It is almost spring, and so this poem seems timely:
O THE FIRST ROBIN by Louisa May Alcott
WELCOME, welcome, little stranger,
Fear no harm, and fear no danger;
We are glad to see you here,
For you sing “Sweet Spring is near.”
Now the white snow melts away;
Now the flowers blossom gay:
Come dear bird and build your nest,
For we love our robin best.
Louisa May Alcott wrote this classic welcome to the robin, and spring, at age 8, in 1840.
The poem seems sweet, celebrating the end of winter, the first flowers of spring. But: read again the second line. Why the harm, and why the danger? What threatened the poor robin? What evil lurked in the Massachusetts spring?
Alcott, it turns out, was stepping into a heated controversy. So too, a few years later, did our hero, John Whipple Potter Jenks, at the time a school teacher in Middleboro. They both fought on the side of the robin.
Farmers hated robins. “These birds are very unpopular with horticulturalists and hardly an agricultural paper can be found but that an article appears in its columns against them,” noted the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture in January 1866.
Indeed, killing robins had been quite the spring pastime in New England.
It was formerly the custom to have a shooting match on election day in May. On such an occasion in North Bridgewater, about the year 1820, a great many birds were killed, so many that a man bought them by the cart-load for the purpose of enriching his land.
They had been protected by law. In 1818, Massachusetts had made it illegal to kill “certain useful birds,” including robins, between March and July 4, and set a fine of a dollar a bird. But the battle continued. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society led the charge against the poor bird:
At a regular meeting of the Society, held January 9, 1858, … the following motion, which was laid on the table: Voted, That the President of the Society be and hereby is authorized, in behalf of this Society, to petition the Legislature at its present session for the repeal of such of the statutes and laws of this Commonwealth as prohibit the taking, killing and destroying of the bird commonly known as the robin.
Louisa May Alcott may have loved the robin, but the more serious men of the Society had their doubts. Robins were destroying the crops. They wanted the laws protecting them repealed.
Jenks, a member of the society, came to the birds’ rescue. He offered to lead a fact-finding mission, urging the Society to first learn “the habits of the robin before presenting the petition.” He undertook a scientific study. His plan:
First, to obtain birds at day-break, mid-day, and sunset.
Second, to obtain birds from both the village and the country.
Third, to preserve in alcohol the contents of each gizzard.
From March to December, almost daily, he obtained birds, sacrificed them, and examined their gizzards, to see what they had eaten. His results were decisive:
From the early part of March to the first of May, not a particle of vegetable matter was found in the gizzard of a single bird. On the contrary, insects in great variety, both as to number and kind, as well as in every variety of condition as to growth and development, were the sole food.
Jenks used his contacts in the natural history world to identify the insects. Not only were the birds not eating grain; they were eating the larva of the Bibio albipenni, a fly that caused extensive damage to many crops. “The birds were “rendering us an important service, of which we have been wholly unaware.”
Jenks was proud of this work. He concluded:
Having entered upon this investigation unprejudiced, I have only sought for the facts as observation should develop them, and these are the results to which I have arrived at no small expenditure of time and labor.
He thanked his pupils, for their help in procuring specimens, and the scientists who helped him identify the species. His investigations would continue: in France that summer, he would consult with the naturalist at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, “who has made the alimentation of birds a careful study.”
Louisa May Alcott welcomed the robin, and so did Jenks, in his own way. The modern reader is often taken aback by the blood-stained science of the 19th century naturalist. Jenks and his students killed a great many birds and animals in their work, and Jenks greatly enjoyed his hunting trips. But he had a higher aim, too: teaching and research. In this case, he also helped the robins.