April 17, 1910, was a Sunday. If, on that day, you sat down with a copy of the New York Times and flipped to page 6, you would have seen the following:
BIRD-LIFE TRAGEDY IN PROSPECT PARK; Hermit Thrush, Rarest of Songsters, Slain by the Bloodthirsty Northern Shrike.LURED TO DEATH BY SONGVictim’s Own Sweet Melody Imitated by the Murderers — Sentenced to be Shot on Sight.
“A tragedy of bird life has upset the colony of feathered folk in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, for the great northern shrike, which appeared in the park last Winter on a trip down from Canada, has murdered the little hermit thrush, sole fellow of his kind, and the most highly prized songster in the colony.”
(if you have a .pdf reader installed, you can get the rest of the article here.)
An alert reader will first notice that the 1910 Times used thirty-five words to get across the same idea that the 2008 Post would have summed up with the headline CHEEP TRICK. But besides that, there are a couple of interesting details.
First, the anthropomorphism. On beyond the “murder” thing, the shrike is described as a “cannibal” multiple times in the article, in defiance of the fact that Shrikes and Thrushes are, in fact, two different sorts of bird altogether and that the one eating the other has about as much to do with cannibalism as the packet of soup bones in my freezer does. These days, this much is evident to six year olds and Creationists. Indeed, I feel rather foolish even pointing it out. It is hard for the modern reader not to suspect that the journalist responsible for this piece was not being just a little bit tongue-in-cheek. However, assuming that said author was not some member of a cult that makes a month-long celebration of April Fool’s Day, the Park Superintendent’s decision to have the Shrike shot speaks to a very surprising standard of wildlife management ethics.
But beyond that – in Brooklyn of the twenty-aughts, the Hermit Thrush is by no means “the rarest of songsters.” A day with a Hermit Thrush sighting in Prospect Park is a nice but relatively ordinary day. A sighting of a Northern Shrike, however, would get the mailing lists jumping. Has the Thrush’s population improved that much, or is its toleration for people and noise grown better (as seems to be the case with the Cooper’s Hawk)? Or is it merely that in these days of modern field guides and high-tech optics, we actually know a Hermit Thrush when we see one?
Things have improved for birders in Brooklyn since 1910. In some ways, they have even improved for Brooklyn’s birds – especially predatory birds, who for the most part no longer incur the wrath of the Parks Department just by getting dinner. But note the end of the article, and the touching story of how a mystery bird was identified for a local naturalist by a homesick German emigrant.
Yes, in 1910 it was entirely possible to do a year list in Prospect Park and not know what a Europen Starling was. That’s why they call it “the good old days”.