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Volume 35, 1902
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Art. I.—The Bird as the Labourer of Man.

[Presidential Address to the Wellington Philosophical Society, 5th August, 1902.]

After you had done me the honour of electing me to the position of President of this Society for the current year I resolved to deal, in my opening address, with the structure and action of the geysers which form so attractive a feature of the country stretching from Tokaanu to White Island, including the Rotorua district, and incidentally with some of the remarkable features which have characterized the recent volcanic outbursts in Martinique and St. Vincent, and to again call your attention to the prime causes of all such phenomena. It may be recollected by some of you that I brought this subject before our Society in papers read during the sessions of 1877 and 1878; but the views which. I then ventured to submit were not favourably received by such of our members as claimed to possess any large degree of geological knowledge, chiefly on the ground that Sir Charles Lyell had always treated such questions as not being properly within the range of geological inquiry. It was, therefore, with no little gratification that I read the address delivered by Professor Sollas to the geological section of the British Association in 1900, in which he propounded precisely similar views, and pointed out that, at the present day, geologists are no longer justified in asserting that cosmogony is alien to geology.

But a question the proper solution of which is certainly of far greater importance to this colony has recently arisen, and

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has induced me to deal with a different and more useful practical subject—namely, whether the attempt now being made to obtain legislative authority to exterminate our small birds is justifiable or not? The title which I have given to this address is taken from a work on ornithology written by Michelet, the great French historian, who added to the distinction which he attained in that character, that of an eminent practical writer on natural history.

Those who have had the advantage of reading his work will have seen that it was specially intended to demonstrate the enormous advantages which man derives, both directly and indirectly, from the labours of the bird, and to impress upon him the fact that the wanton destruction of these beautiful and useful creatures is not only grossly cruel, but is surely followed by disaster to the destroyer; and it is my object in this address to show that, if the proposed legislation be adopted and effectively carried out, it will certainly inflict disaster not only upon those through whose ignorance and prejudices it is being promoted, but practically upon the whole population of the colony, and I cannot but think that if such a result be even possible it was incumbent upon those who are promoting it to have made careful inquiries into the grounds of objection raised against the birds before proceeding to the length now contemplated. In order, however, to deal fairly with the questions at issue it was necessary that I should first ascertain whether the proposed legislation is directed against small birds generally or against some special bird or birds; and, if the latter, then to inquire into the nature of the offences of which they or it are accused.

I have taken some pains to obtain a reply to these questions, and the common answer to the first by those who support the proposed legislation is, “the sparrow.” When asked what are the special offences for which the sparrow deserves the condign punishment intended for him, the reply is, “We are told by the farmer and the fruit-grower that he does the most serious injury to their crops without affording any compensation whatsoever for so doing”; and they add that “not only in New Zealand but in other countries he is looked upon by the farmer and the fruit-grower as an impudent thief, without a redeeming feature in his character.” Certain other birds, and especially the blackbird and green-linnet, are also looked upon as injurious, but for downright wickedness not one of them is a patch upon the sparrow.

Now, assuming that the extermination of the sparrow is really the principal object aimed at by the intended legislation, I propose to point out generally, first, the nature and extent of the injuries done to our animal and vegetable productions by insects; and, second the uses of insectivorous

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birds, and particularly the sparrow, in mitigating such injuries in this country. This subject is not new to me. Many years ago, whilst I was a member of the House of Representatives, similar charges were made against the sparrow, and my reply was as follows: “War is to be waged against the sparrows under the authority of Parliament. The following utterances show the wisdom brought to bear in discussing the question: The Hon. Mr. Chamberlain says that the hawk is the natural enemy of the sparrow, a deduction, no doubt, from the name ‘sparrow-hawk,’ applied to one species of hawk in this country; but no New Zealand hawk that I know of ever pursues a sparrow. Mr. Oliver tells us that it was a mistake to introduce the sparrow, and so does Mr. Gray. Mr. Miller says that none but the agriculturist was fit to discuss the question, and drew a comparison between the sparrow and the starling, which was about as appropriate as if he had attempted to compare the sparrow with the elephant. Mr. Acland said the sparrow did not destroy insects. Mr. Holmes read some extracts in support of his opinions against the sparrow, and I could supply him with any quantity more of the same kind, emanating from equal ignorance of the subject. It would be well if honourable gentlemen, in dealing with this question, would take the trouble to read the evidence given before a Committee of the House of Lords on the subject of sparrow clubs in England, and if they should still entertain any respect for the intelligence of that august body, they would probably be disposed to change the opinions above expressed. Not many years ago the agriculturists of Hungary succeeded in getting the sparrow proscribed by law, and he disappeared from the land. Within five years from that time the Government was compelled to spend 230,000 rix dollars in reintroducing him from other countries. In the North Island and in the northern parts of the South Island the cultivation of valuable deciduous trees was practically impossible until the large Cicada had been greatly reduced in numbers, and if Mr. Acland had seen, as I and many others have, the sparrow actively engaged in destroying these creatures and devouring them he might probably change his opinion. The nestling sparrow cannot eat hard food, and careful observation has shown that a pair of parent sparrows will bring upwards of three thousand insects to the nest in the course of a single day to feed its brood.” I notice that the same nonsense is still uttered upon the subject, whilst not a tittle of evidence is adduced in support of it.

