Birds As Insect Destroyers

The farmer has no greater enemy to his crops and to his consequent well-being than the obnoxious insect, and there is seldom one which does not retard some form of vegetable life if allowed to flourish unchecked. Consequently certain varieties of the feathered tribe are the farmers’ most useful friends; which they are, and what kind of obnoxious insects are their specially favored diets are thus told by 0. M. Schantz, president of the Illinois Audubon Society: “It is with very mixed feelings that I come to this meeting of the State Farmers’ Institute to talk to the people of southern Illinois about birds. I am not a farmer and do not belong to this part of the country, but my wife was born in Carbondale and my mother-in-law in Metropolis, and I have heard of southern Illinois ever since I married into this interesting family of which I am a member. [Applause.] “The State of Illinois is 378 miles long in its greatest length and 210 miles wide. Owing to its length and its peculiar position, it has almost as great a range of climatic influences, geographical influences, and so on, as any State in the Union. Therefore, its flora and fauna, its animal and vegetable life are extremely varied. The northern part is entirely different in its geography and its animal life from the southern part. By its location, part of it touching Lake Michigan and the rest of it being tributary to the great Mississippi Valley, except for the water fowl of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, more migratory birds pass through the Mississippi Valley than through any other part of the United States. “In the consideration of a question of so great importance to the Illinois farmer as the relation of birds to farm economy, it is very necessary to make clear in the most direct manner possible, just how and why the farmer is to be benefited. “The proper time to plant, seasonable weather during the growing season and also for the harvesting of crops, are, naturally, the most evident factors in successful farming. “The old-fashioned, unprogressive farmer gave little thought to other and less noticeable handicaps, such as plant diseases and the myriads of insects that were the natural enemies of both his fruit and cereal crops. With the rapid increase in the value of farm lands, the competition for markets, and so forth, it has become absolutely necessary for a farmer to know every factor that may enter farm economy, or he fails to win out. “The lax use of powers of observation is rapidly disappearing, and today our farmers are growing more ajid more alive to the fact that a knowledge of scientific farming is the only way to make 150 to 250 acres yield a profit. “The agricultural colleges of many states, and the Federal Department of Agriculture, have for many years past conducted most exhaustive research as to the losses due to noxious insects, and the most effective means of curtailing these losses. “We have, by cultivation and removal of forests, disturbed the natural balance of nature. Some of the changes have been beneficial, others very harmful. We have made conditions extremely favorable for the rapid increase of certain noxious insects. Insect life increases at such an incredible rate that with no check of any kind everything green would soon disappear, and in a short time the land would be uninhabitable. “On the other hand, it is a well known fact that certain of our most useful birds increase as a result of the settlement of land. “Many birds are very tolerant of man, if reasonably protected and allowed to rear their young undisturbed. “In the earlier years of the settlement of the country there did not exist the same need for watchfulness that is necessary today. “The problem of adequate food supply for the world is a part of the problem of the United States. One hundred years ago, very few men devoted even a small portion of their time to the study of insects in their relation to the food supply, or to the careful study of birds as the most effective check on the spreading of injurious insects. Today thousands of men and women are preparing earnestly for these very important studies, and the biological departments of our colleges and universities are of the most importance and popular in all parts of the United States. “The Illinois Audubon Society was organized less than twenty years ago by a few very earnest bird lovers in Chicago. Their primary object was no doubt a humane desire to protect from destruction the many beautiful birds that came in such great numbers to the woodlands and parks in and around Chicago. The time has come when a much greater field is open for it and similar societies, for intelligent work for the protection of birds, not only for their beauty and wonderful songs, but as a vital factor in the economics of the country’s food supply. “The problem of the city bird lover is largely different from that of the farmer and the people of the smaller cities and villages. “The larger cities, particularly Chicago, are flooded with thousands of immigrants, to whom the United States means all sorts of liberty. License to kill birds, we understand, is in some parts of southern Europe held out as a great inducement to prospective emigrants in connection with cheaper living. Cheap firearms are sold everywhere, and Sundays and holidays during the summer months see each day a veritable ‘armed host’ scouring the prairies and woodlands ready to kill anything that flies. “Where transportation is cheap, these irresponsible shooters reach the farms, and not only trespass on the fields of growing grain, but shoot thousands of the farmers’ best friends, the birds, or if no birds can be found, his domestic chickens, ducks or turkeys. “The problems of Illinois are those of Iowa and the other adjoining prairie states. “No crop raised by the farmer is immune from insect foes. Many of these insects are so minute that they ordinarily escape the notice of the casual observer, yet the damage annually done on a single farm by these inconspicuous insects may run into large sums of money. “The different aphides or plant lice, whose life cycle is only a few days, increase with such astounding rapidity that the figures startle. “These soft small