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Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America

Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America

by Jeff Karnicky
Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America

Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America

by Jeff Karnicky


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Emily Dickinson’s poem “Split the Lark” refers to the “scarlet experiment” by which scientists destroy a bird in order to learn more about it. Indeed, humans have killed hundreds of millions of birds—for science, fashion, curiosity, and myriad other reasons. In the United States alone, seven species of birds are now extinct and another ninety-three are endangered. Conversely, the U.S. conservation movement has made bird-watching more popular than ever, saving countless bird populations; and while the history of actual physical human interaction with birds is complicated, our long aesthetic and scientific interest in them is undeniable. Since the beginning of the modern conservation movement in the mid-nineteenth century, human understanding of and interaction with birds has changed profoundly. In Scarlet Experiment, Jeff Karnicky traces the ways in which birds have historically been seen as beautiful creatures worthy of protection and study and yet subject to experiments—scientific, literary, and governmental—that have irrevocably altered their relationship with humans.

This examination of the management of bird life in America from the nineteenth century to today, which focuses on six bird species, finds that renderings of birds by such authors as Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Don DeLillo, and Christopher Cokinos, have also influenced public perceptions and actions. Scarlet Experiment speculates about the effects our decisions will have on the future of North American bird ecology. 



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803295735
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 653 KB

About the Author

Jeff Karnicky is an associate professor of English at Drake University. He is the author of Contemporary Fiction and the Ethics of Modern Culture.

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Scarlet Experiment

Birds and Humans in America

By Jeff Karnicky


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9573-5


Emotion and Intelligence

The Blue Jay

May 28, 2005: Amherst, Massachusetts

I am walking on the lawn of Emily Dickinson's house and experiencing a strong feeling of historical continuity thanks to two birds in my field of vision. I see an eastern phoebe flitting around the garden. A couple of minutes later, I hear, and then see, a blue jay screaming in the pines a few yards away from the garden. Dickinson wrote the poem that starts "I was a Phebe–nothing more" in 1865. My sense of historical continuity comes from the fact that today's phoebe behaves much like Dickinson's. It is barely noticeable as it flies quietly among low branches and disappears from view, or, as Dickinson wrote, "I dwelt too low that any seek– / Too shy, that any blame–." I watch the phoebe for only a moment before it is gone, and probably unnoticed by the few other people walking near the garden. Again, Dickinson perfectly describes the phoebe's place in the human world: "A phebe makes a little print / Opon the Floors of Fame–." The blue jay, though, gets, and holds, my attention. Like the phoebe, today's blue jay behaves much like the ones Dickinson describes in detail in three poems, and to a lesser extent in four others. It shouts, "bold as a Bailiff's hymn ... confident and straight" as it chases another jay through the pines that Dickinson called "Just a Sea — with a Stem" in a poem that describes blue jays moving through trees very similar to these, as it announces its arrival at each new branch.

It is, of course, not at all surprising that one should see a blue jay in Amherst, Massachusetts, in either 2005 or 1865. Blue jays have inhabited the eastern woods of the North American continent for centuries. They are noisy, bold, and brightly colored, which helps to explain why blue jays were "one of the first North American birds to become well known to Europeans." Illustrations of the bird date to John White's watercolor in the sixteenth century; Mark Catesby painted and wrote about the blue jay in 1754.5 Blue jays thrived as forest was converted to farmland in the nineteenth century and as suburbs sprang up in the twentieth century; they continue to thrive today as forest habitat shrinks and fragments. In fact, blue jays are one of the few species of indigenous birds of North America that has thrived, in part, because of human alteration of habitat. In his The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley writes that the blue jay "has become increasingly common west of its traditional range east of the Great Plains" as humans have altered the landscape of America. Forest fragmentation, due to logging and development, creates edge habitat that is unsuitable for many forest-nesting birds such as wood thrushes. Blue jays and other species, such as crows, thrive in this habitat. In addition, bird feeders give blue jays a fairly reliable source of winter food. Because the blue jay is not shy of bird feeders, because it is often seen in forest edges that humans tend to frequent, and because it has a boisterous voice and bright colors, humans have long taken notice of blue jays and written about what they have seen. In addition to Dickinson's admiration of the jay's "shrill felicity," many nineteenth-century naturalists wrote about and painted blue jays. Alexander Wilson, in 1831, wrote that the blue jay "makes himself still more conspicuous by his loquacity, and the oddness of his tones and gestures." Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal that "it is the more glorious to live in Concord because the jay is so splendidly painted"; John James Audubon painted the jay's portrait and wrote that it was "exceedingly garrulous [and] may be easily followed to any distance." Along with noting the prominent voice and plumage of jays, these nineteenth-century accounts tend to focus on the blue jay's "character," be it "warrior"-like, possessed of "a singular wildness," or full of "selfishness, duplicity, and malice."