Now, in order that we may fully understand the assistance which the bird can afford to man in the prosecution of the incessant war in which he is undoubtedly engaged against

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injurious insects, it is necessary that we should know and appreciate the strength and resources of the enemy he has to meet. To this end I purpose to call attention to the number and nature of the hosts which are always threatening the produce of our cultivations. As you are aware, all true insects are comparatively small animals belonging to the articulate sub-kingdom having the body divided into three portions, from which fact the title “insecta” has been applied to them. They are, in general, covered with a coriaceous or horny integument, serving as an external skeleton. They are capable for the most part of flight, having either two or four wings, and they usually undergo three transformations from egg to maturity. These characters may not always be evident, yet in no instance are they decidedly and truly absent. Departures in degree from a given type and modifications in the detail of structure are met with in every class of animal life, but the essentials upon which the claim of species is in any case founded remain—subject to the law of evolution—practically inviolate. As in the case of the bat, with its structure for flight, and of the whale, with its oceanic habits, these apparently abnormal habits do not remove them from among the Mammalia.

It has been said by a great entomologist that insects are Nature's favourite productions, in which, in order to manifest her skill and power, she has combined all that is either beautiful and graceful, interesting and alluring, or curious and singular in every other class of her children. To these, her valued miniatures, she has given the most delicate touch and highest finish of her pencil. Nor has she been lavish only in ornamenting these privileged tribes. In other respects she has been equally unsparing of her favours. To some she has given horns nearly the counterparts of those of various quadrupeds; some are covered with bristles, others with spines; some are of the richest hues, sparkling like the ruby, the topaz, the sapphire, and the amethyst in the rays of the sun; some gleam in polished armour—

Like some stern warrior formidably bright,

Their steely sides reflect a gleaming light;

others are dull of colour and of strange form and aspect; some resemble withered leaves or bits of stick, and find security in the resemblance.

To leap, to run, to bore into the ground or drive galleries through timber, to fly through the air, to gambol in the water and dive and swim are among the endowments of insects. Some build structures more wonderful than the pyramids; some gleam with phosphorescent radiance, and many are armed with poisonous weapons. They furnish us with silk,

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wax, honey, lac, cochineal, and the gall-nut. Some hold an important place in the Pharmacopoeia, some are eaten by various tribes of men, and multitudes furnish food to the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the air, to the reptile tribes, to the fishes, and to the more powerful of their own class.

For the purposes of this paper, however, it is only necessary to divide the whole class into those which are and those which are not injurious to man. Unfortunately, the greater number falls under the first of these distinctions, and accordingly we find that Kirby and Spence, in their charming “Introduction to Entomology,” devote no less than five entire epistles to the injuries we sustain from insects, whilst two only are sufficient to describe the benefits they yield. The former contain an appalling array; the injuries done to us in our field crops, in our gardens, in our orchards, in our woods and forests, not to mention those which attack our live-stock or our persons, are indeed well calculated to impress us with the truth of the Oriental proverb that “the smallest enemy is not to be despised.”