insects, of which thousands could be held in one’s hand, frequently cover the stems of their host plants completely. “The greatest enemy of the different aphides is the warbler family, which numbers among the twenty-five or thirty varieties that visit us many of our smallest birds. The number of insects that a pair of these little birds will consume for a single meal is almost beyond comprehension. “To better understand the ability of birds to check insects, it is necessary to know something of their marvelous powers of digestion. Birds fill themselves to running over with either weed seeds or insects so that frequently they are replete up to the bill. The process of digestion is so powerful and rapid that they can eat almost without stopping, many birds consuming an amount of food each day equal to about one-third of their own weight. “The temperature of birds and their circulation is much greater than that of other animals, consequently it is largely a matter of fuel enough to keep the machinery going properly. “Much painstaking work has been done recently in the State of Massachusetts in order to ascertain the effect that wild birds have on the awful insect pests which have become so serious a problem in that State. “While the conditions in Illinois are vastly different from those in Massachusetts, the results of the investigation should be of great interest to Illinois farmers. “It has been proven that almost without exception all birds have a good balance to their credit over and above the damage they do; that even such conspicuously aggressive birds as the bluejay, grackle and crow have a large credit in assisting to destroy both larvas and adults of the gypsy and brown-tailed moths. Such birds as feed on fruits robins, catbirds, cedar birds and others also devour enough insect pests to have the balance in their favor. “Many birds are peculiarly adapted to attend certain insects, and the birds have been very happily alluded to by one writer as the police of the orchard and garden. “The seed-eating birds, which include the sparrows and finches, destroy weeds by the million. Three mourning doves’ stomachs contained by actual count a total of 23,100 weed seeds, consumed at one meal. “All of the thrush family, of which the robin and bluebird are the best known members, are valuable insect destroyers. The flycatchers, headed by the kingbird and phoebe, and containing about eighty nearly related species, the swallows, martins, night hawks and chimneyswifts, are policemen of the air. “The towhee and many sparrows forage on the ground; the nut-hatches, woodpeckers and brown creepers take care of the trunk and branches; and the warblers and vireos examine the leaves and buds. The entire tree or shrub is thoroughly guarded. Out in the open, the meadow lark, bobolink, bobwhite, prairie chicken and many others keep tab on grasshoppers, crickets and myriads of other insects. No insect family escapes; it has an ardent, relentless foe in some bird. “Now, what is your duty to your bird friends? Make your premises attractive. Furnish bird boxes or nests; feed the birds in winter; exterminate stray cats; plant vines and shrubbery bearing fruits agreeable to birds; help to legislate against shooting; train the small boy to respect and love the birds and not to collect birds’ eggs; teach him also to shoot with a field or opera glass. If a bird helps itself to a little of your fruit, before destroying the bird look up its record and see what insects he preys upon. “Observe closely the birds at nesting time and note the tireless energy with which the young birds eat, and then do a little calculating by multiplying the number of times fed by the insects fed at a meal. “Read literature on the subject of bird conservation. Result: Sure and lasting conversion to the side of the birds. . “Scientific men look with alarm at the rapidly decreasing bird population. The rapid increase of population, encroaching more and more on the nesting places, lessens the available woodland and prairie where the birds may nest and not be disturbed. “Intelligent planting of shrubbery and vines along roadsides, as is contemplated by the Lincoln Highway movement, will in part overcome this condition. “Concerted efforts by states and at Washington for better bird protection, the education of all classes as to the beneficial part the bird has in our daily life, vigorous prosecution for violation of our present game laws, the taxing of cats, the encouragement of organizations for bird study all these are necessary and important features of the growing intelligent effort for bird conservation. “See that some one attends to the purchasing of good bird books for your public library; offer prizes to your children for best observations or well written papers about birds, their habits and usefulness these papers, or the best of them, to be published in your local paper. “There is no reason why, in this tremendous State, a powerful and concerted effort should not be made for bird conservation and protection which would place the State of Illinois in the first rank in the Union for such work. “Nowhere in the entire United States is there a greater and more interesting bird’ migration, both spring and fall, than in this State. The State’s length gives it a wonderfully interesting plant life and variety of climate. This, in part, explains its variety of bird life. “A very small sum as an individual contribution, if given by enough people, would maintain a paid expert whose duty might be that of State ornithologist. “There is a man in Massachusetts who gives his entire time and energy to this very important work, and whose book, ‘Useful Birds and Their Protection,’ is the last word in bird conservation.”

Additional Bird Websites for your perusal:

  • Birds of America Birds of America provides a detailed description of all types of birds found in North America, to include pictures, photographs, etc.
  • National Audubon Society Audubon’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.

Source: A Standard History of Champaign County, Illinois, by J. R. Stewart, published by The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago And New York, 1918.

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