Insect-Eating & Game Birds
Farmers desired quail and songbirds on their land because they ate crop-destroying insects. Crops were damaged by numerous insect infestations as man-made efforts at control proved relatively ineffective. Farmers battled a chinch bug infestation in the Midwest in the mid 1930s with crop rotation and the burning of winter cover in fence rows and field edges. (5) They likewise fought army worms by burning fence rows and by ringing affected fields with shallow, plowed trenches. Farmers either filled these trenches with coal oil or dragged poles through them, pulverizing the soil into a dust which trapped the worms. The farmer then had the option of letting the worms remain to die in the dust or again drag the pole through the trench to crush the invaders. (6) They encountered additional problems with grasshoppers, hessian flies and, in 1936, cicadas which people believed would kill trees used as egg depositories. (7) Chemical companies offered products to combat these insects. One poison, "paris green," when mixed with rolled oats could be broadcast on fields or applied directly to affected plants as a powder, or in suspension as a spray. Manufacturers also made available arsenate of lead, dry line sulfur and arsenate of calcium. (8) Farmers however, found these products costly and their application time consuming. Insectivorous birds provided a no-cost solution to the problem of insect and worm pests.
Farmers favored quail over all other birds. Federal and state law already afforded protection to songbirds by the 1930s, but insect-eating quail remained classified as game birds. Hoosier hunters, including farmers, also valued quail for hunting sport and dining pleasure. This dual value led to concerted effort on the part of farmers, sportsmen and the Indiana Department of Conservation to promote and maintain an abundant quail population. The I. D. O. C. had been propagating these birds on the state's two game farms, Jasper-Pulaski and Brown County, for many years. Working through local conservation clubs, they released over 50,000 quail annually by 1936. (9) A 1934 effort by grain elevator operators, sportsmen and farmers provided grain screenings for distribution to permanent feeding stations during the winter months. (10) Some farmers kept track of the quail coveys on their land and provided winter feed of oats, wheat, and/or cracked corn along with cover in the form of brush piles and corn shocks. (11)
The extent to which farmers involved themselves in these conservation-related activities is difficult to determine. However, the I. D. O. C. files, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, contain numerous references to farmer involvement in the feeding and care of game birds. Certainly individual farmers acted on their own in this regard, but coordinated activity probably resulted from programs carried out through local conservation clubs. The planting of game birds by one such club illustrates this connection. In 1934, the members of the Ferdinand Fish and Game Club requested, and received, quail from the I. D. O. C. after having identified fifty-one places where shelters would be built to provide cover for the birds. These sites had been selected by Boy Scouts and farmers, likely on property owned by the farmers themselves. (12) In another local conservation club, farmers made up half of the membership. Of the sixty-seven members attending the 1936 annual banquet of the Washington Township Fish and Game Association of Hamilton County, as many as thirty-four were engaged in farming. (13) While not all areas of the state exhibited this level of inclusiveness in farmer/conservation activity, the participation of Indiana's agriculturists is well documented.
A few farmers pushed for legislation to place quail on the songbird list, thereby affording the species full protection from hunting. They also talked, in the early 1930s, of instituting a five-year moratorium on quail hunting. (14) Most farmers, however occasionally enjoyed a quail dinner and so opposed these ideas. At times they mounted local efforts to keep urban sportsmen from hunting the birds. Aldo Leopold, early ecologist and wildlife manager, surveyed the game situation in the Midwest during the late 1920s and estimated that over thirty percent of farmers posted their land as off limits to urban hunters. As well as posting their land with "NO HUNTING" signs, some farmers placed notices in local newspapers declaring certain farms to be off limits to hunters. (15) Farmers readily acted upon their desire to sustain a quail population in the Hoosier countryside.