Human perception of blue jays and other birds broadly shifts from a nineteenth-century ascription of human-like emotions to blue jays to a twentieth-century investigation of the human-like intelligence of the birds. Twentieth-century scientific, artistic, and literary accounts of blue jays, as I discuss in detail in this chapter, tend rather to focus on the jay's intelligence and adaptability. In both laboratory and field studies, blue jays and other members of its corvid family, such as crows and ravens, have been found to be quite intelligent in a number of ways, including food selection, tool use and invention, and memory. Jays and other corvids exhibit a complex intelligence. Candace Savage, in Bird Brains, a book that provides an overview of avian intelligence, writes that such birds "show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness" of their worlds.

Contemporary artistic texts explore just what type of awareness a blue jay might exhibit. Roger Tory Peterson's revision of Audubon's blue jay painting strives to portray the blue jay outside of a moral frame. Don DeLillo's 1998 novel The Body Artist tries to imagine what a blue jay might see when it looks through a window into a house. Vicki Formato's biography Jayson: The True Story of a 20 Year Old Blue Jay builds a case for avian individuality. This shift in artistic portrayal mirrors the development of cognitive ethology, which studies how animal minds work within their environment. One of the founding scientists of cognitive ethology, Donald Griffin, writes that "the challenging scientific question is, how widespread among animals is conscious awareness?" This question undoubtedly has scientific import, but it also has import in a broader sense of how humans live in the world as they interact with other forms of life, and how we read and understand various kinds of texts. A shift in the way that humans see the world can change the way that humans act in the world. This difference can lead to questions of ethics, conservation, and otherness. Griffin writes, "Our ethical judgments about how we should treat members of other species are strongly influenced by what we believe about their consciousness." If we believe that blue jays and other birds have a consciousness that is more similar to our own than previously thought, in what ways might human behavior change? How might human interactions with differently conscioused beings — in this case blue jays but also birds in general — change? I will attempt to answer these questions in what follows, as I map out how human perceptions of blue jays have altered over the past two hundred years in ways that lead to a rethinking of human-animal relations.

"His Character a Tonic": Blue Jays and Humans in the Nineteenth Century

Emily Dickinson's poetry shows an admiration of the jay's appearance, voice, and demeanor. In two poems, Dickinson compares the jay to a "brigadier": in poem 1022 the jay is "Sitting a Bough like a Brigadier"; in 1596 Dickinson writes, "No brigadier throughout the Year / So civic as the Jay." These descriptions are clearly influenced by close observation of the bird — its bold markings resemble military dress, "Warrant in every line," and one can easily see why Dickinson would compare the jay's bright color and defined pattern to a nineteenth-century military uniform. The poems go beyond this aesthetic comparison, though. Dickinson's jays not only have a military look, they also have a military demeanor and character. Blue jays in Dickinson's poems are "bold" in voice, and their orders must be followed by all who hear them call. In poem 1670 Dickinson writes that the jay's call signals the approach of winter, and that "the Tippet that ignores his voice / Is impudent to nature." In their behavior, Dickinson's jays are "civic" "warrior[s]," who are "bold ... confident and straight" and "prompt" and "executive." In short, the blue jay, in these poems, embodies the virtues of civic-minded nineteenth-century American citizens, and Dickinson's poetic speaker enjoys watching them for just this reason. "Good is the look of him in March / As a Benefit." But this admiration of the jay as model citizen is not the only thing worth noting.

