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

Year of the Bird

IMG-7955I have good news people: 2018 is the Year of the Bird! This year, all year, National Geographic, The Audubon Society, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Life International (and over 100 other organizations) are joining forces to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Throughout 2018, they will shine a spotlight on the 10,000 species of birds on our planet. The goal is to raise consciousness about them through a year of stories covering scientific research, conservation efforts, and the natural histories of birds from around the world. And they will share ways for all of us to help.

I knew this was coming, this campaign by these giants in the publishing and conservation worlds. I heard about it last month, but I didn’t get really excited until my sweet friend Michaela dropped off the January issue of National Geographic on my stoop, just before the new year. And since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how great this whole Year of the Bird thing is.

I also keep thinking of how I decided to throw myself deeper into birding last year, to help heal my broken (yet again) heart. Birds have always been a panacea for this, for me. So I woke early to seek out rarities. I went on trips, and on group outings where I met other birders, who are honestly some of the nicest people. I read a lot of books and articles and blogs about birds. I took a 6 week bird biology class at our local Audubon chapter. I learned about falconry, and had the thrill of briefly flying a Harris’ Hawk at New England Falconry in Vermont. I watched a half a million Tree Swallows swarm and dance in the sky over the Connecticut River, something I wrote about here, and will never forget.

2017 was my year of the bird. And I plan to take this into 2018, right alongside the YOTB campaign.

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Happiness

I keep thinking about this blog too, and of my writing. I’ve been writing since my teens, but until I started this blog 7 years ago, it was limited to  personal journals, letter writing, and an occasional essay gifted to friends. It was just something I enjoyed doing – a hobby, I guess – with no greater goal in mind.

The blog came about as a way to challenge myself and my writing. I figured if I liked writing so much, why not do a little something more with it? I guessed that the pressure of an audience would help me hone my skills, which it did, and continues to do so. It was a little terrifying at first, but the casual nature of this being a blog, and a personal one to boot, helped temper that pressure. It has allowed me to play with my writing while laughing and crying – or laughing ‘till crying, with my teeny-tiny-but-oh-so loyal audience.

I’ve never had any aspirations of making Eat Thru The Pain anything more than it is.  I’ve always seen it as a way to stay vulnerable and connected to you all, which is good because I kind of suck sometimes at doing so in real time. In real life. As you know. 

But if I’m honest, I get tired of hearing myself think, let alone trying to filter those thoughts into yet another Eat Thru The Pain post about yet another breakup. Blech. So, in order to keep myself writing, with something of a challenge to it, I’ve decided to write more about birds on the blog this year, and less about myself.

I won’t change the name to “Bird Thru The Pain” just yet, but it’s on the table.

I’ll shoot for a once a month bird post. I may write a personal one here & there too. Some of the bird posts may be infused with the personal, some may simply be informational. I’m not entirely sure how it will evolve.

I do promise to keep in mind that you all don’t share the same enthusiasm I do – but my hope is to spark some in you. And I hope that what you take away from my little bird musings is an understanding of the importance of preserving their place in our world.

Plus, writing will force me to learn more, and there is always so much more to learn about birds, and nature, and about how we can save this precious planet we call home.

I’m also doing this simply because I want to be part of the party! This bird-nerd is so totally pumped to see the avian world getting so much press!

I just got up out of my seat as I was writing this because I heard a Northern Cardinal outside. There’s two on the power lines in front of my house. During this dreadful cold snap we are having, they are fine, they’ve been through worse ones. Looking at them, I realized that the fact that some humans have deemed this their year means nothing to them. But I hope it eventually means something to their survival. And I want to contribute my small part of that here, in this tiny bloggy-corner of the internet.

More food birds, less pain,

xo-L