The Department of Conservation introduced two game bird species to Indiana in the early twentieth century--the Hungarian partridge and the ring-necked pheasant. They planted partridge in various parts of the state from 1907-10 with little success, but a favorable year in 1929 resulted in an established population, especially in the northern plains. (16) The I. D. O. C. brought these birds to Indiana to appease urban sportsmen, but farmers also enjoyed hunting them. As Kenneth Kunkel, Director of the Division of Fish and Game described them, "the Huns are swift fliers, hardy, tasty and furnish great sport." (17) Notwithstanding the few incidents where farmers reported the "Huns" hogging corn and eating tomatoes, the birds were well liked by all hunters. (18)
Hunters revered pheasants even more as game birds. The I. D. O. C. also successfully established a population of these colorful Asian imports in 1929, and farmers played a significant role in helping them thrive. Pheasant eggs proved difficult to hatch using the unevenly heated coal oil-fired incubators of the day. To secure a better return on eggs purchased, the Department of Conservation distributed some of the eggs to conservation clubs that in turn secured the aid of local farmers, who put them under setting hens. When the eggs hatched, farmers usually returned the young pheasants to the clubs for rearing to release age. After release in the local area, some farmers took an interest in the young birds, watching over the flocks and even providing food during harsh winter weather. (19) Farmers helped in this endeavor primarily for the enjoyment of seeing the birds and for the opportunity to hunt them in the winter. Given the fact that ring-necked pheasants preferred grain over insects as food, these actions demonstrate the depth of desire on the part of the state's farmers to integrate these birds into the Hoosier landscape. The I. D. O. C. sometimes used ring-necked pheasants to appease farmers. After a 1934 meeting with disgruntled farmers near Haysville and Celestine, Arthur Shuring of the Division of Fish and Game wrote to his supervisor requesting that fifty pheasants be released in each place saying, "farmers want them." (20)
Indiana also possessed prairie chickens and waterfowl in the early 1930s, albeit in limited numbers. Prairie chickens appeared in a few areas of the northern plains counties in 1929, where they occasionally died after flying into telephone or electric fence wires. (21) In Indiana, the draining of wetlands for agricultural production altered the flyways of many waterfowl species. Hoosiers drained the last major remnant of the flyway, the Kankakee Marsh in northwestern Indiana, during the late 1920s. (22) In addition to habitat loss, professional market hunting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributed mightily to the declining waterfowl population. Hoosiers sometimes spotted waterfowl during the spring and fall migrations, but this was the exception rather than the rule. As a boy growing up on a farm in Jennings County, Bob Euler recalled that some ducks would land on their pond and that a goose touching down was unusual. When this did occur, young Euler immediately ran for his shotgun and bagged the unlucky fowl. (23) An article in the 1936 Noblesville Ledger summed up the waterfowl situation. The editor, reporting that one of the area farmers had called in the sighting of a northbound flock of ducks, noted that this was a sure sign of spring "for those who believe in such things." (24) The ducks and geese flying over Indiana seem to have been few and far between.
Two separate roosts of herons lived in Clinton and Henry counties. The farmer who owned the wood lot containing the Clinton County colony of eight or nine nests reported that the herons had roosted in the same grove of trees for twenty years. He worried because his pigs, fenced in the grove, ate the young birds that fell out of the nests. He feared that the pigs would enjoy this bird meal so much that they would become a threat to his chickens. (25) After a local woman visited the site to confirm the existence of these unusual birds, she wondered why the state levied fines for harming herons. Realizing this safeguarding status denoted value of some sort she queried, "I wonder why they are so carefully protected. Are they fit to eat?" (26)
Indiana's agriculturists considered some birds to be pests. Crows and hawks topped the list of problem birds with sparrows close behind. Some farmers also expressed concern over pigeons, starlings and blue jays. They took decisive action against the first three.
Crows existed in record numbers during the early 1930s. The crow problem faced by Indiana farmers was not unlike that found in other parts of the country. In Colorado, in 1936, crows nesting along a seventy-two mile stretch of telephone line continually disrupted service when scrap wire used in their nests came in contact with company wires. (27) A study conducted by Aldo Leopold in 1929 found numerous permanent crow roosts in the Hoosier state, each containing over 1000 birds. (28) Troy Dougherty of Johnson County remembered crows flying overhead for an hour each evening as they headed to their roosting places. (29) Farmers reported considerable crop destruction caused when crows pulled up young corn stalks to eat the seed kernel attached to the roots. Rolla S. Hobbs of Tipton County best expressed the hatred farmers felt for these creatures when he wrote to the editor of the Indiana Farmers Guide in February of 1936 suggesting that May 3rd be declared "Crow Day." Hobbs suggested that everyone set out a dirty, arsenic-laced chicken egg closed with white tape near each farm's brooder house, and after it had been devoured by a cawing menace, each farmer could "watch 'Mr. Crow' take the count." (30)
Many Hoosiers relied on tried and true deterrents such as scarecrows, although these required frequent moving as the crows became accustomed to their stationary position. People also hung various items from wires and strings to frighten crows. Flags and strips of cloth blowing in the wind created distracting movements while pieces of glass, metal or tin pans arranged to blow against one another created unsettling noise. (31)
Indiana farmers also had other means of crow control at their disposal. All Indiana counties had money available from the state legislature to pay a ten-cent bounty on these large black birds in 1930, although most farmers had little knowledge of the program. (32) Hardware and feed supply stores sold chemical crow repellents. Farmers could coat their corn seed with these liquids prior to planting at a cost of about ten cents per acre. Sold under the trade names Hammond or Stanley's, these repellents were not toxic to the crows (or other birds and mammals), but gave the plant an undesirable taste. (33) Farmers made little use of these products, however, due to the economic constraints imposed by the depression. Farmers, like the majority of the population, spent money sparingly during this time. As several Hoosier farmers remembered matter-of-factly, "Nobody had any money back then." (34)
The majority of crows killed during the 30s fell before a shotgun. Some people stood watch in their fields and shot the corn-pullers as they settled in. (35) Euler imitated their "caw" and drew them to his concealed position, this being a favorite pastime on rainy afternoons. (36) Hunters could have purchased a crow call or a newly-developed mechanical crow decoy, although they needed neither. (37) They had no problem locating these big black birds. Farmers and sportsmen hunted mostly as part of the annual Crow Contest sponsored by the Department of Conservation.