In relation to the numbers of insects alike in tropical and sub-arctic areas, I venture to make the following quotations: Michelet, speaking of tropical insects, says, “In these climates the insect is the greatest curse. Insects everywhere and in everything; they possess an infinity of means for attacking us; they walk, swim, glide, fly; they are in the air, and you breathe them. Invisible, they make known their presence by the most painful wounds. The hardiest of men, the buccaneers and filibusters of old. who carried on their nefarious doings chiefly within tropical areas, declared that of all dangers and of all pains they dreaded most the wounds of insects. Frequently intangible, and even invisible, they are destruction under an unavoidable form. How shall we oppose them when they make war upon us in legions? Their means of offence, too, are varied and terrible. No chirurgical implement invented by modern art can be compared with the monstrous armour of tropical insects; their pincers, their nippers, their teeth, their saws, their horns, their augurs, all the tools of combat and dissection with which they come armed to the battle, and with which they labour, pierce, cut, rend, and finely partition with skill and dexterity, are only equalled by their furious ravenousness. In those lands of fire where the rapidity of decomposition renders every corpse dangerous, where death threatens life, these terrible accelerators of the disappearance of animal bodies multiply ad [ unclear: ] infinitum. A corpse scarcely touches the earth before it is seized, attacked, disorganized, dissected. Only the bones are left. They are active hunters and insatiable gluttons. Compared

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with them, the tiger, the lion, and the vulture are mild sober, moderate creatures; for what is any of these in the presence of an insect which, in four-and-twenty hours, consumes thrice its own weight?

In temperate regions, too, the war of the insect against man is equally desperate and continuous. Not many years ago the public papers in Europe were occupied with articles expressing the most gloomy fears for the noble oak and pine forests of Germany. It was stated that millions of trees had already fallen under the insidious attacks of a minute beetle which laid its eggs in the bark, whence the larvae penetrated between the bark and the wood, destroying the vital connection between those parts, interrupting the course of the sap and inducing rapid decay and speedy death.

In the North of France the public promenades were almost everywhere shaded by avenues of noble elms. In very many cases these trees were fast disappearing before the assaults of a similar foe; and the grand old elms of the London parks were becoming so thinned that great alarm was felt, and the resources of science employed for checking the mischief. Fifty thousand trees, chiefly oaks, were similarly destroyed in the Bois de Vincennes, near Paris. In all these cases the minute but mighty agent was some species or other of beetle of the genus Scolytus. In Servia and the Banat a minute fly occurs from whose destructive assaults on cattle the inhabitants periodically suffer immense loss. A traveller arriving at Golubacs, on the Danube, thus speaks of it: “Near this place we found a range of caverns famous for producing the poisonous fly too well known in Servia and Hungary under the name of the Golubascer fly. These singular and venomous insects, some what resembling mosquitos, generally make their appearance during the first great heat of the summer in such numbers as to appear like vast volumes of smoke. Their attacks are always directed against every description of quadruped, and so potent is the poison they communicate that even an ox is unable to withstand its influence, for he always expires in less than two hours. This results not so much from the virulence of the poison as that every vulnerable part is simultaneously covered with these most destructive insects, when the wretched animals, frenzied with pain, rush wildly through the fields till death puts a period to their sufferings, or they accelerate dissolution by plunging headlong into a river.”

Perhaps worse, however, than these, or any of them, are mosquitos, which, regardless alike of tropical heat and arctic cold, swarm in countless millions under both conditions; not that their virulence or fatality equals that of the tsetse of South Africa or the zimb of Abyssinia, but because they are most universally distributed. Those, terrible as they are, are limited.

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to certain districts, but the mosquito is ubiquitous, and is everywhere a pest and torment. One needs to spend a night among mosquitos to understand what a true plague of flies is. Hundreds of travellers might be cited on the subject, and if I adduce the following testimony it is not because it is the strongest I could find, but because it is one of the most recent, and therefore least known: Mr. Atkinson, who has laid open to us the most magnificent scenery of the world, and the most inaccessible, to whom neither fearful chasms and precipices, nor boiling torrents, nor swift rivers, nor earthquakes and furious storms, nor eternal frost and snow, nor burning waterless steppes, nor robbers, nor wild beasts presented any impediment, fairly confesses his conqueror in the mosquito. The gnat alone, of all creatures, elicits from him a word of dread: he could not brave the mosquitos. Over and over he tells us in his accounts of his mountain scrambles that the mosquitos were there “in millions,” that they were “taking a most savage revenge on him for having sent his horses out of their reach,” that they were “devouring him,” that he “neither dared to sleep nor to look out,” that “the humming sound of the millions was something awful,” that he found himself “in the very regions of torment, which it was utterly impossible to endure,” that “the poor horses stood with their heads in the smoke as a protection against the pests,” and that “to have remained on the spot would have subjected' them to a degree of torment neither man nor beast could endure, so that they were obliged to retreat.” “I wish I could say,” he feelingly adds, “that we left the enemy in possession of the field. Not so; they pursued us with bloodthirsty pertinacity until we reached some open meadows, when they were driven into their fenny region by a breeze, I hope to prey on each other.”