Dickinson writes that the jay's "character" is "a tonic." While this line certainly refers to the jay's virtue, it also gestures toward something a bit more obscure. Poem 1596 twice calls the jay a "neighbor" to humans. Even more broadly, the jay is "The Brother of the Universe," deserving of immortality. "Unfair an immortality / That leaves this neighbor out." Dickinson's poem forges a strong human-bird bond; both inhabit the same world, and perhaps the same afterworld. At the same time, though, Dickinson's jay resists total inscription into the nineteenth-century human world of citizenship and spirituality. This contradiction is best expressed by the poem's description of the jay's "larder": on the one hand it is "terse and militant," on the other it is "unknown." The jay can be watched — as the same poem notes, "I've often seen them" — but it cannot be fully understood. Dickinson's jays may be virtuous like humans, but they are also still jays, flying through the pines, as they "split their route to the Sky."

Henry David Thoreau shared Dickinson's admiration of blue jays, although perhaps to a lesser degree. On moving into his cabin in Walden Woods, Thoreau wrote, "I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds." In both his journals and in Walden, Thoreau writes of his close observations of blue jays. He admired the bird's vitality, which he saw reflected in its voice, plumage, and behavior. In his journal of November 3, 1858, he writes, "The jay is the bird of October. It, too, with its bright color, stands for some ripeness in the bird harvest. And its scream! It is as if it blowed on the edge of an October leaf ... It is wide awake to what is going on, on the qui vive." In other journal entries from the 1850s, Thoreau writes admiringly of blue jays. On July 8, 1853, he notes that the bird's call "suggests a singular wildness." On February 2, 1854, he writes, "The scream of the jay is a true winter sound. It is wholly without sentiment, and in harmony with winter." On November 13, 1858, Thoreau admires the jay's beauty, proclaiming that "it is the more glorious to live in Concord because the jay is so splendidly painted." Like the speaker of Dickinson's poem, Thoreau clearly enjoys having the jay as his neighbor.

While Thoreau's journals show a clear appreciation of the jay, a short passage in Walden tempers this enthusiasm, as Thoreau now writes about the jay in terms of human morality, which he does not do in his journal. A passage from his journal of November 10, 1858, compared with an excerpt from the "Winter Animals" section of Walden, can serve to illustrate this disparity. First, in the journal entry, Thoreau describes the foraging and eating behavior of a group of jays.

Hearing in the oak and near by a sound as if someone had broken a twig, I looked up and saw a jay pecking at an acorn. There were several jays busily gathering acorns on a scarlet oak. I could hear them break them off. They then flew to a suitable limb and, placing the acorn under one foot, hammered away at it busily, looking round from time to time to see if any foe was approaching, and soon reached the meat and nibbled at it, holding up their heads to swallow, while they held it very firmly with their claws. (Their hammering made a sound like the woodpecker's.) Nevertheless it sometimes dropped to the ground before they had done with it.

This almost purely factual account contrasts strongly with Thoreau's discussion in Walden of similar blue jay behavior.

