My Great Grandfather, the Deputy Bird Commissioner

For my father Victor, who passed away 18 years ago today. It seems to me he was very much like his grandfather, interested in and adept at so many things. He is missed still.

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Vittorio Ruggeri 

Until recently, I thought I was unique in my family for my interest in birds. Of my 7 siblings, not one of them influenced me in this area. Nor did my parents. And while we kids spent plenty of time outdoors – mostly swimming and fishing at the Elm Street Pier, which was about 200 yards from our house – we were no nature nerds. There were no field guides to anything lying around.

As it turns out though, my paternal great grandfather, Vittorio Ruggeri, held the title of Deputy Bird Commissioner of Newport County in the early 1900’s. I learned this by way of an email my mother sent me in September of last year. I was on vacation when she sent it, distracted and doing birdy things (of course), so other than an “Oh cool!” moment, I promptly forgot about it.

But back in January, when 2018 was declared the Year of the Bird, I remembered. Year of the Bird is a collaborative campaign by the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s purpose is to celebrate birds and the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treat Act. 

When this Year of the Bird thing began, I intended to write more about birds, and the history of the MBTA, and of Vittorio’s time as Deputy Bird Commissioner. But in addition to lacking confidence – I am a competent birder, but no expert – I’ve also never been a good student of history. In fact, the only class I ever failed was a US history class. It was badly taught, with no life breathed into it. It was presented as a chronology of events that I felt no connection to it.

But my curiosity about my bisnonno, and his direct connection this particular history, held my attention, and compelled me to dig.

A quick Google search helped me find his name in the State of Rhode Island’s Treasurer’s Reports from three years, 1912-1914. He may have done this in other years, but I was unable to find more reports from other periods.

 

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From the 1912 Report, October wages

Prior to 1918 (when the MBTA became federal law), it was up to individual states to regulate the hunting of migratory birds. For Rhode Island, this lead to the creation of the Commisioners of Birds by the General Assembly in 1899. The Commissioners were a group of specially trained game wardens, one for each of the 5 counties in the state. An article on the RI DEM website states that:

Their duties were to enforce the laws relating to birds, game, and other animals. In the past, town officials inadequately enforced these laws. This newly established commission appointed paid deputies who worked on a part time basis, as well as unpaid deputies, who received money for their services by collecting one-half the fines after convictions.

But while state level efforts like these helped, they weren’t enough to repair the damage done to North American bird populations. By the early 1900’s, a century of unregulated hunting by humans had taken a devastating toll on our birds. Great Auks, Labrador Ducks, Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Heath Hens were hunted to extinction. And we came close to losing many others to the “plume trade,” which supplied feathers to milliners in New York and London.

Feathered hats were all the rage in the late 1800’s, until a boycott – started by two influential Boston socialites – helped bring national attention to the issue. The boycott became a nationwide movement when these two women, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, started the first chapter of what would eventually be know as the National Audubon Society.

Other states followed suit with their own organizations. The mounting pressure of public campaigns by these groups led to stricter hunting laws at the state level. But these state laws, like the ones my great grandfather helped enforce, simply weren’t enough to repair a century of damage, and so the development of federal legislation went underway.

First, there was the Lacey Act of 1900, which was the first federal law ever written to protect wildlife. When this wasn’t enough, the Weeks-McLean Act of 1913 was passed with stricter regulations, but was soon found to be unconstitutional by two district courts. Despite their failings, both of these acts were important precursors to The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which has held firmly (mostly) in place for 100 years.

***

When it comes to knowing any specifics about Vittorio’s work as a Deputy Bird Commissioner, I have very little to go on. He died in 1950, 23 years before I was born. My own father, Victor, passed away in 2000, and his only remaining sibling (he had 6 sisters and 3 brothers) died last June. If there is anyone else left alive with any memories of Vittorio, I would be very surprised.

But the State of RI Annual Report of the Commissioners of Birds from 1913 details what their duties were. It states that commissioners made arrests, gave fines, and seized illegally poached game. He must have done some, or maybe all of these things, in the years he gave to this position. The report also reveals that the job had its share of drama and excitement:

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img_0392Most of what we know about my bisnonno is in his obituary. He was a renaissance man. In addition to his work protecting birds, he was also a metal-smith, and an expert locksmith, and was known as the “locksmith for The Avenue” (Bellevue) here in Newport. He was often called on by the local police to assist in burglary investigations. He was also an opera singer who sang in the Naples Opera House, before emigrating from Italy to the US, in 1900. He played the drums. And he was a keeper at the Elm Street Pier – the same pier where my siblings and I spent our summers fishing and swimming, decades after he passed away.

