Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/September 1911/The Narrowing Circle of the Animal Kingdom

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IN the older regions of the country the scarcity of animals and birds has been noticed and studied for a long time, but many persons are unaware of the rapid decrease in bird and animal life in recent years. From the timbered regions of the far west, that region which was thought to contain inexhaustible supplies of game of all description, we are constantly hearing such queries as; "What has become of our Rocky Mountain goats and sheep, which were once so conspicuous on the cliffs of the Rockies? Where are the elk and other deer?" In Maine the same questions are being asked concerning the moose and caribou; while the whole country is wondering why the birds are disappearing so rapidly.

The question has aroused the government, as well as the naturalists, with the result that numerous investigations and reports have been made. Any one who has taken the trouble to do a little investigating along this line, if he has done no more than to investigate local conditions, has had no difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that many of our wild animals and birds are decreasing in numbers at an astonishingly great rate and that several forms have been practically wiped out of existence.

I do not think that any one section of the country can be accused of more wanton killing than another, for the people of all sections are guilty of carelessness in the matter of game preservation. Every one is familiar with the fact that millions of bison were killed on the plains of the West, but few are cognizant of the fact that the inhabitants of the Southeast had a hand in dealing, what came very near being the death blow to the buffalo tribe. From Carolina on the east to the foothills of the Rockies, the bison was wont to roam; very probably then, the inhabitants of the southeastern country had a hand in the slaughtering. Their herds were estimated to have contained from one hundred and fifty million to four hundred and fifty million. A government census, taken with as much care as was possible, showed that in 1850 the herds numbered about forty million head. By 1883 about the only traces of wild buffaloes in this country were the vast acres of prairies strewn with bones and horn. If the government had employed men to exterminate the bison, they could not have gone at it more thoroughly than the buffalo hunters and Indians did. From 1850 to 1883, a period of thirty-three years, the number slain was more than two hundred and fifty million, or about eight million each year; a record which has few parallels. Ten or twelve years ago there were very few American children who had ever seen a bison. Just a few years ago, we all began to realize that if a single bison was to be left, effective means must be started to put a stop to the indiscriminate slaughter. The few remaining bison, under care and protection have thrived remarkably well, and increased their numbers considerably. The American Bison Society has recently taken the census of the bison, and reports that all told, there are twenty one hundred and eight of them distributed among three government herds, besides various private ones.

On account of the fact that the alligator is a native of the extreme southern part of this country, many people are uninformed as to the rapid decrease which the demand for 'gator skins has made upon the numbers of alligators in Florida and other southern states. Twenty years ago it was a common occurrence to find alligators of great size in many of the streams of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana. In all of these states excepting Florida and Louisiana, the saurian representatives are comparatively scarce. Florida has the greatest number now, not because of any legislation or special effort for their protection, but because the everglades and the mild climate constitute the natural habitat of the alligator. To-day Florida has laws for the protection of the alligator, and is making every effort to have them enforced. They were being killed in such great numbers that, with a few more years of the "pot hunter" and skin collector, the alligator would have been listed among "those which had been." A few figures will suffice to show to what extent the killing of alligators has gone. Between 1880 and 1890, three million eight hundred thousand alligators were killed in Florida alone; and during the year 1908 twenty thousand were killed. In the majority of cases the skin was taken off, and the rest of the body wasted. It was not until 1885 that the demand for the skins was so great, when suddenly fashion decreed that, satchels, pocket books, music rolls, etc., made of alligator skins were just the style; and the above figures show how it affected the number of alligators.

From reports, which represent practically the entire area of the United States, gathered by Dr. Hornaday, of the New York Zoological Garden, one can state without any fear of contradiction that the following mammals, in the wild state, are practically extinct or are rapidly becoming so. Among the ruminants or cud-chewing animals, the bison of course holds first place, with the wapiti or American elk (Cervus canadensis), moose (Alces americana) and woodland caribou (Rangifer caribou) good seconds. Notable among the smaller ruminants are: the Virginia or white tailed deer (Cariacus virginianus), mule deer (Cariacus macrotis), black-tailed deer (Cariacus columbianus), prong-horned antelope (Antilocarpa americana), Montana goat (Ovis montana) and the mountain goat (Hoploceras montana). Bears in general are greatly on the decrease, and especially the black bear (Ursus americanus) and the California grizzly bear (Ursus horribilis horriæus). The carnivores are represented by the puma or mountain lion (Felis concolor), jaguar (Felis onca), red lynx (Lynx rufus), otter (Lutra canadensis). The rodents, or gnawing animals, on the whole seem to be on the increase, but the most valuable member of the order to man, the beaver, (Castor canadensis) is fast nearing extinction.