Leaving these generalities, I will now deal shortly with the subject in its application to our own Islands. I arrived here in 1849, and first settled in Nelson. The area of land then under cultivation was small, but even at that early date most of the grains and vegetables and many of the fruits common in England and France were successfully cultivated. All, however, were subject to the attacks of injurious insects of various species, some imported and some indigenous. The large native locust, of which it is difficult at present to obtain a specimen, was then very common and very injurious, whilst grasshoppers existed in countless numbers. But the chief injury was done by various forms of Coleoptera and Lepidoptera, both foreign and indigenous. Wheat always escaped better than oats or barley,* the latter especially yielding only a very

[Footnote] * The Hessian fly had not then appeared

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casual crop. The fruit-trees, vines, currant, raspberry, and gooseberry bushes bore well, and apples of many kinds, plums, peaches, and apricots were particularly abundant and well flavoured. Hops, which have always been a specialty in Nelson, also yielded large and well-flavoured crops, and were not molested by the fly; but in the ten years during which I remained there an appreciable increase took place in the injuries caused by insects, and, although the generally dry character of the climate, especially during the summer season, was unfavourable to the development of many injurious forms, the number both of species and individuals had increased very greatly.

In 1860 I went to reside in Canterbury, which had then been settled for between eight and nine years. Its progress had been more rapid than that of either Wellington or Nelson, because its settlers had been able to obtain from both of these every form of vegetable and fruit which was suitable for cultivation within its borders. To the northward of Christchurch, around Kaiapoi and Rangiora, in the Lincoln district, and in the immediate surroundings of Christchurch, large areas had been brought under cultivation, and yielded excellent returns; but I well remember the extraordinary clouds of moths of all kinds which rose from the ground as one walked either through the tussock-covered areas or through fields of cultivated grass. In the Rangiora district trenches were often dug to intercept millions of caterpillars when marching towards growing crops, and the ravages they committed where no means of protection existed were very serious. I left Canterbury in 1867, and have ever since resided in Wellington. By that time the numbers of destructive insects in Canterbury had been greatly diminished by the constant burning of the tussock-grasses, besides which the sparrow had been introduced and had been doing his work, and I noticed that the yield of all grain-crops had increased in proportion to the increase and spread of this most valuable ally of man.

As regards Wellington, my observations have been practically restricted to the district of the Hutt. When I first went to the district the beautiful Cicada circinata existed there in immense numbers. This insect is especially destructive to fruit and other trees. It deposits its eggs in lines cut somewhat deeply upon the principal branches, and the wound thus made is never healed. Two or three years after the wound has thus been made the wounded branch is sure to break at the wounded part, and the symmetry of the tree thereby seriously affected and its growth checked. This insect is still procurable, but it found a determined and constant enemy in the sparrow, which has already made it scarce. The telegraph-poles were much frequented by them, and

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the noise they made when in great numbers was actually deafening.

As regards our ordinary cultivated plants, the agriculturist, the fruit-grower, and the gardener are at one in their complaints of the ravages committed by various forms of “insect pests,” and the language used by Mr. French in his “Handbook of the Destructive Insects of Victoria” is equally applicable to those found in this colony. There, as here, one of the principal troubles which persons engaged in the cultivation of the soil have to contend against is the existence of innumerable pests, and he points out that the time has arrived when, if the people of that colony are to fight successfully against them, united action and constant vigilance would have to be exercised, and he especially urges that knowledge must be gained by regular and unprejudiced observation and by carefully conducted experiments. As a principal means of insuring the desired balance of nature he emphasizes the necessity for preserving insect-destroying birds. He points out that to all who are engaged in either farming or fruit-growing the preservation of their useful friends, the insect-destroying birds, is of the very greatest importance. “Nature” he says, “maintains a balance between the numbers of the birds, beasts, insects, plants, &c., in any district. If by artificial means we destroy this balance, immediately intolerable numbers of some kind remain with us, and we have to expend much money and labour to rid ourselves of the swarms which Nature was ready to dispose of for us without charge.” Quoting from Mr. Tyron's valuable work on the fungus and insect pests of Queensland, where, as you know, the cattle-tick often does enormous mischief, he adds “that if the arrangements of Nature were left undisturbed the result would be a wholesome equilibrium of destruction. The birds would kill so many insects that the insects could not kill too many plants. One class is a match for the other. A certain insect was found to lay 2,000 eggs, but a single ‘tom-tit’ was found to devour 200,000 eggs in a year. A swallow devours 543 insects in a day, eggs and all. This is the whole case in a nutshell: the birds will do yeoman service and ask for no wages.” He then adds, “How and by what means is the wholesale destruction of the insectivorous birds of Victoria to be checked? This would seem to be a somewhat difficult question to answer, for have we not already game laws; but are they carried out? To secure active co-operation in the direction of the preservation of insectivorous birds we must be able to show those interested the difference between the noxious and the beneficial; to point out to those who are engaged in our great rural industries that their interest lies in uniting to maintain the balance which Nature has given

