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Birds And Agriculture

( Originally Published 1915 )

Bird Study Not a Fad.—Many people consider bird study a fad but scientists have long ago placed it beyond that. They have proven that the value of birds to the agriculturist and horticulturist is almost beyond calculation. It is estimated that the people of the United States lose annually $850,000,000 by injurious insects. The average farmer loses about one-tenth of his products; that is, if a farmer produce $1000 worth of crops, he pays $100 to feed the insects. The chinch bugs destroy over $100,000,000, the grasshoppers $90,000,000, the potato bug $8,000,000, the cabbage worm $5,000,000, the codling moth $30,000,000, and the loss from other insects and weeds on which the birds feed is enormous. Longfellow has given us a picture of what a dreary and barren place this world would be were it not for our helpers, the birds :

The summer came and all the birds were dead;
The days were like hot coals; the very ground
was burned to ashes; in the orchard fed
Myriads of caterpillars, and round
The cultivated fields and garden beds
Hosts of devouring insects crawled, and found
No foe to check their march, till they had made
The land a desert without leaf or shade.

This you say is just a flight of the imagination, but I answer that its truth is equal to its poetry and I will prove that to you by doing as Professor Brunner did for Nebraska. I will take the single State of Iowa which has 56,000 square miles or 35,840,000 acres. There are about two and one-half birds to an acre; that gives us 89,600,000 birds in Iowa. If each bird eats 25 insects or insect eggs per day—a very low average, as I will prove later—we have 2,240,000,000 insects destroyed daily in Iowa alone. One hundred and twenty thousand miscellaneous insects fill a bushel basket, and by division we find that our Iowa birds destroy 18,666 bushels of insects each day for the 150 days that they are with us. Think if you can of what would happen if " summer came and all the birds were dead."

Classification According to Food Habits.—As to their food habits birds may be grouped under one or more of three classes : (1) Insectivorous birds, such as wrens, vireos, warblers, swifts, martins, swallows, fly catchers, night hawks, whip-poor-wills, wood-peckers, etc. (2) Hard billed birds, or seed eaters, are represented by the sparrows, finches, etc. (3) Birds of prey include the owls and hawks. A fourth class is sometimes given to include those birds that are both seed and insect eaters, such as thrushes, orioles, meadow-larks, grossbeaks, quails, etc.

How Much Do Birds Eat?—How much do birds eat? Robert Kennicott found that a single pair of house wrens carry to their young each day as many as 1000 insects and insect-eggs. Owen fed a hermit thrush half its weight of beefsteak per day and the young thrush thrived and asked for more. Weed and Dearborn observed an old pair of robins for two hours, during which time they brought to their young 1 cherry, 1 cricket, 1 cater-pillar, 1 moth, 1 harvest man, 1 tumble bug, 2 earthworms, 2 carabid beetles, 29 grasshoppers, and 8 small insects, or animals thought to be spiders. Nash fed a young robin from 50 to 75 cut-worms each day for over two weeks. A family of young sparrows received, in sixty-seven minutes, 7 grasshopper nymphs and 2 spiders. Four chipping sparrows devoured 37 grasshoppers in less than one and one-half hours. Professor Brunner tells us there were found in the stomach of one quail the remains of 101 potato beetles, and in another 500 chinch bugs. The stomachs of four chickadees contained 1028 eggs of the canker worm. The stomach of a cuckoo, killed at six o'clock in the morning, contained 43 tent caterpillars. A single pair of tent caterpillars, with their young, eat from 10,000 to 12,000 apple tree leaves each season. The stomach of one robin contained the larvae of 175 bibio. These facts, with the fact that the young of most birds consume an average of over 25 insects each per day, are not exaggerations (Fig. 89).

Birds and Weeds.—Besides the benefit bestowed upon man by the destruction of insects, the birds help him in his war upon weeds. Rarely do we have enough water in our cultivated fields to give us a maximum crop. It takes about 500 pounds of water to mature one pound of dry matter of grain or weed seed. Then, too, the United States Department of Agriculture has discovered that one reason why our soils are so lacking in productivity is that the plants secrete a poison for their kind. Some weeds secrete a poison for cultivated crops. I have figured, upon the basis of data given by Professor Beal, to the effect that many sparrows are found with stomachs entirely filled with weed seed, which rate would equal an average per bird of more than one-fourth of an ounce of weed seed per day. From this I find that our Iowa birds consume 1,750,000 pounds, or 875 tons of weed seed each winter. Beal and Dearborn watched a nest of young goldfinches. At the age of one week, more seeds than the product of one bull thistlehead were fed to them each meal. They were fed on an average every half hour. That makes not less than thirty thistle-heads consumed by this single nest each day.

Is the Number of Our Birds Decreasing?—If so, then much of our fruit growing, gardening and farming is doomed. Whether the birds of the United States are decreasing or not is a hard matter to determine, for with the opening of each new home a place is furnished for a few pair that used to frequent the homes of the older settlers. As each new fruit patch comes into bearing a few birds make it their home. We have taken a bird census at Humboldt College each year for the past five years. We find about twenty-five birds' nests in the trees on the college 80 acres and see no reason to think that there are less than that number in the grass and about the pond below. That would make the estimate of two and one-half to the acre rather high were it not for the fact that fewer birds frequent places where there are so many people, but abound near timber land, brooks and meadows.

Even this reasoning leads us to believe that our birds are decreasing proportionately to the number of fields and fruit patches to keep clean. This belief is deepened when we realize the awful slaughter that goes on in many quarters, especially in the south where the birds winter.