Concerning the bears Morse's "Universal Geography" for 1812, states that eight hundred thousand hides were shipped out of the United States every year. If there is such a thing as a bear industry in this country now it is of exceedingly small importance. In 1784, from one city alone, Charleston, S. C, six hundred thousand deer hides were shipped; in 1812 the price paid for a buck was forty cents; in 1878 venison cost three and one fourth cents per pound; in 1908 it took forty cents to buy a pound of venison, just exactly what a whole buck cost in 1812. Evidently there are not as many deer as there used to be. It is natural, of course, that the wild animals of a country should decrease as the population increases, since an increase in population means that new land must be cleared, and the wild animals living in the region of increase, killed off. In many countries, where the population per square mile is so much greater than it is here, there would be some excuse; but not in America where miles of prairie and mountain are uninhabited. There is not a single region in this country where the majority of species of mammals is not on the decrease.

Bird life, on the whole, has decreased a great deal more than animal life; there are a few regions, though, where birds are increasing in numbers. According to reports received from thirty-six states and territories, Dr. Hornaday is of the opinion that in the last fifteen or twenty years the bird life in the United States has been decreased by 46 per cent. The greatest amount of damage seems to have been done in Florida, where the decrease is 77 per cent. In Indian Territory, the region constituting the eastern portion of what is now the state of Oklahoma, the loss is 75 per cent. From Connecticut a loss of 75 per cent, is also reported. The states having the smallest losses are: Nebraska 10 per cent., Michigan 23 per cent., Colorado 28 per cent, and Massachusetts 27 per cent. In three states, North Carolina, California and Oregon, the balance of bird life has been maintained; that is, the losses in one form of bird life have been made up by increases in other forms. In North Carolina, along the coast region, bird life has suffered great losses, but in the thickly wooded mountainous regions of the western part of the state the birds have greatly increased in numbers. In four states, and to them commendation is due, the number of birds has increased. They are Kansas, Wyoming, Washington and Utah.

What has become of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), prairie chicken (Tympanums cupido), the Carolina paroquet (Conurus carolinensis); and why are the following so nearly extinct: blue bird (Sialia sialis), the white heron (Ardea candidissima)? In every case the answer is one or all of the following conditions: indiscriminate hunting, wanton slaughter, and the collection of plumes or of eggs. None of these are natural conditions, and therefore it is not beyond the power of man to better them.

The birds which are affected most by the indiscriminate hunting are the gallinaceous birds, such as the grouse, quail, partridge and turkeys. The wild ducks and shore birds are also considerably affected. The wading birds, among which are the various forms of heron and bittern, have found their worst enemies among the plume collectors, or plume thieves. The men who collect feathers from these birds are not content to pluck the feathers and release the birds, or to confine their depredations to the males; but they kill the female herons, for the plumes and egrets that they furnish, while they are on the nest. It is only during the mating season that the feathers are in a suitable condition for plucking, hence the annual raid made upon the nesting herons.

It seems strange that women, who by nature are supposed to possess so much gentleness and sympathy, and who shrink from anything that savors of cruelty, should be content to adorn their hats with feathers, the procuring of which necessitates so much wanton cruelty and murder. But Dame Fashion has decreed that feathers shall be worn; regardless of how they are secured, they have been worn, and a study of the following figures will give some idea of the effects thereby produced on the colonies of herons and egrets. Within the past twenty years the snowy heron has practically disappeared from China, where it was once so plentiful. Twenty years ago, there was in the region about Charleston, S. C, at least three million of these birds; to-day less than one hundred remain. There is but one small colony of the American egret left in this country, and that one is on the coast of South Carolina. This colony was fired into last year, and again this year, so that now less than twenty birds remain. It will be but a few years, unless some drastic measures are taken, before the history of this bird will be the same as that of the passenger pigeon. Our grandparents tell us of the times when the skies were darkened by the millions of pigeons which were seen in the middle west. Last year a reward of four hundred dollars was offered by a college professor to any one who could furnish accurate proof of a single nesting pair of passenger pigeons. I am of the opinion that no one applied for the reward.

In 1830 the Carolina paroquet was so numerous that it was reported that Audubon killed a half barrel with two shots of a shot gun. In Carolina not a single one remains, and in the wilds of Florida but few can be found.

The prairie chicken was once so abundant, that in Kentucky, where the slave owners fed it to the negroes, they tired of it and begged their masters not to make them eat it. It was commonly known as "nigger bird." To find the prairie chicken now, one must tramp the isolated regions of the west. Even in Indian Territory, a hunter is considered lucky if he even gets a shot at one. I have heard the old settlers say that the prairie chicken was once more abundant than the English sparrow is now.

The game birds are so nearly depleted, that our song birds are being killed off as a result. The quest for game birds having failed, and the desire to "kill something" being still unabated, the "hunter" "takes it out" on the song birds. The blue bird is fast nearing extinction, and the larks and several other songsters are suffering a considerable depletion in numbers.

After reading the above reports of killing and depletion, one is apt to take a pessimistic view of the situation; but thanks to the Audubon Societies, which are pretty well established in every state, the appointment of game wardens, who are beginning to realize that they are personally responsible for the condition of bird and animal life in their region, the issuing of hunting licenses, which necessarily prevents a great many unscrupulous men from hunting, and the widespread interest which is being manifested in the cause, there is no reason why the great decrease should continue.