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us, and more especially to endeavour to impress upon the young people the necessity for preserving certain birds from destruction. Those unaccustomed to dissecting birds can have but a faint idea of the enormous quantity of insects which many even of the smaller birds devour, and a better acquaintance with both birds and insects would, I am sure tend to prevent the wholesale slaughter of creatures so useful.”

Let us now inquire what available force we have in this colony upon which reliance can be placed for resisting the ever-increasing army of insect enemies which threaten our field and garden crops, our orchards and fruit plantations, and our flower-beds. Apart from insect-destroying insects, such as the ichneumons, the dragon-flies, and others of the like proclivities, we have only a few insecting-eating birds, of which some are indigenous and others are imported. The indigenous birds are rarely found outside the native bush, and are now very few in number. In my garden there are two or three pairs of fantails, which are always diligent in the pursuit of food. The seagulls do much to lessen the number of destructive larvae by following the plough in the extensive cultivations along the seaboard of the South Island. Of the imported birds, the white-eyed Zosterops, the blackbird, and the thrush feed upon animal food throughout the winter, but will certainly, unless prevented, take any opportunity presented to them of attacking fruit in its season. The thrushes have kept my garden free from the snail, which does mischief to the young forms of certain classes of plants; but both these birds confine themselves to the neighbourhood of plantations. The starling ranges the pastures, but does not, so far as my observation has gone, take any part in clearing the crops of grain, corn, and pulse of the insects which attack them. We are reduced, then, to the sparrow, including the recently introduced hedge-sparrow, a most valuable bird, which alone are left to protect us from the horde of insects that attack everything we grow. I keep a brigade of them, to which I give a certain amount of daily food, not sufficient, however, to diminish their diligence in the search for insects. I see the work they do in this respect. I see them during the breeding-season each day carrying hundreds of insects to their young, which could not live on any other form of food. I see my garden crops kept fairly free from injurious insects by their means and theirs only, and I do not grudge them the modicum of fruit which they take in its season. I see how difficult it is to raise fruit in this country owing to the absence of the ordinary natural checks upon the increase of the insects which prey upon it. Nature,

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we know, delights in preserving a due balance between the various forms of life, whether animal or vegetable; but man, in his ignorance and wilfulness, is constantly interfering with natural operations, often falsely attributing the evil which results to anything but his own shortsightedness and folly-Hence the proposed legislation.

I will now conclude this address by quoting a passage from Michelet's work, which will show you that ignorance and selfishness are not new characteristics of the farmer. “The miserly agriculturist,” he says, “is the accurate and forcible expression of Virgil. Miserly and blind in truth, for he proscribes the birds which destroy insects and protects his crops. Not a grain will he spare to the bird which during the winter hunts up the future insect, seeking out the nest of the larvae and daily destroying myriads of future depredators, but sacks of corn to the adult insect and whole fields to the grasshoppers, which the bird would have combated! With his eyes fixed on the furrow, on the present moment, without foresight, deaf to the grand harmony which no one ever interrupts with impunity, he has everywhere solicited or approved of laws for suppressing the much-needed assistance of his labour, the insect-destroying bird. And the insects have avenged the bird, as we have seen it become necessary in many cases to recall in all haste the banished. In the Island of Bourbon, for example, a price was set on each martin's head. They disappeared, and the grasshoppers took possession of the island, devouring, extinguishing, burning up with harsh acridity all that they did not devour. The same thing occurred in North America with the starling, the protector of the maize. The sparrow even, which attacks the grain, but also defends it—the thieving, pilfering sparrow, loaded with so many insults and stricken with so many maledictions—it has been seen that without his aid Hungary would have perished, that he alone could wage the mighty war against the cockchafers and the myriad-winged foes which reigned in the low-lying lands. His banishment was revoked and this courageous militia hastily recalled, which, though not strictly disciplined, became none the less the salvation of the country.”