At length the jays arrive, whose discordant screams were heard long before, as they were warily making their approach an eighth of a mile off, and in a stealthy and sneaking manner they flit from tree to tree, nearer and nearer, and pick up the kernels which the squirrels have dropped. Then, sitting on a pitch pine bough, they attempt to swallow in their haste a kernel which is too big for their throats and chokes them; and after great labor they disgorge it, and spend an hour in the endeavor to crack it by repeated blows with their bills. They were manifestly thieves, and I had not much respect for them; but the squirrels, though at first shy, went to work as if they were taking what was their own. (emphasis added)

Certainly the passage from Walden reads as more literary than the dry, natural science observation from the journal. Whereas the journal describes the jays only as working "busily" to secure their meal, in Walden Thoreau sees the birds as "sneaky and stealthy" and as "thieves." The birds enter a human moral framework and are judged harshly. To a reader of his journals, which voice only admiration, Thoreau's claim in Walden that "I had not much respect for them" comes as something of a surprise.

Walden was published in 1854, so one might suppose that Thoreau's view of the jay changed from one of condemnation to admiration over the course of the four years between the publication of Walden and the 1858 journal entry. But Thoreau's pre-Walden journal entries of 1853–54 make no moral judgments of the jay. Perhaps the blue jays of Walden only look bad in contrast to the smaller, friendlier chickadees that Thoreau discusses immediately after his discussion of blue jays. The chickadee seems to appeal to Thoreau as a neighbor who acknowledges Thoreau's presence. He writes, "They were so familiar that at length one alighted on an armful of wood which I was carrying in, and pecked at the sticks without fear." The jay can be observed at close range, but it remains distant from the observer.

Thoreau's interactions with a common loon might say more about what he was getting at when he described the birds of Walden Woods as his neighbors. In an extended passage, he details a "game" that he plays with a loon, Thoreau rowing his boat toward the loon, the loon diving, and Thoreau attempting to row to the spot where he thinks the loon will resurface. "While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon." Finally, at the end of this "game," Thoreau concludes in admiration "that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources." Like the chickadee, the loon shows an awareness of Thoreau, at least from Thoreau's perspective. Likewise, he describes the thrill he felt when a sparrow alit on his shoulder. "I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." Thoreau's best bird neighbors might be the ones who acknowledge his presence, the ones that seem to accept him as part of their "wild" world. In a sense, then, the blue jay was a bad neighbor — a thief who does not acknowledge his neighbor's presence in the woods. The jay escapes human contact; it remains wild, and it sets a bad moral example.

Dickinson and Thoreau both obviously closely studied blue jays before rendering them into literature. John James Audubon, though, had much more detailed encounters with blue jays. He describes his interactions with jays in his journals and in his Ornithological Biography, where, like Thoreau, he wavers between admiration for the jay's vitality and approbation of what he sees as its immoral behavior.

Audubon's moral vision of the jay is perhaps best illustrated in the painting of blue jays that appears in Birds of America. In the painting, the jays are destroying the eggs of another bird's nest. The yolk is falling from the eggs, and the jays seem to be enjoying the carnage. As one female jay pokes at a broken egg, another female, with wings spread and mouth open, gorges on the seeping yolk. The male jay, slightly lower and on the back of the branch, is shown in profile, looking proud with its crest erect and an egg, dripping yolk, impaled on his beak.

In his description of the painting, Audubon highlights what he sees as the dual nature of the jay:

Reader, look at the plate in which are represented three individuals of this beautiful species, — rogues though they be, and thieves, as I would call them, were it fit for me to pass judgment on their actions. See how each is enjoying the fruits of his knavery, sucking the egg which he has pilfered from the nest of some innocent dove or harmless pigeon! Who could imagine that a form so resplendent, should harbor so much mischief; that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection! Yet so it is, and how like beings of a much higher order, are these gay deceivers! Aye, I could write you a whole chapter on this subject, were not my task of a different nature.


Excerpted from Scarlet Experiment by Jeff Karnicky. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Split the Lark,
1. Emotion and Intelligence: The Blue Jay,
2. Interpellation and Interiority: The European Starling,
3. Capital and Conservation: The Red Knot,
4. Nuisance and Neighbor: The Canada Goose,
5. Confusion and Classification: The Black-Crested Titmouse or Tufted Titmouse,
Conclusion: The Future of Birds,

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