Saturday, June 19, 2010
Charles A. Babcock, the Superintendent of Schools in Oil City, PA, had noticed that his students were keenly interested in the study of birds. He thought it would be useful to devote an entire day to presentations, discussions, and nature trips centered on Pennsylvania birds. Babcock wrote to a number of bird enthusiasts to ask their opinion of instituting an annual "Bird Day" in the schools. He received exceedingly positive responses to the idea from such notable people as the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton, known as the father of "Arbor Day," ornithologist Olive Thorne Miller and writer John Burroughs.
On May 4, 1894, the school children of Oil City celebrated the first Bird Day. The students spent the day discussing birds in literature and visiting bird habitats. The day was such a success that Bird Day became an annual event, in Oil City.
Oil City’s curriculum called for more than the scientific study of birds. The educators sought to impart the immorality of harming birds. In 1894, J. Sterling Morton summed up this sentiment in his letter to Babcock, “We should strive continually to develop and intensify the sentiment of bird protection, not alone for the sake of preserving the birds, but also for the sake of replacing as far as possible the barbaric impulses inherent in child nature by the nobler impulses and aspirations that should characterize advanced civilization.”
Word spread quickly about Bird Day. Newspapers and magazines praised the goals of Bird Day. The American Ornithologist Union made a plea for a national Bird Day at their annual meeting in 1897. Educational journals promoted books and other material for a Bird Day curriculum. One popular book was written by Ida S. Elson, Birdies; what they do (1900.) Her 104 page, cloth book is included in a collection of literature that reflects the Bird Day movement in the Library of Congress. Before Ida married Henry W. Elson, a history professor at Thiel College, she ran a kindergarten school, out of her Market St. home, in Bethlehem. Ida S. (maiden name McMullen) was fondly remembered by her students, such as well-known writers Hilda Doolittle, Laura and William Rose Benet.
A typical Bird Day program would involve students installing bird houses, singing songs “Peep Said the Little Bird”, reading stories such as Abbott’s The birds about us and reciting Longfellow’s poem “The Birds of Killingworth.” Charles A. Babcock wrote his book Bird Day; How to prepare for it (1901) to instruct educators on all aspects of Bird Day. He included the history of the movement along with specific program suggestions. He warned that the numbers of songbirds were declining. He stated, “It is currently reported that a million bobolinks were destroyed in Pennsylvania alone last year to satisfy the demand of the milliners.”
It was a popular trend in Victorian times for women to wear dead songbirds or their feathers on elaborate hats. The fashion was started by Marie Antoinette and spread throughout Europe and the United States. These feathered hats eventually inspired the first U.S. grass roots conservation campaign. Audubon Societies were formed across America to advocate bird protection from the bird and feather trade. Finally in 1900, the U.S. Congress passed the Lacey Act. This was the first federal legislation to address conservation and it effectively stopped the interstate shipment of wild birds killed in violation of state laws.
By 1910, Bird Day became a fixture in the schools across the United States. Twenty-five state legislatures went so far as to establish Bird Day as an official day of commemoration. Two of Pennsylvania’s Governors, Gifford Pinchot, in 1923, and Arthur H. James, in 1940, made official proclamations about the importance of Bird Day.
It was widely celebrated in conjunction with Arbor Day. Arbor Day is a day dedicated to tree planting and increasing awareness of the importance of trees. In Pennsylvania, National Arbor Day is still celebrated each year on the last Friday in April. Both events focused upon conservation awareness.
The Nature Conservancy, incorporated in 1951 and the Ecology movement, begun in the 1960’s (inspired by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring), shifted conservation efforts toward other goals. Earth Day, started in 1970, promotes environmental citizenship which encompasses the objectives of Bird Day and Arbor Day.