicus” 1826)

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!
(Fessenden 1829)

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.

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