The administrators of the I. D. O. C. established the Crow Killing Contest in 1934 using the 487 local conservation clubs across the state, with the express purpose of drawing more farmers into the department's activities. Rural landowners responded enthusiastically. (38) Administrators awarded prizes of cash and game birds, as well as a standing exchange of one quail or pheasant for each two hundred crow feet turned in. (39) In the inaugural year of the contest, club members submitted 60,003 pairs of feet. The following year, the clubs submitted 53,888 pairs and in the third year, 1936, club members killed a total of 24,060 crows in the contest. (40)
The success of individual clubs provides insight as to the size of the crow population. The members of the Rocklane Gun Club in Johnson County shot one hundred and thirty-eight crows out of one roost tree. (41) The Putnam County Sporting Club boasted of killing three hundred and nine birds in one evening's hunt in January of 1934. The club members surrounded a previously identified roost tree after the birds had returned from a day of feeding. The men shot ninety-nine crows from the first tree, then went on the take over two hundred more from several other trees. The club planned a similar foray every other night. (42) Kenneth Kunkel of the Division of Fish and Game suggested that hunters concentrate their efforts on female crows by shooting up through their twig and limb nests at night with heavy shot. (43) The Knightstown Conservation Club took the crow contest to a new low in 1936 when it held a crow dinner—its cooks serving up platters of the slain birds in a display of contempt and just deserts. (44)
The crow contest appeared to have met the goals set by the I. D. O. C. administrators. The continually declining number of birds taken in the contest would indicate that this effort had a negative effect on the state's crow population, while also bringing rural Hoosiers into the department's activities. The contest also helped to popularize other programs established by the Indiana Department of Conservation. New clubs formed in rural areas joined farmers and working class citizens to the ranks of what had been, in the 1920s, an organization composed of the elite members of Hoosier society. (45)
Hawks composed another group of despised birds. Hoosiers classified nearly all under the term "chicken hawk" regardless of the bird's preferred food. (46) Farmers kept chickens for meat, eggs and to trade with local market owners and hucksters. Farmers in the 1930s allowed their barnyard fowl free run of the premises, and hawks had easy access to younger chickens and sometimes attacked the older birds as well. (47) The chickens squawked loudly when they spotted a hawk and this alarm sent farmers scrambling for the shotguns near their back doors. (48) Local newspapers and farm publications praised farmers who killed large hawks, or large numbers of hawks, for their contributions to society. (49) Some farmers used pole traps with equal effectiveness. In this technique, a hawk hunter would set a small steel trap on top of a fence post or similar perch. When a bird of prey landed on the perch its foot became caught in the trap. The trap's owner would then dispatch the hawk, usually by clubbing so as not to waste a shotgun shell. (50) One Morgan County resident had a habit of nailing hawks taken this way to the chicken house, with wings outstretched, in the belief that it would frighten other hawks from the area. (51) Farmers sometimes set steel traps on top of carcasses of chickens or small game, occasionally capturing a hawk alighting to feed on the bait. (52)
The desire to destroy all birds of prey seemed universal. In 1936, I. D. O. C. employees used these control methods on the state-run game farms to kill 571 hawks and 369 owls. (53) Few people recognized that these birds ate primarily rodents, or that the majority of them had been officially protected by an act of the Indiana Legislature early in 1936; the universal feeling across the state, and even throughout the nation at this time, was that birds of prey needed to be removed to benefit domestic farm animals and wildlife. (54) Ken Boknecht, raised on a small farm in the hill country of northern Jackson County, remembered that his father, who barbered local men and boys at his home, accepted a hawk head or foot in lieu of his usual ten-cent fee. (55)
The overabundant sparrow population constituted a major assault on farmers by eating grain in and around buildings. Mrs. Bert Rush of Warsaw found 620 dead sparrows in her yard the morning after a severe storm on August 9, 1936. (56) Farm publication readers sent numerous inquiries asking for control methods for these little birds. The advice included various poisoning and swatting activities.
Most drug stores in the early twentieth century carried a full line of poisons available on a cash and carry basis. Farmers found the availability of ingredients helpful because the majority of agricultural poisons had to be concocted at home. Agricultural advisors recommended strychnine for many uses around the farm when dealing with pests. Farmers could coat wheat or cracked corn with a strychnine mixture, then dry it in the sun or the oven. (57) Farmers could use this poisoned grain in a number of ways. It could be placed in a trough under the eaves of a building, thereby keeping it out of the weather, or on a board nailed to the under side of a rafter in the hay loft, or it could be scattered on top of exposed barn beams. (58) One Hoosier farmer devised his own feeder—a wooden box covered with large-mesh chicken wire. This contraption allowed sparrows to enter, but kept the larger, insect-eating songbirds (who also ate grains) away from the poison. (59) A wise farmer began this feeding process with some untainted grain, conditioning the birds to come and eat. Above all, the farmer needed to keep the poisoned bait away from his chickens.