Many colored people and the " poor whites " of the South, and the numberless " foreigners " of the North eat birds of nearly every known species as often as they can get them. From his remote ancestors, who were in a fierce struggle with the animals around them, the boy inherits a tendency to kill and to destroy; at first to destroy eggs and tear nests to pieces and later to shoot at every moving object. Then his sister, who inherits from her remote ancestors a love for personal adornment, especially by means of feathers and animal skins, induces the boys and older men to offer in the millinery markets millions of birds and bird skins each season. A number of dealers report that their purchases each year are from forty to fifty thousand birds and bird skins each. Someone has pointed out how all this destruction could be saved by a few minutes spent in bird study each spring in our public schools. What an argument for those who advocate elementary agriculture in the public schools; and their argument is backed by the fact that, in small towns where bird study has been a regular part of the school course, the mil-liners refuse to carry hats adorned with birds because the demand is so small that there is nothing to be made in such stock. In many places the predatory tendencies of the boys have been taken hold of and organized. Boys' leagues have been formed for the protection of birds, and contests have been held where the prize went to the boy giving evidence of knowledge of the largest number of birds hatched and reared to the age where they could fly forth in quest of food and shelter. The Good Book tells us " To have dominion over them," and yet here is man after all the ages an abject slave to his appetites and his debasing instincts; and here is organized society hiring men called police to keep boys from doing mischief instead of hiring educational leaders to get boys to do helpful things. During this summer vacation millions of souls will be degraded, and millions of depredations will be committed, because we hire police to spy and suppress instead of educators to lead child activity.

How to Increase the Number of Our Birds.—If our bird population is to increase it is necessary for man to cease to destroy and " right about face " and help the birds in their strugglewith their enemies. Each cat is said to destroy an average of fifty birds' nests each season. This necessitates that kitty be caged during the nesting season of the birds. Some birds destroy the more useful birds or their nests. This enables the young lad with his gun to go forth to battle for his loved birdie as did the knight of old. While he is out he may make war on all English sparrows, some hawks, crows, blackbirds, red squirrels, etc., which he should have learned in his school to classify as among the harmful birds and animals. But we must not be too positive on this point, for some birds are harmful in one locality and not in another, and in some seasons and not in others. In the main, the presence of a given bird argues for the presence of some insect that constitutes its favorite food or the favorite food for its young. While this may be true, some birds do much more harm than good and hence should be exterminated, or held in check until needed.

But we must do more than to save the birds from their animal enemies. They are destroyed in vast numbers by storms. They may die from lack of food in March and November and during winter snowstorms, or from lack of water during the cold periods. If the boys learn in school what kind of houses are preferred (Fig. 90) by the different kinds of birds, or if they learn the food habits of different birds, the boys may find pleasure in spending some of the time that is now wasted on the streets in building bird-houses or in providing food and water. Both boys and girls may be led to enjoy tying pieces of meat, suet, soup bones with marrow in them, and other articles of food in the trees of the orchard. This will insure the birds frequenting the orchard where, every time they come, they will spend a few minutes looking for injurious insects. But it is worth while placing food there just for the pleasure of helping the lovely little creatures and of having them with us or near us.

A man is a fool who plants a cherry tree for himself and neglects to plant a cherry or mulberry tree for his bird friends, for if the birds do not take his cherries the insects will. Birds prefer wild fruit, and in most cases will not bother cultivated fruit where there is plenty of wild fruit within reasonable distance.

Says Dr. Schmucker, in his interesting chapter on birds in " The Study of Nature " : " Few sides of nature study will have a more distinct value than the work in favor of the active protection of the birds. To teachers who have a particular fondness in this direction, the Audubon Society will appear especially attractive. Membership in it is inexpensive and gives one the sense of helping on a good work. Its motto, ` A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand,' is a pleasant reversal of the old notion. The great work of this society is to foster a love for the bird world and to prevent the destruction of the birds, either wantonly or for use as ornaments for hats. To those who care for feathers on their hats, the Audubon rule suggests that we wear no feathers except those of the ostrich, whose life is preserved for the sake of his feathers, or of our common domestic fowls, which are killed for the sake of their flesh and whose feathers consequently have not caused their destruction. If there is one feather which makes a bird-lover more sad to see than another it is the `aigrette' ; that is to say, the great plumes of the male white heron. The demand of fashion has nearly exterminated this bird, and when the society had a law passed protecting the egret, as this bird is called, and sent a man to be bird warden along the coast of Florida where this bird breeds, this warden, an earnest and intelligent bird-lover, was shot to death, presumably by the plume-hunters. It seems as if only ignorance of this fact could excuse one for wearing these feathers, for, beautiful and attractive as they certainly are, it is beauty purchased too dearly."

We Need to Know More: Perhaps I have written as though much about birds and bird life is known, but such is not the case. We are just beginning to know the beautiful creatures that give us our symbols for angels. Few men, even among those who pass for well-informed men, can name or classify one-half of the birds which they see on a warm day in April. Still fewer of us can tell whether a bird at which we are looking is beneficial or injurious, and just how it helps or injures. A bird chart giving the time that the bird appears in the spring, the food that it is seen eating, the place for any kind of nest that it makes, etc., makes a valuable chart for the school-room or page for a bird booklet. Some bright-eyed child in our public school is going to see something this season, and see it a little clearer, and be able to tell it a little more interestingly than others have done. What a loss if the school, the community and his country fail to get his contribution ! " A little child shall lead them," and we shall be " laborers together with God."

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