Monday, January 18, 2010

Burgess shoots a chickadee

As a youth Thornton Burgess was an enthusiastic hunter and fisher. His interest in hunting would wane as he got older, though he remained an avid fisherman to the end. In his autobiography, he notes that his first-hand knowledge of nature was largely obtained while hunting--you need to know your prey in order to "outwit it and kill it."

Here's the turning point, dramatized. He had just received a "long-wanted bow gun."
Proudly I sallied forth to hunt. I shot a chickadee. Poor little Tommy Tit! I still see him held out in a grimy hand for Mother to look at, the mighty hunter flushed with pride at this proof of his markmanship, while tears slowly welled from his eyes because Tommy's bright little eyes were dimmed forever, his cheery voice still, and his busy little wings quiet. (p. 16)

He reflects
I think even then I loved the chickadee and that is why tears washed away pride. Today I love this little bird above all others. Through the years I have sought to expiate that tragic shot of long ago by striving to teach children to love and protect our feathered friends and those in fur. The living thing is a source of constant pleasure and interest. Both end with the death of the subject (p.16).

It is sinful to shoot a chickadee. This is an idea that had other adherents in the literary/naturalist world of Burgess's era.
See this excerpt from an 1874 story in St. Nicholas ("The Chickadees" by Harvey Wilder)

The strongest argument against shooting them is that they are "useful birds" (perhaps the MOST useful birds, according to Forbush)

It is generally forgotten that the initial impetus for feeding chickadees was not to "help them" (a silly notion except on the iciest of days) but to attract them to orchards so they could eat insects and insect eggs. (A hunk of fat tied to a tree branch would do).

The "usefulness" of birds in general (a rhetorical tact that I plan to discuss more fully later) is dramatized in this remarkable children's book by Frances Margaret Fox

Farmer Brown shoots a wren and the birds hold a trial. The initial sentence--"peck out his eyes"--is softened to "leave Farmer Brown's farm forever." Without birds to control insects, Farmer Brown's life is effectively ruined.

A second, more common, appeal is simply that shooting a chickadee is like shooting a friend. Here's an excerpt from a 1902 story by William J. Long

Chickadees are a sociable species, with remarkably complex communication behaviors, and will extend their networks to include humans. A common mode of contact is hand-feeding. (See this low res image from Burgess's Stories of Wildlife newspaper feature). Once the chickadee is a friend shooting it is unimaginable.

In the Burgess stories it is Tommy Tit who convinces the other animals that Farmer Brown's Boy is harmless and to be trusted.


Indeed, Burgess's stories became a more general tool in the campaign against non-game hunting (with game hunting, things become much more complex). By personalizing animals he opens the door to imagined socio-emotional relationships with them.

A family story: My mother tells me that when the boys in her northern Wisconsin one-room school began shooting animals with their BB guns, her teacher pulled out the Burgess stories and read them to the class. Apparently they were effective.

Tomorrow: Burgess meets William Hornaday

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