It is common knowledge that when Europeans arrived in this country
there were flocks of birds in the millions that would blacken the sky
for several days, on their annual migrations. In New England, within
forty years after settlement, Josselyn points out the loss of great
numbers of fowl and the absence of the great flocks, but it was only a
hint of things to come.
The abundance and later remarkable decrease of species made its first
impact among the game birds, initially taken by individuals for local
consumption and later by market hunters, for wider distribution,
sometimes even as far as Europe. Later, the export included skins and
feathers, expanding the numbers of species diminished. The use of guns,
supplied by the newcomers to native Americans, added to the loss. In
this, the work of ornithologists or naturalists should not be overlooked
although one might think the numbers minimal.
The collection of species as individuals, pairs, and especially eggs,
were in the millions with the help of native Americans schooled by
Smithsonian agents, such as Robert Kennicot, under direction of Spencer
Baird, Secretary of the Institute and others.
The takings expanded into areas not yet populated, reaching into the
Yukon, as far as the Arctic Ocean. It accessed all but the most remote
places and hunters were met by animals with no experience of man as
predator. The killing and collecting by trained natives continued after
the exit of the scientists. In northern Canada, in one year, there was
an estimated taking of thirty million bird eggs, according to Debra
Lindsay (The Modern Beginnings of Subarctic Ornithology 1991)
The first compilation and analysis of this pattern was written in
1910 by Edward Howe Forebush, (History of the Game Birds. Wild- Fowl and
Shore Birds). It was a time when efforts were being made to protect
species, but these efforts, as Forebush points out, were being opposed
“by certain interested individuals,” with the plea that “these birds are
not decreasing in numbers and need no further protection.” He recounts
again and again, the devastation of flocks beyond necessity or
capability of utilization.
Guns with nine barrels were produced, killing and maiming hundreds of
birds with a single volley, and hunting party members returned with
thousands of birds at the end of a single day. This useless killing was
noted also in the journals of Lewis and Clark, (1805) where it is
mentioned that the hunters in the party killed many more animals and
birds than needed, which disgusted Clark.
Time has shown too well that Forebush was right and the opposers of
protection were foolhardy and will be so, until the last of numerous
species are no more.
Remarkably, this group thinks of itself as “the first true
environmentalists,” a phrase often used in newspaper ads.
William T. Hornaday, who headed the New York Zoological Society wrote
scathing articles in the New York Times (1914) about the groups formed
after a Bill protecting wildlife had passed through the Congress and
warned that they would bring the loss of whole species, through
empty-headed selfishness. In an article, “The Duck Hunting Racket,” Nash
Buckingham named patrons of illegal duck bootleggers including senators,
diplomats, financial and social leaders in the nation’s capital.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The knowledge and study of birds for uses other than a food source,
was very late in its development.
As this is written, the migration patterns of the Tundra swan, (a
large, white species that has been known since Colonial days,) are being
studied in the Great Lakes area and funded in Canada by American
taxpayer money. One has to wonder how much we have learned, outside of
laboratory biological data, and how much redundancy is employed in these
studies, with purpose- made limited results assuring further funding.
One wonders too, who the bad guys are, although in the case of the
Tundra studies, the hunters and the grant-receiving organizations are
one and the same.
The first government report on bird census in the United States was
done for the US Department of Agriculture by the Bureau of Biological
Survey. It resulted from a request to the general public in 1914, asking
their assistance because of “the importance of birds to agriculture and
to ascertain what effect the laws had already had on the bird life in
the country.” It was printed in 1923, five years after the Migratory
Bird Treaty Act had been put in place and requested information on the
“number, distribution, and relative abundance of the breeding birds of
the United States.”
The result, in a nutshell, was less than adequate. “Only tentative
statements are possible regarding the individual species, and only
tentative statements are possible regarding the relative abundance of a
few of the most common species.” The counts in 1914- 1915 showed
slightly over one pair of birds to the acre on farmland north of
Maryland and east of Kansas. The image of millions of birds filling the
sky was by then only a memory.
The “management” of our natural resources, animals, birds, air,
water, has played a destructive role in the loss of great bodies of
water, such as the Chesapeake Bay, which suffered phosphorous bomb
testing in the 1920s; dumping by paper companies and other industry; the
development of its shoreline, with accompanying overfertilization and
thus runoff and pollutants from pig and chicken farms right on the shore
adding to that massive mix. Birds by the thousands have been killed by
these pollutants for almost a hundred years and the causation continues,
The fossils of sabre tooth tigers have been found here.
Hunting is not the only killing tool utilized, however. Poisons are
widely used by agents of the Department of Agriculture, APHIS, and by
Wildlife Services and ordinary people are now destroying harmless
animals for fees.
Who are these people, who can be so callous as to kill an entire
family of raccoons at the behest of a recently relocated city family who
finds them a nuisance?
Who counts the “non-targeted” species killed by poisons? Songbird
population loss is at an all time high and is coincidental to the
spraying for killing mosquitoes.
Cormorants, red winged black birds, robins, cardinals, many of our
favorite birds are now killed to accommodate fishermen and farmers. The
pitiful story of our beautiful Canada Geese is wellknown and continues.
Such is the management of our federal and state agencies. A revision of
the regulations and qualifications for employment is needed.
Today, the federal government wants to reverse the Endangered Species
Act (see minutes of the Environmental Committee, US Senate, 2004) and
has already greatly weakened the Migratory Bird Treaty Act through what
Sen. Joseph Leiberman calls “an illegal act” in the Congress, passed
with only a committee vote, not votes by the full House and Senate.
How can this happen? Because no one knew about it.
What we can do:
· We have the power of the vote, as that great grass roots group,
Stop Killing the Doves proved in Michigan.
· Network with everyone you know and build email lists. Contact
your representatives at home and in Washington.
· Start campaigning now, to stop this almost four-hundred year
open-season on the resources of America.
The author may be contacted at [email protected]