U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version





The history of American ornithology may be traced back to.the middle of the sixteenth century, but the chief progress in the science has been made during the last hundred years. So assiduously have our birds been studied that the avifauna of few regions is better known than that of the Eastern United States. With the growth of ornithology, the economic relations of birds, and especially their relations to agriculture, have attracted more and more attention. During the last half century "economic ornithology" has become recognized as a special branch of the science and has undergone rapid development. The relation of birds to agriculture depends mainly on the character of their food, and this is determined in several ways: (1) By field observation; (2) by experiments on birds recently captured, and, (3) by examination of stomach contents in the laboratory—the latter the most complete and satisfactory method. Thus far, about 20,000 birds' stomachs have been examined, and data are now available for determining the extent to which a hundred or more important species are useful or injurious. The English sparrow and several hawks and owls have been condemned, but only six or eight species in all have thus far been found injurious, while several birds commonly considered injurious have been shown to be beneficial.

The harvesting and commercial utilization of bird products has been marked by great waste and a reckless disregard for the future. The game markets, the egg trade, and the millinery trade have all made heavy drafts on our native birds, and have decimated some useful or conspicuous species and forced others to the verge of extinction. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the passenger pigeon, the egrets of the South, and the terns of the Atlantic coast. Attempts are now being made to place the killing and sale of game under proper restrictions; the trade in sea birds' eggs has been curtailed, and wide publicity has been given to the enormous slaughter of birds exacted by the demands of fashion. The guano trade, which resulted in the acquisition of a number of islands whose product was valued at more than $3,000,000, is now largely a thing of the past, owing chiefly to the depletion of the deposits, although the fact that better artificial fertilizers can now be had at lower rates than natural guano is also partly responsible for this result.

Legislative measures early in the century took the form of bounty acts directed toward the destruction of birds, but most of these have now been withdrawn, except in the case of the English sparrow. Protective measures, commonly known as "game laws," have multiplied, and protection is now extended not only to game birds but also to insectivorous species and in some States to birds of prey. That these efforts have not accomplished more, is mainly because the laws have lacked uniformity and have not been properly enforced, but the last decade has certainly witnessed some progress along these lines. Efforts have also been made to supplement State laws by federal legislation restricting interstate traffic in game killed in violation of State regulations, but although several bills embodying this principle have been considered by Congress, none have as yet become laws.

Experiments in the introduction of foreign species have not met with unqualified success. English and Mongolian pheasants have been added to the list of game birds, and the European skylark, starling, and tree sparrow have gained a slight foothold in a few localities, but we havo also acquired the English sparrow, one of the worst of feathered pests.

With the present knowledge of the economic relations of birds based on thorough scientific investigation, and with the recent experience of the effects of indiscriminate slaughter and unrestricted acclimatization, there is every reason to hope that practical questions in economic ornithology will hereafter receive more careful and intelligent consideration.