“Don’t Kill the Birds, the Little Birds”
A not-so-gentle giant lumbers into your neighborhood, pulls up your house off its foundation, with your expectant wife asleep inside, and then places the all of it into their pocket. The giant strides off to situate your house and home, and wife and unborn child still inside, upon a mantel somewhere…very far away. Problem, right?
“Don’t Kill the Birds, the Little Birds” — tweets this tiny nineteenth century photograph with a printed poem upon its back. The collecting of birds’ eggs and birds’ nests was a popular late 19th century pastime. It was also a problem.
Post-Civil War and into the late 19th century, increasing attention was being drawn to animal cruelty and issues of animal rights and treatment with the popularity of such works as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) and Marshall Saunder’s Beautiful Joe (1893).
Carrying this theme onwards, using elements of photography, type, “fine art” (which is somewhat appealing or cloyingly sentimental, depending on your frame of reference) is this carte-de-visite photograph/poem.
The card presents an “object lesson” both portable and visual. The words chosen are short and brief. A 19th century tweet of sorts.
The photographic image reproduced is of a drawing of a child holding a bird and a bird’s nest. Below is printed selections of lines from a poem on kindness to animals, conveying the message not to harm “the little birds.”
Here, in this miniature printed and photographic format, children are taught that kindness and charity extend to all creatures:
Don’t kill the birds, the little birds
That play among the trees;
‘Twould make the earth a cheerless place
To see no more of these.
The little birds, how sweet they sing!
Oh! let them joyous live
And do not seek to take the life
Which you can never give.
On the back of the carte-de-visite, a contemporary ownership inscription is seen, that of “Mary A. Keck,” The card bears no backmark and we do not have a background story of Mary A. Keck and her thoughts upon cruelty to birds, but Don’t Kill the Birds has its own story.
However, the poem’s authorship can apparently be attributed to a Daniel Clement Colesworthy, a Portland, Maine native, newspaperman and Boston bookseller. We find a publication of the poem as early as 1854. At some point, the poem made its way into music readers of the day, and then was used as a hymnal; presumably transitioning from a secular to non-secular usage.
In fact, even a variant of the poem seems to have been altered by the Mormons, appearing as a hymn within the 1909 Deseret Sunday School Songs, a Hymnal — even earlier appearances in Mormon hymnals being likely, but not sourced.
Anecdotally, Colesworthy’s poem is said to have prevented the wanton slaughter of thousands of God’s winged creatures by thoughtless children by inculcating in the former a sense of reverence and respect for nature, biology, and life.
Sentimental Victorian poetry seeking here to please and to instruct: a pretty picture of an innocent child and the moral lesson of caring for our fellow creatures. “Oh! let them joyous live…”