I wish I knew what it meant to him to be a Deputy Bird Commissioner. I wonder if he img_0388loved birds and nature, the way I do. I realize that it may have just been a way to make an extra dollar in the gig economy of earlier times. I am not one to romanticize these things. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the years he spent watching after birds imprinted somewhere on his DNA, and ended up in mine.

Regardless of his motivations, seeing his name in those reports makes me proud. It gives context and texture and a personal connection to the history of a law that has, for a hundred years now, protected the birds that I love so dearly.

More birds, less pain,

xo-L

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Connecticut River Tree Swallows

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Goose Island. Waiting for the birds.

Early Monday evening I boarded the River Quest, a 64’ catamaran at Eagles Landing in East Haddam, CT. The purpose of the cruise was to watch a large flock of Tree Swallows descend onto Goose Island at sunset, where they roost overnight. For a few weeks every late summer and into early fall, the swallows gather here, near the mouth of the Connecticut River, as they ready for their migration south.

This behavior is known as “staging.” The swallows choose this particular spot for a variety of reasons, such as the ample food source of flying insects (they dine on the wing), which they load up on before their long flight. Another reason is for the protection from predation that Goose Island provides. It is dense with Phragmites, an invasive marsh reed, making it nearly impossible for predators to approach from anywhere but above.

It is not completely understood why they join forces in these massive communal roosts, but it is likely for the safety in numbers. And the numbers are impressive. Estimates vary. They are difficult to count. But it is generally agreed that between 250,000 and 500,000 gather here annually in flocks so dense that they regularly show up on radar.

After an hour’s boat ride down the river, where we saw Bald Eagles, Osprey, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Belted Kingfishers, the captain positioned the vessel for the best view of Goose Island. The naturalists on board turned our attention to the incoming swallows.

In this half hour before sunset, the Tree Swallows started flying in from all directions, from their daytime feeding grounds. In the span of 15 minutes or so, dozens of birds turned into hundreds, then thousands. There were ribbons and clouds of them coming from every direction. We saw groups flying in low over the river, skimming the water for a final drink before joining the others in the sky above the island. Just before sunset, there were tens of thousands.

Through my binoculars, the view was almost more birds than sky, and I could see individual birds twirl and dip and dive. Still looking through the binoculars, I pulled the focus in closer. More birds. And when I pushed the point of focus out further? Still more birds. These adjustments revealed just how deep and massive the flock was.

At this point, the captain announced that the mass of birds was showing up on his radar, and invited us into the cabin to take a look. I made a quick dash there to see, then back to the deck, not wanting to miss the finale.

For a few more minutes after sunset, the cloud of birds twisted and shifted above the island. The flock would tighten, float up, then down, then swirl back up, loosen, and then do it all again in a new pattern each time. Aerial acrobatics.

Then, in groups, they began their descent.

It seemed that one bird would cue a group, then they’d form a vortex and funnel down. Then, when the funnel got lower in the sky, the birds would suddenly drop and dive straight down, careening towards the Phragmites at 60 miles per hour. It seemed impossible that they could land safely at that speed. But of course they could – they were built for this. Still, it was stunning.

It literally took my breath away. And with each group’s descent, I inhaled sharply again and again. I had tears in my eyes as I watched, and goosebumps all over. The man to my left kept whispering “Oh wow. Just wow.” despite the fact that he’d seen this 5 times before. I was glad I wasn’t the only one so deeply in awe of the sight.

Then, abruptly, it was over. We all stood there in silence for a moment. A moment later, I could feel a collective breath of release, followed by a quiet chorus of “wows” and “oh my gods”. I think some people clapped. I can’t remember. I just stood there smiling and silent, my chest bursting with excitement, overwhelmed by joy and wonder.

I’ve known for a long time that this is a bucket-list item for a lot of birders. What I didn’t know, was that Roger Tory Peterson, the world-renowned naturalist and artist, wrote about the Goose Island swallows in 1995, just a year before he passed away at the age of 87. He lived in Old Lyme, not far from the CT River. He wrote this:

“I have seen a million flamingos on the lakes of East Africa and as many seabirds on the cliffs of the Alaska Pribilofs, but for sheer drama, the tornadoes of Tree Swallows eclipsed any other avian spectacle I have ever seen.”

I’m so grateful to have seen it.

More Food Birds, Less Pain,

-L

Note: I am not a birder who takes pictures or video. I tried to get a few with my iPhone on this trip, but they were no good. But if you search for “Connecticut River Tree Swallows” on YouTube, there are some good videos to be seen.